April 18, 2013 § 1 Comment
Yesterday I wrote a post taking the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, to task for his comments on Fazıl Say as reported by Hürriyet Daily News. According to HDN, when asked by reporters to comment on Say – who was sentenced to a 10 month suspended prison sentence for comments deemed to be insulting to religious beliefs – Ricciardone quoted his brother as saying, “A very bad piano player hit the wrong key.” I interpreted this comment to mean that Ricciardone believes that Say was out of line and that the Turkish court system acted appropriately in prosecuting and convicting him, and I was accordingly unsparing in my criticism of the ambassador. Since the piece quoting Ricciardone was published in HDN, which is an English language newspaper, the Turkish language version of the same paper – Hürriyet – has run a one paragraph article in which the quote attributed to the ambassador is slightly different. Hürriyet relates the line as, “Çok fena, piyanist yanlış tuşa bastı,” which translated means, “Too bad, the pianist pressed the wrong key.” To me, there is no substantial difference between this iteration and the original iteration, as I interpret this second version in the same way; the clearest and most obvious reading is that Ricciardone is making a joke about the Say case and implying that Say got himself into trouble for saying the wrong thing.
As I noted yesterday, Ricciardone has gotten into hot water with the Turkish government for being critical of crackdowns on journalists, the army, and general violations of freedom of speech. Indeed, I wrote in the last paragraph of my post, “kudos to him for his previous efforts to highlight abuses of democracy by the Erdoğan government.” That element is what makes this situation such an odd one, as given the entirety of his track record, I am surprised that our ambassador would say something so seemingly callous about the Say case and give cover to the Turkish government to defend Say’s verdict. Nevertheless, the quote as reported appeared to stand for itself, which is why I did not hesitate to be harsh with my criticism.
After I posted yesterday’s blog, it was suggested to me both publicly over Twitter and privately that Ricciardone’s comments could be interpreted in another way, which is that he was criticizing the decision rather than Say. In this reading, his reference to the bad piano player or the pianist means the court, and it is the court that hit the bad note. I think this is a stretch based on the actual comment, but I certainly cannot rule it out, particularly given Ricciardone’s recent history of trying to draw attention to Turkey’s more egregious behavior when it comes to violating freedom of expression. I consequently reached out to the ambassador in an effort to see if he was accurately quoted and whether he would like to clarify his comments, since as readers of this blog hopefully have seen, I am not a flamethrower and I do not harbor an ideological agenda but try to be the best and most accurate analyst I can be. I am not a journalist so I am reliant on what is reported by other but if I got this wrong, I wanted to be able to clarify, correct, and apologize for any mistakes I may have made. Following my reaching out, an embassy spokesperson got back to me today and said, ” The ambassador’s remarks were taken out of context.”
Now, is it possible that Ambassador Ricciardone was criticizing the court’s decision and expressing sympathy for Say, and that he did it in a clumsy manner that got misinterpreted? It certainly cannot be ruled out, and as I said, it would make sense based on the sum total of what we know that he would come down on Say’s side rather than the court’s side. On the other hand, interpreting the line that way requires some mental gymnastics, and the claimed missing context to the comments has not been provided, and most importantly the quote itself has not yet been disputed. So those are all the facts as I know them, and I will leave it up to my readers to decide what Ambassador Ricciardone intended when he commented on the Say case. I will say for myself that if Ambassador Ricciardone intended to express his support for Say and to criticize his conviction, then I unreservedly and without hesitation retract my strident and harsh comments from yesterday and personally apologize for maligning the ambassador, although I am not entirely sure that I am convinced of this interpretation of events quite yet. If there’s more on this to come, I will keep you all posted.
April 17, 2013 § 5 Comments
Earlier this week, Turkish pianist Fazıl Say was handed a 10 month suspended jail sentence by a Turkish court for the crime of insulting religious beliefs. Say’s sentence was based on a series of tweets he wrote a year ago quoting the famed medieval poet Omar Khayyam and voicing the belief that thieves and stupid people are always religious believers. In order to stay out of prison, Say has to avoid a relapse of his alleged crime for the next five years. Say is actually fortunate to be a famous and high profile person, as were he an ordinary Turkish citizen, he would already be serving time in prison and would not have had his sentence suspended, as the case of Abdulkerim U. – who was sentenced to six months in jail for insulting the prophet Muhammad on Facebook – vividly demonstrates. In a move that perfectly encapsulates in one short moment the essence of Prime Minister Erdoğan and what makes him both a successful and infuriating politician, he responded to reporters’ questions about Say by smiling and saying, “Do not occupy our time with such matters.” Unsurprisingly, other government officials followed Erdoğan’s lead in dismissing concerns about the verdict and even justifying it, such as EU Affairs Minister Egeman Bağış who declared the need for people to learn to respect that which is sacred to others, which will no doubt come as great consolation to, say, Turkey’s Alevi community, which is used to having its beliefs and rituals routinely mocked by the prime minister.
On the other hand, observers who are not AKP members were not quite as non-plussed as Erdoğan and his coterie of followers. CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu did not pass up the opportunity to hammer away at the government and questioned whether Turkey actually has a justice system and declared that democracy in Turkey is at stake, and a variety of columnists including Yavuz Baydar and Murat Yetkin have both criticized the substance of the verdict and noted the damage to Turkey’s image abroad. Amnesty International also weighed in, calling the verdict a “flagrant violation of his [Say’s] freedom of expression,” and the EU expressed its concern and called on Turkey to take care in respecting freedom of speech. As is apparent, everyone outside of the AKP is taking the Say case very seriously and recognizes it as a stain on Turkish democratic aspirations.
Everyone outside of the AKP, that is, with one notable exception. U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone’s comments on the subject of Say’s sentence were that his brother David Ricciardone, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, remarked to him that “a very bad piano player hit the wrong key.” Yes, you read that correctly: our government’s official representative in Turkey not only declined to condemn what is clearly a gross miscarriage of justice and a blatant violation of democratic values and practice, but tacitly endorsed the court’s decision and joked about it with reporters. I suppose that the good people of Massachusetts are fortunate that Judge Ricciardone is a state judge rather than a federal judge, since his understanding of the First Amendment seems to be on par with that of my 10 month old son. Moving onto the bigger culprit here, it is inconceivable that Ambassador Ricciardone’s initial reaction is one of anything other than outrage. Yes, we don’t want to be meddling in another country’s internal affairs and we want to respect laws abroad that are different from our own, and we also want to maintain a good relationship with the Turkish government, but none of that applies here. Plenty of Turks, both individually and institutionally, are criticizing the Say verdict to the high heavens, and so this does not fall into the category of respecting another culture. This is an instance where if we have any respect for our own democratic values, we are compelled to make it crystal clear that what has taken place with regard to Say and to Abdulkerim U. and to the other hundreds of Turkish citizens who get prosecuted on similar charges is completely unacceptable in our view. Ricciardone instead has chosen to act as a lackey for the Turkish government and turn a blind eye to behavior that we routinely call out on other occasions, and it is evident to me that this is becoming a chronic problem in our relationship with Turkey.
Both publicly and privately, U.S. diplomats who are in charge of our Turkey policy talk about the country as being more democratic now than it has ever been, and while acknowledging some problems with freedom of speech, the overarching and worrisome issues are generally swept under the rug in a disturbing fashion. As I noted a year ago, the U.S. needs Turkey on a host of regional issues, and so it studiously ignores Turkish bad behavior and sticks to the party line about the strength of Turkish democracy. It is one thing, however, to pretend that a problem does not exist, and quite another to contribute to that problem worsening. I am going to assume that the U.S. will express its displeasure with Turkey over the Say verdict behind the scenes, but backing up the government in such a public way like Ricciardone did is enormously damaging irrespective of what goes on later behind closed doors. Ricciardone has been criticized in the past, including just a couple of months ago, by the Turkish government for perceived interference in Turkey’s internal affairs, and kudos to him for his previous efforts to highlight abuses of democracy by the Erdoğan government, but it appears as if his response has been to go way too far in the opposite direction in an effort to curry favor with Ankara. If that is the case, his completely out of line and inappropriate response to the Say verdict should be the impetus for him to take a major course correction immediately.
The embassy says that Ambassador Ricciardone’s quote was taken out of context; please read my follow-up post – http://ottomansandzionists.com/2013/04/18/more-on-ambassador-ricciardone-and-fazil-say/
April 5, 2013 § 2 Comments
While the large number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey is getting increasing attention in the Western media and from press NGOs, an even more widespread – and in some ways more insidious – problem is press intimidation. Journalists in Turkey are under all sorts of pressure not to criticize the government, and end up engaging in self-censorship or are forced to limit what they write by their editors, who are themselves squeezed by the government. This pressure comes in the form of overt intimidation, such as when Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly attacks the press collectively or even singles out individuals for criticism, and comes in the form of de facto bills of attainder, such as when the Doğan Group was fined nearly $3.8 billion in taxes following an investigation into charity fraud that implicated government officials. Reporters and columnists are afraid to write anything about the government, the AKP, or Erdoğan that will be perceived as too harsh, and so much goes unsaid.
In this week’s Economist, Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman details how this process works by relaying how advisers to the prime minister will call an editor to complain about a columnist’s work, that columnist will be asked to tone things down, and will be then fired if he or she does not comply. Zaman notes that anything that has a whiff of scandal about the government gets buried, as do stories about Turkish support for Syrian rebels and Turkey’s role in transferring arms shipments to Syrian groups from the Gulf. None of this is new ground, but Zaman’s piece is especially notable for its timing: after starting to write her essay but before it was published, she was fired from her job as a columnist at Turkish newspaper HaberTürk for – you guessed it – being overly critical of the government. It will be interesting to see if the issue of journalist intimidation gets more traction now outside of Turkey given that Zaman is the Economist’s Turkey correspondent and frequently writes for other American and British publications. In any event, this type of behavior is enormously damaging to Turkey and is bound to backfire. By doing everything it can to protect its reputation at home by staunching criticism, the government is only ensuring that its reputation abroad takes a hit, and government officials’ loud proclamations about Turkish democracy ring hollow as long as reporters and editorialists do not feel free to speak their minds because they are constantly worrying about their job security.
On the flip side, Israel this week provided a good example of why sometimes journalists who are free to write whatever pops into their heads might sometimes want to think before putting down something particularly egregious. Amira Hass, a columnist for Ha’aretz, wrote an ode to Palestinian stone throwing on Wednesday, opening her column with, “Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule. Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance.” In advising that some guidelines be developed, she wrote that limitations “could include” – rather than should include – throwing rocks at civilians or at children, although Hass naturally does not want to dictate to Palestinian stone throwers who their targets should be. She went on to make some actually positive and useful suggestions on how Palestinians might implement classes on civil non-violent disobedience and better educate themselves to document Israeli military abuses, but when that stuff comes after you have laid out the divine right of violent stone throwing, it tends to get lost in the ensuing maelstrom. The Yesha Council has accused Hass of inciting violence and filed a police complaint and lodged another complaint with the attorney-general, which will undoubtedly lead to Hass being seen in some quarters as a martyr for press freedom and journalistic integrity.
Hass’s column is largely reprehensible. Not to disturb the righteous indignation of Hass and her supporters, but throwing stones at civilians is inexcusable violence under any guise, and Israel’s military and settler presence in the West Bank does not justify using potentially deadly force against Israeli civilians. Lest you think this is hyperbole, stones thrown at cars in the West Bank in the last two years have killed Asher and Yonatan Palmer – the latter an 11 month old infant – and put 2 year old Adele Bitton in critical condition, in addition to causing numerous other civilian injuries. Calling out stone throwing does not mean that I condone abusive Israeli military behavior in the West Bank, of which there is plenty, since anyone who reads me knows that I do not. But aren’t most of us taught at a very early age the simple maxim that two wrongs does not make a right? In what world is serious violence a “birthright” or a “duty” except to a seriously fevered mind? Just as the attempted lynching of Jamal Joulani for no other reason than his being an Arab hanging out in West Jerusalem was odiously inexcusable, so is throwing rocks at Israelis for no other reason than them being Jews daring to set foot in the West Bank. It would be great if Palestinians lit upon a successful strategy for non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation, and a mass movement along those lines would force the Israeli government to actually change course. In contrast, continuing to advocate violence against Israelis based on the logic that stone throwing is a pittance compared to Israeli machine gun fire is guaranteed to be a losing strategy that perpetuates Israeli control of the West Bank forever. It is wonderful that Hass is free to say whatever she pleases, and it is one of the ways in which Israel’s system of government is far more advanced than Turkey’s, but let’s not pretend that Hass’s abuse of her freedom of speech is a courageous act when it is nothing more than advocacy of violence hiding behind a morally superior attitude and haughty anti-imperialist mask.
December 17, 2012 § 1 Comment
It looks like the attention being paid to Turkey’s abysmal record on speech issues has finally created enough noise to get the government to sit up and take notice. Deputy PM Bülent Arınç said on Saturday that there is a draft law in the works that will change the Anti-Terror Law, which criminalizes making “propaganda” on behalf of a terrorist organization, to have “propaganda” be interpreted more loosely. According to Arınç, he does not want to see any journalists in jail, and he claimed that this issue has been discussed in cabinet meetings and should be resolved soon, although he did not hesitate to add that no parties save the BDP want to see the Anti-Terrorism Law scrapped entirely.
The good news here is that it appears that the efforts of NGOs to highlight the detestable state of press freedom in Turkey are having an effect. Arınç cited the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute, both of whom recently have called out Ankara for jailing journalists. When the CPJ issued its report in October, I was critical of the organization for not calling attention to this issue sooner and for actually providing cover to Turkey in the past by downplaying the scope of the problem. Thankfully Ankara is sufficiently worried about the CPJ report to feel the need to address it publicly, which is why Arınç was trotted out there to talk about how terrible it is for even one journalist to be wrongly imprisoned. If the Turkish government didn’t feel some heat over this issue, it would still be doing what it did when the report was released in October, which is try to sweep the whole thing under the table.
Nevertheless, I am highly skeptical that Arınç’s public relations offensive represents a genuine move to ameliorate Turkey’s draconian treatment of the press. It is difficult to imagine that Prime Minister Erdoğan and his cabinet are seriously considering amending the Anti-Terrorism Law to make it easier for journalists to report on Kurdish issues and to criticize the government at the same time that Erdoğan is calling for the creators of a soap opera to be prosecuted because he doesn’t like the way they are portraying Ottomans sultans, or when members of his government are introducing bills to not only ban the show but to educate Turkish filmmakers on proper Turkish values and morals. On the one hand, the AKP wants to shut down any speech that it finds objectionable in any way at all, and the on the other hand it wants you to believe that it is going to loosen restrictions on speech that it has long claimed to be a security threat that is equivalent to terrorism. It also beggars belief that Erdoğan is considering any real amendments to Articles 6 and 7 of the terrorism law at the same time that dozens of Kurdish politicians are being arrested under these very same provisions and the prime minister is trying to strip BDP deputies of their parliamentary immunity. That Arınç can even say with a straight face that he has a draft of a revised law on his desk and that he hopes it can be passed soon when the campaign to sweep up even more people under these very same articles he claims to want to revise is being prosecuted with even greater ferocity is outrageous. It’s as if the government thinks people have no capacity to independently judge what is taking place, and that everyone should just trust that they will do the right thing despite having no track record worthy of garnering trust.
Furthermore, Arınç’s claim that the law is going to be reinterpreted is a specious one even if you set aside the government’s recent actions. As noted above, after saying that the government was going to relax the law, he made it very clear that the law is here to stay, that all parties other than the Kurdish BDP support it, and that propaganda is going to remain a crime if it lauds terrorism or violence. So, based on Arınç’s interpretation of things, right now Turkey has a law on the books which it uses to throw journalists in prison by claiming that their reporting has supported terrorism, and after these alleged revisions that the government is debating, Turkey will still have a law on the books that will allow it throw journalists in prison by claiming that their reporting has supported terrorism. I fail to see what Arınç claims is going to be tangibly changed aside from a loose promise to reinterpret the word propaganda, which is a meaningless and empty promise if the law as it is currently written is not significantly altered or done away with. In short, given the government’s continuing assault on free speech of all varieties and arrests of Kurdish journalists and politicians, there is little reason for anyone to trust that Arınç means what he says. Until the Erdoğan government takes some actual steps toward relaxing its restrictions on speech, its rhetoric and promises on this issue will remain hollow and meaningless.
October 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
Earlier this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report on what it dubbed Turkey’s press freedom crisis. I have written about the AKP’s targeting of journalists and worrisome record on free speech before, so the CPJ report was welcome news as far as I am concerned, but I think that it will be ignored by the Turkish government for a variety of reasons. I wrote about some of them for the Atlantic yesterday:
The October 22 report on Turkey issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) is getting lots of attention, and rightly so. Amid the growing clamor over Turkey’s media crackdown, the CPJ slammed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government for jailing (by its count) 76 journalists, 61 of whom are in prison as a direct result of their writing or reporting, mainly on Kurdish issues. The CPJ stated what many seasoned Turkey observers have known for awhile, which is that Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have used overly expansive terrorism laws to staunch criticism of the government and intimidate the press into self-censorship.
The CPJ report is a welcome development, but it unfortunately comes too late. Not only is the harsh spotlight that the CPJ trained on Turkey unlikely to ameliorate the problem, it is in fact more likely that the government’s response will be to retrench rather than to let up in its assault on journalists and free speech. The political environment is such that Erdoğan feels that he has more to lose now by admitting that his government has taken an undemocratic turn when it comes to restrictions on free speech, although this would not have always been the case had organizations like the CPJ been paying closer attention in the not too distant past.
Five short years ago, the AKP was a lot more vulnerable to this type of critique. Turkey was coming off a series of wide-ranging political and social reforms that had been passed as part of the European Union accession process, and the AKP had in fact been initially elected by running on a stridently pro-EU platform. The Erdoğan government was reluctant to do anything that would endanger this process, and condemnation from Western governments and NGOs was taken seriously. Furthermore, the AKP was in the midst of a reelection campaign and, like any other political party in a democracy, more attuned to criticism.
The rest of the article can be found on The Atlantic’s website, so please head over there to read it.
June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
Turkey’s rise is attributable to a bunch of factors, but one of the primary ones is the image of Turkey as a democracy. When the AKP took over, they did a good job of making Turkey more democratic in a number of important ways as part of the EU accession process, and the world noticed. For a decade, Turkey has been heralded as a model of Muslim democracy and been held up as a successful example of how a state can transition from a military-dominated polity to one where the elected civilian government is the ultimate accountable body. Turkey has played up its democratic status at every opportunity, and is has been taken as a given that Turkey is a democracy, one that has its own issues to overcome but certainly not a state that is in danger of authoritarian backsliding.
Two columns this weekend make me wonder if we are coming to a tipping point where outside observers are no longer going to give Turkey’s democratic status the benefit of the doubt. In the New York Times, Tom Friedman (who probably represents conventional elite opinion better than anyone aside from Fareed Zakaria) had a rambling column that managed to work its way to Turkey by the end, and what he had to say about Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP was not kind. He concluded his column with this:
The A.K.P.’s impressively effective prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has not only been effective at building bridges but also in eliminating any independent judiciary in Turkey and in intimidating the Turkish press so that there are no more checks and balances here. With the economic decline of the European Union, the aborting of Turkey’s efforts to become an E.U. member and the need for America to have Turkey as an ally in managing Iraq, Iran and Syria, there are also no external checks on the A.K.P.’s rising authoritarianism. (Erdogan announced out of the blue last week that he intended to pass a law severely restricting abortions.)
So many conversations I had with Turks here ended with me being told: “Just don’t quote me. He can be very vindictive.” It’s like China.
This isn’t good. If Erdogan’s “Sultanization” of Turkey continues unchecked, it will soil his truly significant record and surely end up damaging Turkish democracy. It will also be bad for the region because whoever wins the election in Egypt, when looking for a model to follow, will see the E.U. in shambles, the Obama team giving Erdogan a free pass and Turkey thriving under a system that says: Give your people growth and you can gradually curb democratic institutions and impose more religion as you like.
In the Guardian, Mehdi Hasan unloaded on the Erdoğan government, describing Istanbul as gripped by a “climate of fear” and noting government pressure on the media and prosecution of ordinary citizens for criticizing state education policy and insulting Islam. He recounted how the authorities detained some of his colleagues and read through his tv program’s scripts to find anything that might be objectionable, and conveyed the opinion of some that Erdoğan is “Putinesque.” Hasan summed up with the following:
Those of us who have long argued that elected Islamist parties should not be denied the opportunity to govern invested great hope in Erdogan and the AKP. But what I discovered in Istanbul is that there is still a long way to go. The truth is that Turkey cannot be the model, the template, for post-revolutionary, Muslim-majority countries like Tunisia and Egypt until it first gets its own house in order. To inspire freedom abroad, the Turkish government must first guarantee freedom at home.
It comes as no surprise to veteran Turkey watchers that the government’s authoritarian tendencies are increasingly bubbling to the surface. Plenty of folks have been sounding the alarm for awhile, but Turkey’s image has remained as a democracy that is successfully struggling to shed a legacy of military coups and acrimonious ideologically charged politics. That people like Friedman and Hasan are starting to sit up and take notice of some of the more egregious problems signals to me that Turkey is entering a dangerous place. Once Turkey and Erdoğan start to get lumped together with Russia and Putin – a comparison that I would note is completely inappropriate at this point – it will present a whole set of challenges for Turkey’s foreign policy and severely set back relations with the U.S. and Europe. I get the sense that Turkish economic growth has led Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to think that Turkey is indispensable, and that the rest of the world needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the rest of the world. This is pretty clearly an overreach, and Ankara should be more mindful of the fact that Turkey’s democratic status is massively important to its new preeminent position. Taking this lightly or underestimating how vital it is that Turkey continue to be perceived as solidly democratic is a bad misstep, and the AKP government needs a serious course correction before it’s too late. David Ignatius can write as many glowing paeans to the Obama-Erdoğan relationship as he likes, but the fact remains that the U.S. holds all non-democracies (aside from the oil producing ones) at arm’s length, and Turkey will be no different should it continue to crack down on basic freedom of expression and harass political opponents. Reputational costs are important, and if the narrative takes hold that Erdoğan is consolidating power and turning Turkey into a one-party state, he will find that his power inside of Turkey is unchallenged but that his power on the world stage is diminished.