Report of the discussion “Freedom of Expression in Turkey: Challenges for Dialogue and Peace”

On 25th of February we held a discussion about freedom of expression in Turkey which was part of The Hague Freedom Book Fair 2017. In the light of the recent events in Turkey we found it necessary to have a discussion over journalistic freedom, democratic liberties and the overall situation in Turkey.

The discussion panel was supposed to consist of six prominent speakers, but apparently one of them – Hüda Kaya (a writer, civil rights activist and a member of the parliament for the HDP) – was not able to attend the discussion. She was recently arrested in Turkey for unknown reasons. Even though now she is released, she is still not able to leave the country. This illustrates perfectly the necessity of addressing the problem.

Luckily all other panelists could make their way to The Hague. The panel consisted of Uğur Üngör (a historian who teaches at the Department of History at Utrecht University), Muhammed Cihad Ebrari (a researcher at the political and social research centre SAMER and human rights activist affiliated with the
“anti-capitalist Muslims”, also known as the “Muslim left’”), Marloes de Koning (a journalist for the Dutch paper NRC, who used to work in Turkey for 3 years), Ragip Zarakolu (a Turkish writer and publisher, Nobel Prize nominee in 2012 and iconic advocate for the freedom to publish and write in Turkey and beyond) and Varduhi Balyan (a journalist working for the weekly Turkish-Armenian newspaper AGOS).

Compared to some other very passionate discussions held during The Hague Freedom Book Fair, where the panelists and the audience did not always agree with each other, the discussion about freedom of expression in Turkey was more of the one where at least in the beginning everyone seemed to agree.

First, Uğur Üngör gave a great overview of the main issues on media in the history of Turkey. Then the current situation in Turkey was discussed and every panelist was also sharing their own story. It was interesting, but also rather emotional to hear what each of the panelist has experienced.

Ragip Zarakolu shared how he has been arrested in the past for his activities as a chair of Freedom to Publish Committee and is now living in Sweden. Muhammed Cihad Ebrari told even more detailed how he and his family was detained and how they even experienced torture committed by the police while prisoned.

On the other hand, Varduhi Balyan expressed very hopefully and beautifully that she is trying to use the language of peace to fill the gap and create the dialogue. Marloes de Koning told her personal experiences as a Dutch journalist in Turkey and shared the practical problems of it: how it was hard to find people to work with you as they do not want to be seen with you, they do not want to talk with you and do not want to show their faces. But she also expressed a more optimistic opinion about Turkey: It is a very dynamic country with a very young population. Right now it is an immature democracy, but it can definitely have a brighter future.

Besides the journalistic freedom the situation of academics were also discussed, as both – the journalists and academics – are seen in Turkey as a danger to the society. Academics are fired for carrying political opinion and this has caused a brain drain, because the academics flee abroad, even these who work in natural science and their work is beyond the politics. They are actually the brightest minds who can contribute to the development of Turkey, but they are rather seen as a real threat to the society.

Also, the background of the problem was discussed. If this regime is causing so many problems to the Turkish society, how come it is still elected and supported by the people? Is it because of the fear? In the view of these questions the status of democracy was discussed. It was concluded that nowadays very often democracy is used to destroy the democracy: the society is democratic during the elections but afterwards the real democracy ends. Also, it was discussed whether the peace process was put in fridge or rather in freezer or whether it was just a fake game.

After a while everyone seemed to agree at least in the fact that the situation in Turkey is serious and something needs to be done. Therefore, the audience and the panelists were invited to come up with ideas and solutions to the problem. Many solutions were actually named. Protest is definitely one thing to do, but there should also be a legal and political process. One idea shared was giving up the identity politics. Anyone who is in the political arena in Turkey is currently fighting for one identity: Islamist, Kurdish Islamist, Turkish Islamist etc. The simple answer is to give up defending your position and rather trying to see the power from other perspective. Furthermore, the power needs to redefined and find out how the power influences people. There is a need for transparency in the society. Last but not least, there should be more public debate.

It seemed that basically everyone attending the event was pleased to end the discussion with the thought that at least this one evening we were all contributing to the better future of Turkey, as we were discussing the problem and having open debate about it.

Photo’s: Ugo Boss Photography ©

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