In 2014 the government of Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan banned YouTube and Twitter, fearing that millions of young Turks could otherwise read “dangerous content” on social media. The Constitutional Court declared the bans unconstitutional. In 2017, the Turkish government banned Wikipedia. That ban was removed only recently, after two and a half years. It is not that Wikipedia is a reliable source of information. Banning it altogether is a rogue state behavior. It is not, however, only about Wikipedia: in Turkey, truth, regardless of its source, is feared and often banned.
The World Report 2020, released by the Human Rights Watch, drew a realistic yet gloomy picture of civil liberties in Turkey:
“Executive control and political influence over the judiciary in Turkey has led to courts systematically accepting bogus indictments, detaining and convicting without compelling evidence of criminal activity individuals and groups the Erdoğan government regards as political opponents. Among these are journalists, opposition politicians, and activists and human rights defenders…
“Authorities continue to block websites and order the removal of online content while thousands of people in Turkey face criminal investigations, prosecutions, and convictions for their social media posts. There has been a dramatic rise in the number of prosecutions and convictions on charges of ‘insulting the president’ since Erdoğan’s first election as president in 2014…
“An estimated 119 journalists and media workers at time of writing are in pretrial detention or serving sentences for offenses such as “spreading terrorist propaganda” and ‘membership of a terrorist organization.’ Hundreds more are on trial though not in prison. Most media, including television, conforms to the Erdoğan presidency’s political line.”
Hence the nationwide lack of confidence in the judiciary as a constitutional institution, a sad reality that even Erdoğan’s government had to admit. Vice President Fuat Oktay said that only 38% of Turks had confidence in judiciary. The problem of trust is probably much worse than portrayed by the vice president. A survey by the Turkish pollsters ORC revealed that only 11.7% of Turks fully trusted the judiciary.
The ways through which the Turkish state silences dissent are typical of the unfree world. According to the findings of the Monitoring and Advocating Media Freedom project, the Erdoğan government resorted to three most frequently used ways to target journalists in 2019:
“Vexatious charges: Journalists were repeatedly charged with ‘insulting a public official’ or ‘insulting the president’ under Articles 125 and 299 respectively of the Turkish penal code…
“Physical attacks: Physical attacks on journalists took place throughout 2019… The violence was largely attributed to political divisions, specifically between nationalists and conservatives…
“Internet restrictions: The government continued to obstruct freedom of expression online… On 1 August, a regulation mandating online content providers, including all online news outlets, to obtain a broadcasting license from the radio and television watchdog RTUK, was published…”
(According to the left-wing Birgün newspaper, 5,223 people — including 128 children — stood trial on the charge of “insulting the president” in 2018, with journalists often being singled out and the charge being especially damaging.)
Part of the problem is the Turks’ notorious indifference to undemocratic practice — not that they are unaware of the rights violations; it is just that Erdoğan controls most media.
A recent survey released jointly by the Amnesty International’s Turkey chapter and Metropoll, a polling company, revealed the bitter truth about Turkish attitudes.
According to the survey 82.3% of Turks believe fundamental rights and liberties are violated in Turkey. In addition, only a third of them think that someone detained by the police is likely a criminal. Worse, only 37.7% of Turks think everyone is equal before the state.
A clear majority of Turks think that their rights are systematically violated and that they are not equal before law. Then half of them keep voting for Erdoğan (and his allies). These two facts point to a third, and unpleasant conclusion: Millions of Turks know that their country is not free and just, but they keep voting for the leader who is responsible for the gross democratic deficit Turkey has undergone over the past 18 years.
This is a bad message to Erdoğan: You will keep winning votes no matter how maliciously you crush dissent. We are with you and your undemocratic rule.
It was another bad year for Turkish democracy. A worse one may be in the offing.