Freedom House proposes ways to kickstart Turkish democratic change

The state of fundamental freedoms in Turkey is a cause for serious concern ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections, slated for June next year, Freedom House said in a policy brief.

But since comprehensive constitutional and legal reform is unlikely under the existing political leadership, Freedom House said it was making four policy recommendations to enable citizens’ public perception and participation especially ahead of the elections.

The Turkish government has cracked down systematically on dissent and debate since the Gezi Park protests of 2013, and society has been divided into factions, pitting conservative hardliners against progressives, Freedom House said. The most recent attack on democracy comes under the guise of a bill intended to throttle social media by criminalising so-called disinformation.

Here follows a reprint of the four recommendations and a closing statement by the institution:

 

1. Revitalise local democracy: As in other societies split by culture wars, “city politics” is on the rise in Turkey. Since the March 2019 local election, the main opposition party has been governing 48.4 percent (39.7 million) of the population, including the three largest urban centres of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Some of the recently cancelled concerts have been re-scheduled in opposition-controlled cities and these urban centers, and the liberal stronghold district of Kadıköy in Istanbul is bustling with political arts and theatre. Local politics thus provides a crucial opportunity to stay articulate and stay politicised through arts, culture, and debate. Following the successful example of the central government of Ireland, local government authorities in Turkey should organise citizens’ assemblies for democratic deliberation and debate on public issues.

2. Revive university radio programming: University radio stations in Turkey have turned into ‘jukeboxes’ under pressure from most university administrations to avoid educational/political programming, especially since the July 2016 coup attempt. After Law No. 6112 on the Establishment and Broadcasting Services of Radio and Television (2011) required them to conclude a protocol with the state broadcaster TRT for a frequency allocation, many had to shut down or become online-only stations. Reviving educational/political university radio programming is another opportunity to stay articulate and stay politicised with the help of partner university radios in Europe and North America, either through live bilingual English/Turkish broadcasts or through recorded programs that can be stored on partner radios’ websites. Partnering with prestigious overseas universities is an opportunity to boast Turkish universities’ profiles and will pre-empt university administrations’ objections to the joint broadcasts.

3. Crowdfund independent journalism: Anticipating the adverse impact of the disinformation bill, crowdfunding efforts should be mobilised for independent journalism, including for paying office rent if necessary. The lengthy and burdensome procedures under new restrictive rules on fundraising, especially on donations from abroad, will prolong crowdfunding efforts. Still, independent journalism is critical for staying articulate and staying politicised.

4. Define and dispute disinformation: The definition of ‘disinformation’ is imprecise in the proposed new bill. That is why it will be crucial to define it pre-emptively, narrow its scope so that it does not become a lumpsum category under which legitimate speech can be criminalised, and dispute it through strategic litigation in the courts. Third party interventions, expert opinions, and precedent-setting rulings, especially at the level of supreme courts, can stop the bill which, in its present form, will deal a devastating blow to an already precarious state of freedom of expression in Turkey.

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Historically, as sociologist Michael Mann notes, states that increase their coercive/despotic power lose out on their infrastructural power or the ability to penetrate and easily rule society. Turkey’s government has placed itself on this path towards an erosion of its infrastructural power, and (President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan has been targeting the powers of his nemesis, Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul since 2019. Erdoğan issued a number of presidential decrees that removed the mayor’s authority in specific local governance issues, and imposed budgetary constraints on Istanbul’s public services.

Local government is at the heart of infrastructural power, and it is imperative that the opposition in Turkey maintain its robust presence at the local level ahead of the 2024 local election. But İmamoğlu may be unable to compete. He is facing charges of allegedly insulting the members of the Supreme Election Board, and the prosecutor demands that he be barred from politics. A verdict on the case is expected in late September 2022.

Others, like the leaders of the Turkish Medical Association, are convicted already of ‘propagating terrorism,’ and remaining outlets for voicing dissident opinions are under increased financial pressure due to heavy fines imposed by the Radio Television Supreme Council of Turkey. TELE 1, under extreme financial stress, has just appealed for solidarity from its viewers to be able to continue broadcasting. Staying articulate, staying politicised, and staying in solidarity is more crucial than ever in the defence of fundamental freedoms in Turkey ahead of the 2023 general election which appears to be on a knife-edge between the government and the opposition.

(Please click here for a link to the full report.)

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