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The unraveling of Turkey's democracy

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Monday, 14 March 2016


Only a few months after Turkey's President Erdogan raided the offices of the Koza Ipek Media Group, the Turkish police assaulted early this month the offices of Feza Publications, which owns two newspapers (including Zaman) and two TV stations, without any warning. There is little else more injurious to any democracy than closing down news outlets and choking off freedom of speech.

To take such an extreme measure based on concocted accusations that such media outlets are aiding terrorism and conspiring against the state is nothing short of scandalous, and shows his fear of public criticism despite his bravado. President Erdogan, however, seems completely dismissive of any potential repercussions, as he was emboldened by his past rampage against the press and jailing of scores of journalists on phony charges with impunity.

Although Erdogan knows well that Turkey is far from being a democratic state, he continues to promote the absurd notion that Turkey is indeed a genuine democracy, stating with his usual twisted flare that "nowhere in the world is the press freer than it is in Turkey."

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In fact, Reporters Without Borders' 2015 World Press Freedom Index ranked Turkey 149 out of 180 countries, between Mexico, where journalists are regularly murdered, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is a failed state.

Perhaps Erdogan should be reminded of what truly constitutes a democracy. Freedom of expression represents one of four critical pillars of any democratic form of government, which also includes the election of a representative government, equality before the law, and strict observance of human rights.

Sadly, Erdogan did not stop at repressing freedom of expression in all forms - he regularly chipped away at the other pillars, which is bound to unravel what is left of Turkey's democracy.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees "the right to freedom of opinion and expression;" but as Benjamin Franklin warned, "Whoever would overthrow the Liberty of a Nation must begin by subduing the Freeness of Speech".

Erdogan was highly admired for his impressive socio-political reforms and significant economic development, which made Turkey the 17th largest economy in the world during his first and much of his second term in office. He could have realized much of his ambitions to make Turkey a recognized regional superpower with rallying support of the public with pride.

He would have been able to do so without destroying the principles of Turkey's foundation as a secular democracy, as was envisioned by its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and offer a real model of a flourishing Islamic democracy to be emulated by much of the Arab and Muslim world.

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Sadly, however, Erdogan ignores the fact that his systematic dismantling of Turkey's democratic institutions will have the precise opposite effect by directly torpedoing Turkey's potential as a great power and squandering what the country has to offer.

Time and again, Erdogan demonstrated his lack of tolerance to opposing views and found the press to be a nuisance, as it was generally critical of his Islamic agenda. He understood, as George Orwell aptly put it, "Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose", a freedom which Erdogan is bent on suppressing.

As such, Erdogan has used his strong Islamic credentials to project himself as a pious leader, when in fact he consistently engaged in favoritism, granting huge government contracts to those who supported him and to his family members, irrespective of conflicts of interest and the corruption that ensued as a result.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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