Even though the candidate country Turkey negotiates about accession to the European Union, there have been several journalists arrested – a huge problem concerning the freedom of press. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) is angry, and thousands of journalists and supporters demonstrated in Istanbul. The EU expects Turkey to implement the freedom of press as a core democratic principle. But Turkey maintains a low profile.
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By Frauke Konzak
The European Union (EU) reacts with incomprehension to the situation of freedom of press in Turkey. The country should intensify its reforms – that is one of the European Parliament’s key messages in its resolution on Turkey’s 2010 Progress Report last week. But just a week ago, the police arrested some journalists in the candidate country for EU membership – and this was not the only time. Is this compatible with the accession negotiations?
The Parliament’s answer: “No.” During the debate, many of the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were concerned about the slow progress on human rights and key reforms in Turkey in 2010 (Photo: Frauke Konzak). Among the main problems, several MEPs listed the freedom of press, including self-censorship of national media and websites.
One of the main problems: freedom of press
The final text of the resolution has the same wording as last year, describing the opening of Turkey’s accession negotiations in 2005 as the “starting point for a long-lasting and open-ended process”. The resolution was adopted with the support of a large majority of MEPs.
“The Commission follows with concern the recent actions against journalists”
Stefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, says that accession negotiations have slowed down. He says: “The Commission follows with concern the recent actions against journalists. In its 2010 progress report, the Commission highlighted the high number of court cases against journalists.“ Furthermore he states: “As a candidate country, we expect Turkey to implement such core democratic principles and enable varied, pluralistic debate in public space.“
During the debate concerning Turkey’s 2010 progress report, Eniko Gyori, Hungarian Minister of State for EU Affairs, adds: “Fundamental rights should be in line with European standards. The accession negotiations will continue, but they are becoming more complex.“
Again and again police actions against journalists in Turkey
One of the reasons: A week before the debate in the European Parliament, there were police actions against journalists and writers in Turkey. The journalists were accused of relations to the alleged “Ergenekon” coup plots against the Turkish government. The Turkish police raided and searched the homes of nine journalists in Istanbul. They were under police supervision and facing arrest.
Police also confiscated the journalists’ computers and notebooks, as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its European group the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) complained. These organizations want to push governments to promote social justice and rights for journalists. “We condemn this outrageous violation of a cardinal principle of press freedom,” states Arne König, President of EFJ. “This attack on protection of journalists’ sources is a blatant violation of free expression under the European Convention of Human Rights which has been ratified by Turkey.”
Thousands of Turkish journalists demonstrated for the release of their colleagues
And the public in Turkey reacts, too. On last Sunday, thousands of journalists and their supporters were demonstrating in Istanbul to call for the release of 68 of their arrested colleagues, as several media-websites report. The demonstrators called for changes to the penal code to ensure press rights are protected. It was the second demonstration within two weeks.
In fact, a lot of initiatives – and the EU – demands reaction of Turkey concerning the actions against the journalists. But what they can actually do, that is a different chapter.
“The EU can do little except to raise its voice,” says Birgit Schnieber-Jastram, a MEP from Germany and member of a Group of the European People’s Party/Christian Democrats. She is also in the Delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee. “One of the main problems is that it is not transparent for the EU, who is responsible for the arrests, and for which reasons – is it the government or the opposition?” From her point of view, both sides – Turkey and the EU – are slowing down the process of the accession negotiations. She mentions some other problems besides freedom of press, e.g. human rights, freedom of religion and the occupation of the Republic of Cyprus. “Turkey is taking its time,” she says. “But I am also afraid that the negotiations will take too long and both sides will lose their interest.”
Political pressure more effective than a legal process
However, to raise the voice can be a powerful instrument, according to Alun Drake, Coordinator at the Council of Europe. He says: “If I should guess, I would say that this case will be resolved more with political pressure than in a legal process that can take some years, for example at the Court of human rights.” The Council of Europe seeks to develop common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights throughout Europe. Alun Drake adds: “The topic of freedom of press is a big and sensitive topic in Turkey. But they do respect human rights to a certain amount, and they are not as bad as Russia for example.” Without that, Turkey would not be able to be a candidate country for a EU membership.
Freedom of press: No problem for Engin Arikan, Counsellor of the Turkish Permanent Delegation to the EU
When and if Turkey becomes a member of the EU, is hard to calculate. “Turkey’s accession date cannot be foreseen under the present circumstances which is full of political obstacles“, says Engin Arikan, Counsellor of the Turkish Permanent Delegation to the EU. He explains his point of view: “Turkey’s negotiation process is blocked for political reasons. It is not normal at all. If we had a normal process free of political obstacles, we would have opened 29 chapters so far, not 13 only. However, despite the political obstacles, Turkey is determinedly continuing its reform process for all negotiation chapters.” Asked what are the biggest problems in Turkey regarding the EU accession – e.g. human rights, freedom of religion or freedom of press – Engin Arikan is confident: „None of that are problems, because Turkey has been and is doing reforms in all these fields.“
Nevertheless, Engin Arikan says that general mood in Turkey concerning the EU is pessimistic: “If you ask Turkish people whether they would like Turkey to join the EU, the response is ‘yes’ with a great majority. However, if you ask people whether they believe that Turkey will become a member of the EU one day, the answer is ‘no’ with majority again. This is the outcome of the frustration accumulated over the years.”
Stefan Füle, European Commissioner, on the other hand, stays optimistic: “The EU-Turkey relationship is strong. Turkey needs the EU and the EU needs Turkey – this balance has not changed. The European Union is and will remain a key player for Turkey.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejects responsibility
But still – Turkey maintains a low profile. Egemen Bagis, Turkish State Minister and Chief Negotiator for EU Talks, says to Press TV, no one could lecture Turkey on freedom of expression – not even the EU. Furthermore, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejects responsibility according to the news agency AFP concerning the arrested journalists. He just states that he hopes that the judiciary would “complete the process speedily.”
President Abdullah Gul on the other hand says to AFP he was “worried” about the latest developments concerning freedom of press, because they “cast a pall” over Turkey’s reputation in other countries.
Turkey is a candidate country for EU membership following the Helsinki European Council of December 1999. Accession negotiations started in October 2005 with the analytical examination of the EU legislation (the so-called screening process).
Since then the EU closed provisionally one chapter and opened negotiations on 12 chapters. On 18 February 2008 the Council adopted a revised Accession Partnership with Turkey.
Since 2007, Turkey is receiving EU financial aid under the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA). The allocation for 2008 totals € 538.7 million.
Population (2006) :
72 520 000
783 562 Square Kilometer
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