The Same Silence as Before
In Turkey on September 9 Ahmed Altan, writer, journalist and former chief editor, was detained along with his brother. In an interview by Alev Yaman made just before Altan’s detention Altan claims that there is a consistency in the growing regression in Turkey.
To what extent is the prevalent nationalist discourse in Turkey responsible for the widespread restrictions on freedom of expression?
- In Turkey, what is constant is the restriction of freedom of expression. This has been the case for years. The reasons for restricting freedom of expression change according to the political climate. When it comes to the Kurdish issue, nationalism comes to the fore. Nationalism is also used to oppose the West’s demands for democracy. But sometimes [the threat of] Sharia is used an excuse to restrict freedom of expression. And sometimes the “state secret” argument is used. The reasons might change but the restriction of freedom of expression has been ongoing for almost a hundred years.
What kind of relationship is there between the official state ideology of nationalism and the authoritarian practices of the current government?
- In Turkey, ever since the First World War, there has always been a phobia of ‘’partition’’ and this phobia is constantly sustained by the government. Successive governments have stated that the source of the criticism leveled against them can be identified as ‘’foreigners’’, while accusing [domestic] dissidents of being the foreigners’ pawns. In Turkey, governments never make mistakes; foreigners and their dissident pawns “unfairly” accuse the government. The aim of dissidents and foreigners is to partition Turkey. Almost every government [in Turkey] uses this argument and these views almost always find support.
Are there any differences between the restrictions that were in place pre-AKP and in Erdogan’s “New Turkey”?
- It is virtually as if there are no platforms for a democratic opposition to express itself in Turkey today with the exception of a few websites. Neither the AKP’s media nor the Kemalist opposition’s newspapers give space to democrats in their columns. In the past, democratic voices could find channels to express themselves but now such opportunities no longer exist. Now, more or less no newspaper can offer such opportunities to a writer that is known as a democrat; if it does so, it will be punished. Those who want democracy have been declared ‘’persona non grata’’ in the media by both AKP supporters and the nationalists.
Is it fair to say that the methods of the old Kemalist establishment have coalesced with the methods employed by successive AKP governments? Is there a difference in the way that nationalism has been used in order to limit free speech and the freedom of the press?
- A significant portion of the laws that were put in place by the 12 September regime are still in place today. New restrictions have been added to these. As I have said, it isn’t just nationalism that is used to restrict freedom of expression; today a dissident democrat can be arrested or tried for any reason whatsoever. And not many people will care whether such decisions are lawful or not. They can accuse the same person of ‘‘plotting’’ against the army, of being a putschist and of collusion with ‘‘Kurdish separatists’’. They don’t even bother to find evidence for such accusations. An accusation is sufficient [for one] to be arrested.
We hear government officials accuse journalists of treason, espionage and of selling out Turkey to advance the interests of Western powers. How does this impact the way that journalists conduct their jobs and what kind of dangers does it throw up in their paths?
- We witnessed the latest example of accusations such as these in the Can Dundar-Erdem Gul affair. They were accused of espionage because of their reporting. They were later convicted of a separate charge because of the same news story. The vast majority of journalists work for the AKP media anyway. Meanwhile the rest try to proceed very cautiously because they are concerned about accusations like this.
How does this nationalist discourse impact the expression of Kurdish and other minority identities in Turkey?
- The Kurdish media face the heaviest oppression. Kurdish journalists are constantly being arrested. Sometimes it isn’t even explained why they have been arrested. Reporting on the realities of what is happening in the Southeast [of Turkey] is directly deemed to be ‘‘separatism’’. Turkey’s West never finds out the full extent of what is really going on in the Southeast.
Is nationalism presently the greatest challenge facing freedom of expression in Turkey or are there greater threats to free speech currently at play in the country?
- The greatest obstacle in the path of freedom of expression is the non-application of universal legal principles. They can raid your home and throw you in prison; they can make up crimes that do not exist in law. And there is nothing you can do about it. You’ll end up behind bars like a prisoner in a Kafka novel.