Monday, February 29, 2016

Turkish President Erdogan Vows to Disobey Constitutional Court's Decision on Press Freedom

by Nomad

The Turkish president sends an unmistakable signal about his feelings on the Constitutional Court's ruling about freedom of the press.

In what would appear to be the clearest sign yet of leadership problems in NATO-member Turkey. the nation's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has publicly declared his opposition to a ruling by the Constitutional Court.

The high court's decision- which functions as a Turkish Supreme Court- was related to two well-known journalists who were arrested in November. They were charged with publicizing top secret information about arms shipments to rebels in Northern Syria

The journalists, independent newspaper Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül were accused of revealing state secrets "for espionage purposes” and for seeking to “violently” overthrow the Turkish government. They were also charged with aiding an “armed terrorist organization.” 

A UK Guardian report noted that both Erdoğan and the head of the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), Hakan Fidan were named as plaintiffs in the 473-page indictment. Turkish government prosecutors had demanded life terms, "penal servitude for life" for the two men. 

Suffice to say, these were very serious charges indeed.

The Heavy Price of Reporting News in Turkey

The timing of the Cumhuriyet news reports could hardly have been more unwelcome, coming just 10 days before the June 7 elections. 

The stakes of the elections were high. Held in all 85 electoral districts of Turkey, the elections were to decide the party composition of the 550 members to the Grand National Assembly. The ruling party, the AK, had had a majority in parliament for years, effectively allowing the president to rule by decree. 

The news proved to be a major embarrassment for the administration who at the time were denying all existence of arms shipments.
The AKP government denied that the trucks carried ammunition, insisting that they were loaded with humanitarian aid for the Turkmens in Syria, a destination that would find sympathy in many Turks.
Videos of trucks filled with weapons, (as well as the deceptive cover of humanitarian aid) told a different story.

When the news broke, President Erdogan- who, according to the Constitution, was supposed to refrain from campaigning- issued threats against the media in a series of "tours." 
He said that the journalists who reported the news would "pay a heavy price for this,” Referring to Dundar, Erdogan also vowed that he would "not let go of him.”  
There was a perceived element of revenge in the prosecution of the reporters.  He had his reasons for outrage. 

Those elections resulted produced an unexpected (and shattering) outcome, with the AK party losing lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 12 years.
It was so shocking that new elections a few months later were called- openly called "re-run elections"- and the ruling party magically regained its majority.

The Allegation and the Vindication

This kind of reaction by Erdogan was not unusual. Al-Monitor explains:
Both Erdogan and the government accuse anyone they see complicit in the exposure — from the Gulen movement to Cumhuriyet — of treason. In return, the opposition blames the government for supporting terrorists in Syria — especially the Islamic State (IS).
Despite claims, there was no evidence that the arms were headed to ISIS. (It is presumed that the arms were to be delivered to Syrian rebel groups. Even then, it is very likely a breach of international law.)

For their part, the journalists claimed they were simply doing their jobs and reporting this information was critically important to the Turkish public. Dündar explained:.
“As a journalist, it was my duty to show this reality to people. I think we also saved the government from making a big mistake. We have seen many times that the state can act illegally. … We opposed this and we helped the state to evolve into a clearer and more transparent one.”
Erdogan clearly didn't appreciate the help offered. Any contradictions to the official version have increasingly been seen by the authorities as acts of treason, or slanders against the president, acts of terrorism or a criminal insult to the nation or its culture.

Last week, the court ruled that the arrest and incarceration had violated the Constitution's protection of individual rights as well as the freedom of the press. As a result, after 92 days in prison, both men were released to a cheering crowd. 

It might have been seen by opponents to the Erdogan's rule, (as well as to the West) as a vindication of human rights and press freedom, but one person, at least, was enraged by the court's opinion.
For the ruling party and Erdogan in particular, the high court's decision represents a major setback, one of many in the last year. 

Press Freedoms and Freedom of Speech

Turkey has come up heavy criticism by human rights organizations in Europe for its violations of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
According to one watchdog group:
With 14 journalists imprisoned as of the end of 2015, Turkey remains among the worst jailers of journalists worldwide.
Just this week, the government closed an independent news channel, IMC-TV, over allegations of "spreading terrorist propaganda"- a catch-all charge for any anti-government reporting. Turkey's satellite provider Turks halted the channel's broadcasts at the request of an Ankara prosecutor. Broadcasts from Russia, France and Israel are also blocked inside Turkey. 

Government critics, in addition, have charged that free speech, in general, has been greatly limited by recent changes to the laws. 
Russian TV media reported a few days ago the arrest of a 13-year-old boy on charges of "insulting the president" on Facebook. 
The BBC offers more facts and figures:
  • Between August 2014 and March 2015, 236 people investigated for "insulting the head of state"; 105 indicted; eight formally arrested
  • Between July and December 2014 (Recep Tayyip Erdogan's presidency), Turkey filed 477 requests to Twitter for removal of content, over five times more than any other country and an increase of 156% in the first half of the year
  • Article 299 of the Turkish penal code states that anybody who insults the president of the republic can face a prison term of up to four years. This sentence can be increased by a sixth if committed publicly, and a third if committed by press or media.

Defiance and Disobedience

In response to the court's decision on the Gul-Dundar case, on Feb. 28 the President issued a characteristically defiant statement.rejecting the court's verdict altogether.
The statement started out properly enough. According to Euronews, he told reporters:
“I can only remain silent over the decision the Constitutional Court made.
Staying silent is not one of his trademarks. He then stated:
But I don’t have to accept it, let me be clear about that. I don’t agree with the decision and I don’t respect it.”
He also added his own verdict on the matter:
“This incident has nothing to do with freedom of expression, it is a case of spying."
His vow to "disobey" the Constitutional Court may not surprise many Turks who are used to President Erdogan's behavior.
However, many, even in his own party, may see this latest remark not  to recognize the law, as one step too far for any leader to make. 

If nothing else, the president's statement could throw a monkey wrench into the ruling party's agenda of amending the Constitution. 
The AK party has for the last year been pushing for changes to the Constitution which include an overhaul of the executive branch.. In fact, the series of elections have been seen as a mandate for the establishment of a presidential system with the AK party strongly supporting the changes.

Under discussion are the provision of giving more powers to the president without any added oversight. Erdogan's statement not to recognize the court's authority and to disobey court's decision appears to have a lot of people concerned where such proposed changes could lead.
Erdogan and other officials in his government have already declared that such changes are a mere formality since the presidential system has arrived in a de-facto fashion. That has opposition parties are bristling at comments like that, but, at the same time, seemingly powerless to stop  things from advancing any further.

Despite their release, the two journalists are still facing a court date in March. Constitutional Court ruled only that their detention was “not lawful.” They still face life sentences if convicted.

So, we have perhaps not seen the last of the wrath of the president to punish reporters for revealing things that ought to be kept secret.