Louise Wylie on the Wikipedia ban and the alarming situation in Turkey
Concerns about totalitarianism in Turkey have not been assuaged by recent developments in the country, with Wikipedia the latest website to fall foul of censors. The site has been banned by authorities since the 29th of April under a law that grants the power to ban content that is considered obscene or perceived as containing “threats to national security”. Government officials had reportedly requested that Wikipedia remove content from writers “supporting terrorism”, which Wikipedia refused. Speculation has spread that this block is an attempt to suppress criticisms of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
This is far from the first time that online sites have been censored by the Turkish government. Half of all attempts to block content on Twitter have reportedly come from Turkey as part of a wider curtailing of freedom of speech. Additionally, several popular TV dating shows were recently banned, as they “didn’t fit in with Turkish traditions and customs”.
Since last year’s failed military coup, more and more extreme crackdowns on opposition figures and organisations have been witnessed across Turkey. The country has been in a state of emergency since last July with as many as 40,000 people arrested and tens of thousands of public officials suspended. Around 150 media workers have also been imprisoned, giving Turkey the disreputable title of world’s biggest jailer of journalists.
Erdoğan capitalised on this tense political atmosphere by holding a widely-criticised referendum on whether to extend his presidential powers. The referendum was held on the 16th of April and the proposal officially passed with 51% of votes. This abolished the position of Prime Minister and changed the political system from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The new system grants the President more legislative and judicial power by dismantling the separation of powers and allows Erdoğan to stand for two further terms, potentially holding power until 2029.
The period before the vote was marred with political suppression of opposition voices, arrests and biased media output. Diplomatic tensions were sparked as Turkish government officials campaigned across Europe. Erdoğan accused Germany of “Nazi-style tactics” when some events were cancelled due to security and capacity issues. Later, a diplomatic crisis was set off between Turkey and the Netherlands after the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ plane was refused permission to land, when the said minister arrived to deliver a speech in favour of the referendum. The vote itself was attacked for irregularities: European election monitors said the vote did not meet international standards, with some voters in Germany attempting to vote more than once and possessing ballot papers before the voting process had started. 1.5 million votes cast in Turkey were counted despite lacking official stamps, supposedly due to a failing on the part of the electoral board during the vote. The extremely narrow winning margin has been further scrutinised due to these claims of fraud, however the authorities have declared the result fair. It is clear that a sizeable proportion of Turks did support the changes, but whether it was a majority is disputed.
These developments are especially worrying with Turkey’s proximity to Europe, whose size makes it a significant power in the region. They are also an alarming break from history. Since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey under Atatürk, the division of governmental and religious affairs has been enforced with the aim of building a secular state: an aim that Erdoğan threatens. Although the causes of last year’s coup are still unknown (Turkey blames US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who denies it), during the power struggle a group claiming to be the conspirators announced that they had launched the coup because Erdoğan had eroded Turkey’s secular traditions. The banning of TV dating shows is a minor but telling example of the blurring boundaries between religion and politics in the state.
The EU’s response to these developments has been minimal, due to the complex relationship the bloc has with Turkey. Some MEPs have called on the country’s membership bid to be formally suspended but the situation is complicated by the refugee situation. To offset the costs of the Mediterranean crisis, the EU signed a deal last year whereby Syrian refugees “illegally” crossing over to Greece can be returned to Turkey in exchange for the official resettlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey, and the granting of visa-free travel for Turks, after requirements are met. This is intended to reduce the politically damaging boat crossings, yet leaves the union more dependent on Turkey. Visa-free travel has not been introduced yet as the government has not fulfilled the requirements placed on them, especially concerning the protection of human rights.
Turkey is an EU candidate. The negotiations for a full EU membership, which started in 2005, have been very slow and the current political suppressions have further worsened the country’s chances for joining. The country has to implement EU rules in 35 policy areas before it is eligible for membership but in the past 10 years only one area has been completed, with many yet to be started. The membership process has been ongoing since 1987 and even if Turkey were to follow all these steps, membership can still be vetoed.
Turkish politics appears to be steadily moving in the direction of an authoritarian rule, with infringements on human rights and freedom of speech commonplace. At the very least, so long as Erdoğan is in power, this trend will likely continue. The alarming developments in Turkish politics should not be ignored, but closely followed.
[Louise Wylie – @womanpendulum]