At Istanbul’s Bilgi University there are still small leftovers of a time when EU-Turkey relations were better in shape. They are located on the sixth floor of the main building at Bilgi’s Dolapdere Campus. Pinned to the wall, on the opposite side of the library entrance, visitors encounter a handful of posters, depicting “ordinary” Turkish citizens: a fruit vendor, a shop owner, a housewife. The protagonists look very optimistic indeed. The subtitle reads “AB sensiz olmaz”, which freely translated means “The EU is not possible without you”. The posters might have been printed at the beginning of the 2000s during the “Golden Age of Europeanization”, when a large majority of the Turkish population actually favored their country being part of the European Union. Today these pictures feel almost nostalgic…“Where does this end #Turkey?” Štefan Füle published that tweet on March 27, 2014. He has been in office as European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy since 2010. By using Twitter, Füle commented on the decision of the Turkish government to block both YouTube and Twitter ahead of Turkey’s local elections on March 30, 2014. The ban was established to prevent the circulation of leaked tapes about Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other politicians undermining the government’s credibility. Füle further wrote that “freedom of sharing information needs to be respected, any limitation needs to be proportionate”. He was not the only EU politician criticizing the government ́s recent move to curb freedom of expression by blocking social media services – the public outcry was huge.Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, commented on Twitter that the ban was a “another desperate and depressing move in #Turkey. I support all supporters of real freedom & democracy” and Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, published the following statement: “I strongly condemn the ban on Twitter in Turkey, which follows from PM Erdoğan’s previous threats against other social media. PM Erdoğan seems to be waging a campaign against all the media and press that he cannot directly influence or control. This authoritarian drive is a direct attack against freedom of expression in the country (…) Gagging the internet, social media and the free press, and politicising magistrates are not good recipes to make Turkey fit for the challenges of the 21st century, and certainly not the good recipes to bring it closer to the European Union”. Due to the recent political developments in Turkey, especially with regard to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, EU-Turkey relations now seem to be in a deadlock position. The commitment to human rights and democracy pose one of the most obvious challenges for EU-Turkey relations at the moment.In general, there have always been challenges within EU-Turkey relations since the Ankara Agreement was signed in 1963. The European Community perceived Turkey foremost as a “strategic partner” rather than a “natural member of the community”. Turkey on the other hand struggled with its domestic and foreign policy to comply with the conditions for and accession, namely the military coups and the crisis in Cyprus. However, when the EU accepted Turkey as a candidate in 1999, Turkey’s willingness to reform has changed considerably. The period from the late 1990s to 2005 or the “Golden Age of Europeanization” is generally perceived as a period of positive developments and rapprochement between Turkey and the EU. Consequently accession talks were opened in 2005. EU conditionality led to important reforms within the field of fundamental freedoms such as the introduction of a new penal code or the abolishment of the death penalty. In the post-2005 period reforms were undertaken with regard to the fight against torture and ill treatment with the ratification of the Optional Protocol to UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT) in September 2011. However, the overall situation regarding the political aspects within the Copenhagen Criteria such as human rights and the rule of law were contradictory. Applications at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) increased significantly after 2005. The organization Reporters without Borders named Turkey in 2012 as the “World’s biggest prison for journalists”. Turkey contributes to almost half of all cases at the ECHR, which violated the right to freedom of expression: from 1959 to 2013 a total of 544 judgments were given, out of these 224 related to Turkey. For journalists covering Kurdish issues the situation continued to be difficult.According to a recent BIA Media Monitoring and Freedom of Expression Report 59 journalists and 23 publishers remained in jail beginning of 2014. Within these two groups 56 persons where charged on the grounds of Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law and the Penal Code’s passages related to “terror organizations”. One of the positive steps being mentioned are the peace negotiations on the Kurdish issue as well as the “fourth judicial reform package” which was adopted in April 2013 by the government. Within this bill there were reforms affecting article 6 and 7 (Anti-Terror Law) regarding “illegal organizations” and “terrorist propaganda”. A “peace process” with the PKK was initiated to solve the long lasting conflict. So far, it has been developing positively, leading to a ceasefire in which in 2013 no deaths have been reported from either side. Furthermore, on 30 September 2013 the Turkish government announced a “democratization package” which eased some barriers for political parties and allowed to use languages and dialects in private schools that are different from Turkish, notably Kurdish. The government removed criminal sanctions for the use of the letters Q, X and W in Kurdish and decided to establish an institute on Roma language and culture.
With regard to Turkey’s civil society the Commission highlighted the Gezi Park Protests in June 2013: “Democratic debate is spreading, in particular through the social media, and is also being expressed beyond traditional party politics, including through demonstrations”. On the other hand the report criticized the harsh position taken by the Turkish government undermining the right to peaceful assembly and free expression. According to Human Rights Watch hundreds of people were charged afterwards for participating in unauthorized demonstrations and resisting the police. Several dozen cases of terrorism charges were filed against protesters.
The right to freedom of expression is at stake if it might pose a threat to the integrity of “the nation”. This interpretation is based on several articles in the Turkish constitution, the Penal Code and the Anti-Terror Law. Although there have been reforms and amendments since 2005, the overall character remained restrictive as article 26 of Turkey ́s Constitution shows: “The exercise of these freedoms may be restricted for the purposes of national security, public order, public safety, safeguarding the basic characteristics of the Republic and the indivisible integrity of the State with its territory and nation (…) ”, as well as the infamous article 301 of the Penal Code: “insulting the Turkish nation, the Grand National Assembly, the government or the judicial organs of the state”. After the Commission’s progress report on Turkey in late 2013, the Turkish President Abdullah Gül has approved two new laws. Both have contributed to further curbing freedom of expression and weakening the judiciary. One amendment will provide the government with more influence in naming judges and prosecutors. It is criticized to contravene the basic principles of impartiality and to limit the influence of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). The second law enables state authorities to tighten the control of the Internet, making it possible to block specific Internet content within a short amount of time. These measures are generally perceived as tools to control investigations and information regarding the corruption allegations.
Yaman Akdeniz, professor of law at Istanbul’s Bilgi University argued in an interview with Hürriyet Daily News that the new law is “the first step toward surveillance society”. He continues, that it is “evident from the amendments that the authorities are trying to control the political damage coming from videos or audio files being leaked online, or certain WikiLeaks-type documents, in the corruption investigations. They want to be able to control the leak of documentation that could be damaging to the government”.
EU politicians have several times raised their concern about the recent developments. Depriving over 10 million people of using Twitter can hardly be consistent with the European Convention of Human Rights and Turkey’s constitution. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are crucial tools to the right of freedom of expression in Turkey. By cracking down on Twitter and YouTube, which provide an alternative to Turkey’s mainstream media, even the most enthusiastic EU politician might now be reluctant regarding the accession process. In Brussels, politicians probably still favour posters saying that “The EU is not possible without you”. However, they might want to add another one, which reads: “The EU is not possible without human rights.”
- Bianet (2014): “2013 Media: Arrests, Assaults, Editorial Interventions, Layoffs”, February 18, 2014, accessible: http://www2.bianet.org/english/media/153584-2013-media-arrests-assaults-interventions-lay-offs
- Constitution of the Republic of Turkey: http://global.tbmm.gov.tr/docs/constitution_en.pdf
- European Commission: Turkey 2013 Progress Report: http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2013/package/brochures/turkey_2013.pdf
- Human Rights Watch (2014): “World Report. Events of 2013”, accessible: http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014
- Hürriyet Daily News (2014): “’Turkey’s new Internet law is the first step toward surveillance society,’ says cyberlaw expert”, Interview with Yaman Akdeniz, February 24, 2014, accessible: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkeys-new-internet-law-is-the-first-step-toward-surveillance-society-says-cyberlaw-expert.aspx?pageID=238&nID=62815&NewsCatID=338
- Reporters Without Borders (2012): “Turkey – The World ́s Biggest Prison for Journalists”, accessible: http://en.rsf.org/turkey-turkey-world-s-biggest-prison-for-19-12-2012,43816.html
- Reuters (2014): “Turkey’s president approves law tightening grip on judiciary” February 26, 2014, accessible: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/26/us-turkey-judiciary-idUSBREA1P1MG20140226
- Schulz, Martin (2014): “Martin Schulz on the banning of Twitter in Turkey”, Press Statement, March 21, 2014, accessible: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/the-president/en/press/press_release_speeches/press_release/2014/2014-march/html/martin-schulz-on-the-banning-of-twitter-in-turkey
- Senem Aydın-Düzgüt and E.Fuat Keyman (2012): “EU-Turkey Relations and the Stagnation of Turkish Democracy”, IPC-IAI-GMF Working Paper, No.2.
- Statistics European Court of Human Rights: http://www.echr.coe.int/Pages/home.aspx?p=reports
- Today’s Zaman (2014): “European Union ‘gravely concerned’ over Twitter ban in Turkey”, February 21, 2014, accessible: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-342679-european-union-gravely-concerned-over-twitter-ban-in-turkey.html