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    STATEMENT BY HURRİYET COLUMNIST SEDAT ERGİN BEFORE THE TOM LANTOS HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION UNITED STATES CONGRESS ON DECEMBER 3, 2009

    Hürriyet Haber
    11.12.2009 - 23:44 | Son Güncelleme:

    Today I am here to speak about the outlook for Turkish democracy and in this framework specifically on issues pertaining to press freedom in Turkey.

     

    Right at the outset, I should beginby stating that I have mixed views as regards the present state of  Turkish democracy and  the freedom of  the press.

     

    Because, on one side there are indeed positive trends which enhance Turkish democracy. Yet on the other side, paradoxically, there also are trends going in the opposite direction, casting  a shadow on the Turkish democratic experience.  

     

    The irony is that both sides of the argument can be substantiated with facts.  Both cases are relevant andthey coexist. Turkey is in fact both.

     

    Let us beginwith the positive trends. Turkey since 1999 has been enjoying the status ofa candidate for full membership in the European Union. This engagement in the EU process has brought about a dynamic process of political reform, although the pace ofthe process was not consistent at all times.

     

    A long list ofmajor changes in the political system can be cited here, beginning with

    the Kurdish question.  A major breakthrough has been achieved in this longstanding chronic problem of  the republic during the last decade.

     

     “The Kurdish opening” recently initiated by the government of  the Justice and Development Party is one of the boldeststeps in recent Turkish history. The openinghas yet to be translated into a comprehensive set of  specific  measures;yet the fact that a genuine momentum has been generated  isimportant in itself and will serve as a catalyst in solving this intractable problem.

     

    Another major area ofchange relates to reforms which curbed the powers of the military establishmentand made Turkey more compatible with European democratic standards in terms of the civilian control of the military.However  in this area too there isfurther territory which needs to be covered.  

     

    I know that  there is a debate in D.C. also about the Ergenekon trial. In my view the Ergenekoninvestigation was justifiedat least in the initial phase. The uncovering ofhuge amounts of explosives and weaponrydoes not attest togood intentions on the part of those networks who possesed them.  Yet there is growing criticism that the investigation in the following phases  has also been used to silence several prominentopposition figures from the press and the academia.

     

    There is a growing consensus that the investigation  should be pursued all the wayto the end to ensure democratic stability, yet at the same time “itmust be conducted in full respectof all applicable judicial procedures and the rule of law” as stated by Olli Rehn,the former Commissioner of Enlargement of the European Commission.   

        

    On the other side of the equation, there is a long listofnegative trends.  Many of them have been documentedin the State Department’s 2009 human rights report which confirms thatserious problems remain in some areas, such as a rise in cases of torture, beatings and abuse bythe security forces, as well as  violence against women and that      there are still manylaws and regulations which prohibit freedom of expression.

     

    One issue which spurred reaction in press circles was the cancellation of the accreditation of a group of  reportersby the press office of the Prime Ministry on the groundsthat they were writing  “false stories”.  

     

    The tax penalty imposed on the Doğan Group is another source of  concern.  The total penalty requested by the Ministry of Finance exceeds 3 billion dollars. The bulk of the penalty stems from aspecific transaction involving the transfer of shares to a German media group, Axel Springer worth almost 500 million dollars. In other words, the penalty is more than six times the disputed transaction.  It also exceeds the total value of the entire Doğan Group . It is up to the conscience of everybody to judge the proportionality and the justness of the measure.

     

    We are grateful to our colleagues in Europe and in the United States for the solidarity they have demonstrated during this period of hardship for us. We were relieved when we read the editorials of support inmajor US newspapers like The New York Times, The  Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Their support showed that in the free world  nothing like this goes unnoticed.  

     

    I believe the problem in essence is one of tolerance. The relationship between politicians and journalistsis never trouble free and is always subject to tensions.This is the nature of democracy.    

     

    On the question of tolerance one  recent example was very telling.  Our Prime Minister, Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan  once again was angry with columnistsand lashed out.He argued that Turkey would have much more peace if columnists would write less frequently. “In the past, a columnist would write once or twice a week. But now columnists can write every day, even every half hour. What talent!”Prime Minister Erdoğan said while addressinghis party’s parliamentary group just two days ago.

     

    I am a humble columnist. Butif requested by our prime minister, in order to contribute to peace at home,  I am ready to sacrifice myself and write less frequently.   

         

    Iftolerance for dissent is taken as one of the overriding criteria for the quality of democracy I doubt that Turkey would rate very well in this field.

     

    Democracies are all about dissent… Any basic definition of democratic culture begins with respect for dissent.

     

    Democracies are also all about the separation of powers.You need checks and balances  mechanisms that work.

     

    It is imperativefor Turkish democracy that civilian mechanisms of checks andbalancesbe maintained and bolstered. In this context the role of a free press is pivotal.

     

    Never in the history of Turkish democracy has the freedom of the press assumed the vital importanceit has in  today’s Turkey.

     

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