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The AKP-led government must recognize that its efforts to control a free debate are further alienating Turkey’s citizens and could potentially threaten the country’s stability. It could also put at risk Turkey’s integration with Europe and its strong alliance with the United States.

The problems of how to construct and defend a democratic state are fundamentally ones the Turkish people must resolve. In Freedom House’s meetings with high-ranking officials in November 2013, the government came prepared to discuss legal reforms and the long list of imprisoned journalists. We saw this as a sign that international criticism was having at least some impact. The harsh official response to the unfolding corruption scandal, however, casts serious doubt on whether a government that sees itself permanently locked in a mortal struggle with its persecutors can engage in a process of reform.

Turkey’s citizens and the world are watching. To strengthen Turkey’s democracy, this government, and any future government, must do the following:

  • Cease all efforts to bully and intimidate the press. High-ranking officials must drop their personal vendettas, and the government must fully implement European Court of Human Rights rulings that have clearly stated that Turkish officials who bring defamation suits to silence criticism are violating freedom of expression. The court has also ruled that issuing injunctions against publications without strict judicial scrutiny violates freedom of expression.
  • Abolish the Anti-Terror Law (TMK), which makes investigation,  prosecution,  and  sentencing  of people accused of crimes involving terrorism fall under a different, dangerously vague, and draconian legal regime. This law has been used repeatedly to prosecute journalists for doing their job.
  • Further revise Article 220 of the criminal code (TCK) concerning “Criminal Organizations.” The article’s overly broad language, including “committing a crime in the name of” or “aiding” a criminal organization, gives the courts far too much discretion.
  • Abolish Article 301 of the criminal code criminalizing “insulting the Turkish nation.”
  • Decriminalize defamation by abolishing Article 125 of the criminal code.

The government must also address the widespread perception of corruption in the public procurement and privatization processes. The government cannot dictate that media owners will place journalistic mission and ethics above the profit motive. But with more transparency and fewer conflicts of interest, the capacity for Turkish governments to control media content will diminish. To improve the transparency of public procurement, the Turkish government should do the following:

  • Commence accession to the World Trade Organization Government Procurement Agreement (WTO GPA) in order to improve transparency and accountability in the bidding process. The GPA will be complementary to both EU accession and a TTIP parallel pact with the United States.
  • Review, in coordination with the EU, the institutional arrangements that place the Housing Authority (TOKİ) and the Privatization High Council (OİB) in the prime minister’s office and that make the prime minister the chair of the Defense Industry Executive Committee. Authority for procurement should be aligned with EU best practices in order to prepare for accession.

European Union

The European Union has encouraged important reforms in Turkey. But the EU’s leverage diminished as some member states, consumed with their own crises and wary of admitting a Muslim-majority nation, obstructed further progress and soured many in Turkey on the accession process. With the European financial crisis stabilized, a new president in France, and a relatively pro-Turkey Social Democratic Party now in the ruling coalition in Germany, there have been signs of progress. Accession still remains a distant goal, but the process of harmonization is the best course for Turkey’s economic and political future. The “positive agenda” begun in May 2012, the opening this year of a new chapter of the acquis, and the recent agreement to pursue visa liberalization are all positive steps. The EU must continue to press for reforms in Turkey, while offering economic incentives to help keep those reforms on course. It must also make clear that backsliding into repression will damage the relationship and cause serious harm to Turkey’s economy. Specifically, the EU must do the following:

  • Maintain its emphasis on media freedom as a key barometer of Turkish democracy, pressing Turkey to follow unambiguous European Court of Human Rights rulings on defamation law, use of injunctions, and judicial scrutiny for any restrictions on access to information.
  • Complete the visa liberalization protocol that would allow Turkish citizens to travel visa-free to the EU as an incentive for further Turkish engagement with the EU and reforms.
  • Place additional emphasis on transparency in public procurement practices as part of the accession process, including by emphasizing Turkish accession to the World Trade Organization Government Procurement Agreement.
  • Release, without further delay, the official criteria for opening chapters 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom, and security) of the accession acquis.
  • Expand public diplomacy efforts across Turkey, including outside of Istanbul and Ankara, promoting both democratic values and the economic and political benefits of Turkish integration into the EU.
  • Provide greater resources in support of media independence and civil society as part of its pre-accession funding programs

United States

For years, the Obama and Bush administrations oversold Turkey’s potential to be a model for the reconciliation of Islam and democracy. This government’s increasing authoritarianism cannot be ignored or denied any longer. The United States urgently needs a policy that fits the reality of current events in Turkey.

President Obama cultivated a close relationship with Prime Minister Erdoğan—in October 2011, the Los Angeles Times said he had spoken more with Erdoğan than any world leader other than British Prime  Minister David Cameron—, but Erdoğan has received nearly all of the benefit. Obama’s decision to visit Turkey on his first overseas trip in 2009—in the midst of the government’s fierce attacks on the Doğan  Media Group—was viewed as a particular triumph for Erdoğan, and Obama’s decision to compliment Turkey’s performance on media freedom in his speech to parliament was a profound error. It was inevitably seen by the Turkish government as new license to harass and intimidate the press. Several pro-Western journalists interviewed for this report expressed anger and bitterness over that speech and at the administration’s uncritical support for Erdoğan until very recently.

The White House’s attitude toward Turkey has soured in recent months, primarily because of Erdoğan’s refusal to follow through on rapprochement with  Israel as well as differences over Turkey’s support for extremist groups in Syria. But the Obama administration is still not speaking out at a high enough level against Turkey’s suppression of the media and dissent. Statements of concern from the State Department spokesperson are not enough. Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül both need to hear unequivocally from President Obama that steps to roll back democratic reforms are damaging relations and undermining the ability to work towards shared goals. In addition to speaking out, the United States should support Turkey’s democracy with the following steps:

  • Establish a new policy framework that integrates human rights and democracy as enduring pillars of the bilateral relationship on par with the security and economic dimensions. This should be shared from the highest levels of the U.S. government with Turkish counterparts, and a regular timetable should be established for assessing progress, such as biannual policy dialogues. A senior official on each side should be designated as point person for these dialogues, and there should be a component that facilitates input and transparency with the media and civil society.
  • The appropriate U.S. government bodies (i.e., State Department, Department of Defense, National Security Council) must work more collaboratively in constructing a longer-term, holistic Turkey policy that acknowledges that the viability of Turkey’s democracy and its adherence to human rights commitments, starting with freedom of expression, affect United States foreign policy objectives in Europe and the Middle East.
  • Like the EU, the United States can use economic negotiations to support greater government accountability and transparency. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the U.S. and the EU offers an opportunity to increase free trade with Turkey as well. Turkey’s customs union with the EU means that Turkey has a high stake in the outcome of the TTIP, but cannot participate in negotiations.

Turkish business leaders and the government are rightly concerned that they not be ignored in the process. The U.S. government should:

  • Begin parallel negotiations with Turkey on a free-trade pact to accompany the U.S.-EU TTIP, and make transparency and accountability in the public procurement process and all business and financial dealings a central component of these negotiations.
  • Turkey is an important player in some of the U.S.’s most important strategic arenas and interests, including resolution of the war in Syria, maintenance of the NATO alliance, and preservation of the  territorial integrity of Iraq. Washington and Brussels both must recognize that Turkey’s future as a stable democracy, and a reliable ally, is increasingly in doubt. The current government’s abuses pose a serious threat to Turkey’s democracy. They must not go unchallenged.