Freedom of Expression and the Failure of Reform in Turkey

By Dr. Tim Jacoby | 18 December 2010

Turkey’s incumbent Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) government was elected at a pivotal moment. The catastrophic earthquake of 1999 had energized civil society, a sharp decline in pro-Kurdish violence had resulted from the capture of Abdullah Öcalan (the now-imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkareni Kurdistan, PKK)) the same year, the 2001 economic crash, and a series of human rights abuse scandals had all combined to lead to what Ioannis N. Grigoriadis calls the “the corrosion of the state icon”(1). Initially dismissed by many as merely a protest vote more indicative of the secular centre-right’s corruption and fragmentation than the Turkish people’s discernment, the AKP’s unequivocal victory was, in fact, a result of its success in capturing the reformist mood. The European Union’s decision to offer Turkey official candidate for membership status at the 1999 council meeting in Helsinki had inspired the previous administration to pursue the criteria for accession laid down at Copenhagen in 1993 with three large reform packages, but the AKP promised to go much further. Its manifesto specifically referred to the need to bring Turkish society into line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Paris Charter and the Helsinki Final Act.

Acting on the premise that “the more Turkey was distanced from the West – and the EU in particular – the stronger would be the dominance of the army that treated the Islamic groups as an anomaly and threat,it brought forward six further harmonization packages which, according to the European Commission’s annual report, further “shifted the balance of civil-military relations towards the civilians and encouraged public debate in this area”(2). Prosecutions based on ethnic or separatist incitement were made more difficult to pursue, Article 8 of the 1990 Anti-Terrorism act which had been widely deployed to silence pro-Kurdish and religious activists was abolished and the jurisprudential scope of military courts was limited. Additional legislation strengthened civil society organizations (Law 5231, July 2004) and restricted the security forces’ surveillance powers (Articles 133-135 of the 2005 Penal Code), thereby improving human rights monitoring. Prime Minister Erdoğan accompanied these measures with several groundbreaking speeches in which he acknowledged the limitations of Turkey’s hitherto highly monist approach to national identity and a continuing need for greater democratization. Such an apparently profound shift from the emergency rule restrictions of the 1990s has prompted some commentators characterize the reform period as creating an ‘unprecedented political space to press for human rights and to draw attention to the need for political dialogue between Turkey and the Kurds’, leading to a ‘palpable “Kurdification” of civil society'(3). According to Murat Somer, this helped to ‘facilitate the expression of Kurdish interests and the bargaining, deliberation, and voting processes that are necessary for democratically determining Kurdish rights'(4).



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* Published in the Fourth Issue of Political Reflection Magazine (PR).

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