Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Historic Low for Media Freedom in Turkey

PHOTO by Hasan Altinisik / Hurriyet Daily News

In commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, I have decided to take the time to briefly reflect on the state of media freedom in Turkey, an issue about which I have written about repeatedly (click here).

In October, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Turkey 138th of 175 countries assessed in its recent survey of press freedom in countries around the world. According to RSF, 47 members of the Turkish press are under arrest and waiting trial. Most of these work for Kurdish news outlets, and are being prosecuted under Turkey's Anti-Terrorism Law, which makes it illegal to make or disseminate what the law vaguely refers to as "terrorist propaganda." Since then, a record number of journalists have been arrested in conjunction with the Ergenekon investigation, including, most recently, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Sener, who the International Press Institute (IPI) honored last year with the World Press Freedom Hero Award.

In addition to the prosecution of journalists, Turkey is a world leader when it comes to its restrictions on the Internet. Though not China or Burma, Turkey's Internet policy borders on authoritarian and is getting worse. The government is planning a wide-scale Internet filtering system that will create user categories for all Turkish citizens and allow the government to better track their usage. Most disturbingly, under the new provisions, which are set to go into effect this August, the government will be able to censor content without users even knowing their government stands between them and the World Wide Web (see last Friday's post). And, if Internet was not enough, neither radio nor television have not escaped the Turkish government's heavy hand. Television broadcasts are routinely censored for being "morally objectionable," and a new law on broadcast media passed this February gives the government even more power to intervene.

Though many are focused on democracy in the Arab world at the moment, the rapidly declining state of media freedom in Turkey should make the world pay heed to the questionable state of Turkish democracy, what I have referred to here as a rising electoral authoritarianism that is polarizing the country in new ways and, if not curbed, has the potential of bringing the tremendous democratic gains of the past twelve years. While it is true Turkey chose a democratic trajectory after its application for EU membership was granted in Helsinki in 1999, since then Turkey's EU-driven democratization process has considerably slowed and many of the liberals that helped bring the AKP government to power in 2002 have fallen away from the party. If press freedom is any indicator of liberal democracy, liberalism is in a period of rapid decline. For more reflections on liberal democracy and the Turkish government's need to go beyond its current majoritarian understanding, click here.

For World Press Freedom Day events that have occurred in Washington this week, click here.

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