When the EU shuts up, Erdogan moves in
Almost a week after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Istanbul, Turkish police, together with the judiciary, seized one of the country's largest media groups on the eve of the fateful elections on Sunday.
Of course, the media group was one of the few remaining critical voices in today’s Turkey, where 60-70% of the press is already controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his cronies.
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The editor-in-chief of Bugun TV, Tarık Toros, managed to continue to broadcast for another 5 hours by locking himself up in the control room. He was then thrown out of the building, which he had run for the last 8 years, by police force.
Both Toros and Erhan Basyurt, the editor-in-chief of Bugun daily were immediately sacked by the new so-called ‘trustees’, all from AKP ranks despite the law dictating that they should be neutral. The two newspapers, after a one-day break, are on the shelves again on Friday (29 October) with Erdogan in their headlines. The TV channels are running documentaries on camels.
Erdogan is a shrewd politician and master tactician. He calculates well and moves quickly when he deems the atmosphere is ripe.
Being given red-carpet treatment in Brussels on 5 October to discuss how to stem the flow of refugees to Europe, Erdogan quickly realised that he was no more a pariah in Brussels.
When Merkel, despite all the warnings from the German Bundestag, visited Istanbul two weeks before elections, Erdogan rightly thought that the EU would simply shut up regarding his domestic actions and that he could get concessions from Brussels before elections as long as he promised Turkey’s help to rein in refugees.
Unfortunate as it is, he was right.
When I asked the Commission spokesperson Alexander Winterstein about the EU's reaction to the seizure of IPEK Media group, he said ‘we do not comment on internal developments’. He was in tune with his boss, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Just as Winterstein was giving the EU position on the slaughter of the remnants of free media in Turkey, Juncker was telling MEPs in Strasbourg that the EU should not harp on about human rights in accession candidate Turkey.
Because it simply did not work when Brussels was negotiating with Ankara to try to stem the flow of refugees.
Progress report postponed twice for Turkey's elections
On Erdogan’s shopping list, one of the top items was the postponement of the progress report. The European Commission has been publishing annual progress reports since 1998 to assess the level of Turkey’s harmonisation with EU standards.
The most sensitive parts of the reports are always the developments in the field of human rights, fundamental freedoms, independence of judiciary and the fight against corruption.
Before Erdogan’s visit to Brussels at the beginning of October, the report was scheduled to be made public on 14 October. It was then confirmed (by emails) that it would come out on 21 October. In the wake of Merkel’s visit, it became clear that it would be out after elections in Turkey on 1 November.
Commission spokespeople repeatedly claimed that the report was not postponed and there was no connection whatsoever between the elections in Turkey and the decision to delay it. However, nobody buys this argument. It has turned into an open secret that delaying the report until after elections has been one of the items on the bargaining table.
So, why has Erdogan been so insistent to postpone the report? The upcoming elections are vital for his AKP party that lost its 13-year single-party majority in the June elections and Erdoğan is desperate to win it back.
That is why Turkey is heading to polls for the second time in four months, a first in Turkish Republican history. There is palpable fear in the air that if they cannot win the majority, AKP authorities could potentially face hundreds of court cases, ranging from corruption to negligence in bloodshed that flared up in the wake of June's elections. So all forces must be mobilised, all possible sources of support should be tapped.
The draft of the report, which was published by ZAMAN in mid-October, states that Turkey no longer fulfills the Copenhagen Criteria and has clearly backtracked since 2014. On the independence of judiciary, the report, phrased diplomatically, says the separation of powers does not work anymore.
"The situation has been backsliding since 2014. The independence of judiciary and the principle of separation of powers have been considerably undermined. Judges and prosecutors have been under strong political pressure. Judicial system, which had significantly improved between 2007 and 2013 in terms of independence, efficiency, the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for the separation of powers, has been seriously undermined."
On corruption cases where Erdogan’s inner circle including his son was implicated, the draft states: "Corruption remains widespread. The undue influence by the executive in the investigation and prosecution of high-profile corruption cases continue to constitute a major concern."
On the focal point of media freedom, the report lashes out at the government: "The number of detentions, judicial prosecutions, censorship cases and layoffs has soared as the authorities maintained strong pressure on the media. This applies not only to journalists but also to writers and users of social media. High-level politicians continue strongly condemning journalists for their critical reporting. This has a negative impact on freedom of expression and helps create a climate of self-censorship among members of the media."
Most important of all, the draft criticises Erdogan in very strong terms. It points at Erdogan's personal exercise of power, saying that the president remained engaged in a wide range of foreign and domestic policy issues, leading to criticism in Turkey that he was overstepping his constitutional prerogatives.
As Human Rights Watch (HRW) and many MEPs put it, the EU seems to betraying its own principles. HRW underlines that the EU is willing to soft-pedal Turkey’s abusive rights record in exchange for its cooperation in stopping asylum seekers and migrants.
What is also very surprising is that Juncker is behind this. Juncker, who, back in 1997 as the prime minister of Luxembourg, was strongly opposed to the idea of Turkey being declared a candidate country due to its poor human rights record.
Selcuk Gultasli is the Brussels bureau chief of Zaman