Turkey snuffs out the freedom to speak

The academics’ lawyers say that individual sentences rather than group indictment are meant to prevent joint protest action.

2017/10/08 Issue: 126 Page: 14

The Arab Weekly
Yavuz Baydar

Sahin Alpay, 73, has been in prison for more than 14 months. He is one of thousands of Turkish intellectuals accused of aiding and abetting terrorism in some way or of trying to overthrow the government. Just days ago, Alpay, a columnist for Zaman, a daily closed by the Turk­ish government after the July 2016 coup attempt, managed to send a letter to the outside world.

He wrote that he supported Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Develop­ment Party (AKP) government “as long as it was the carrier of the EU reform process.” He said he “began criticising it when it switched course.”

“I had always believed that the free speech in Turkey had been under the guarantee of the constitution and European Court of Human Rights. How wrong I was,” Alpay wrote.

Alpay could be said to symbolise the indiscriminate oppression that has increasingly become the norm in Turkey. Like many Turkish columnists, he wore two hats. He’s a political scientist and a journal­ist. He is one of those charged with multiple “crimes” and the prosecutor has asked that Alpay be sentenced to several lifetimes in prison.

In the 14 months since the failed coup, three professions that might be considered key to the healthy functioning of a democracy are in the firing line: Lawyers, academics and journalists. It’s not clear if or when the tsunami of indictments and arrests will abate.

A day after Alpay sent his letter, approximately 1,500 academics in Turkish and international universi­ties were accused of “terror propa­ganda.” Each faces up to five years in prison. As a group, they stand to serve between 5,680 and 8,460 years in solitary confinement.

Absurd? Yes. Shocking? To observers, the irrational is the new norm in Turkey.

Months before the coup attempt, 1,128 scholars from 89 universi­ties in Turkey were joined by 355 colleagues from abroad in a protest against the end of peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). They called for a swift return to negotiations to end the armed conflict.

After the coup attempt, within a couple of months of the announce­ment of a state of emergency, small groups of academics at a time were arrested and charged with “promoting terror.” Soon enough, they were being sacked by decree.

Then, there was a period of silence on the part of the state. Many scholars — a mix of secular, liberal, left-wing and reformist thinkers — started to believe that reason had made a comeback. It proved to be a false hope.

More than a year after the coup attempt, the judiciary, which is controlled by the political execu­tive, seems to have decided on a pattern of charges. Every academic individually faces a harsh sen­tence. The academics’ lawyers say that individual sentences rather than group indictment are meant to prevent joint protest action.

Even so, the development is bound to cause ructions in academic circles abroad. Turkish academics who left to take up jobs abroad or simply fled their country make up an articulate bloc that can call for an international boycott of Turkish universities.

Ever darker clouds gather over Turkey. It has become a case study of the difficulties of fighting for the most fundamental of rights — freedom.

Yavuz Baydar is a journalist based in Istanbul. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) and a news analyst, he won the European Press Prize in 2014. He has been reporting on Turkey and journalism issues since 1980.

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