Europeans and Americans Should Freely Urge Turkey to Respect Free Speech

A polarized debate on fundamental freedoms is waging in Turkey. This debate further intensified after the recent arrests of journalists following a court order that criminalizes the possession of a yet unpublished book. Soon after the arrest of the book's author, journalist Ahmet Şık, Turkish police have raided publishing homes and newspapers in search of draft copies of Imam's Army, with a warrant that stated that spreading the manuscript -- dealing with the infiltration of a religious group within the police -- was tantamount to aiding and abetting terrorists. The draft will be published online shortly.

The arrests are the last wave in Turkey's Ergenekon case where prosecutors accused hundreds of conspiring to overthrow the government or, as is the case with dissident journalists, creating a 'psychological environment' for a coup.

When the Ergenekon case started in 2007, many in Europe supported the effort believing it was aimed at dealing with Turkey's anti-democratic past -- especially the role of the military which has staged three coups since the republic was founded in 1923 and continued to meddle in politics. But our optimism soon made way for concern as no convictions followed and pre-trial detention periods kept extending. Our concern has turned into alarm as we witnessed the fear, polarization and mistrust the recent arrests caused in a large part of Turkish society.

This is why European Union officials joined by their American colleagues called upon the Government of Turkey to safeguard fundamental rights and the freedom of press. Prime Minister Erdogan reacted saying Europe "should look at itself" before criticizing others. It is suggested his planned trip to Brussels was cancelled to avoid critical talks about the state of freedom in Turkey.

In Europe, we have had our share of experiences on banning and burning books. These were the preludes to the darkest days of our history. The efforts lead by European Parliament to change the restrictive Hungarian media laws and to promote media pluralism in Italy, are reflective of our ongoing work to improve press freedom in the EU as well.

In most cases, Europe goes quite far in protecting free expression. When in 2006 cartoons picturing the Prophet Mohammed led to riots and grave national security risks, they were not banned, nor was the cartoonist arrested. One of the few banned books in some European countries is Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, which coincidentally was a bestseller in Turkey in 2005

Protecting fundamental freedoms is a responsibility of any government. Being elected into office or the principle of judicial independence does not absolve the government of Turkey from this basic duty from which it derives its own legitimacy.

Democracy is not limited to free elections and the separation of powers does not exist in a vacuum either. When Americans assessed that publications on WikiLeaks posed a grave threat to national security, not a single news desk was raided as it is understood that the constitution favors the freedom of speech beyond a single legal case. Meanwhile, we continue to monitor and criticize, any violations of civil liberties in the ongoing WikiLeaks investigation.

A popular Turkish saying, 'dost aci soyler', means friends tell the naked truth. Today's most outspoken critics of Turkey's fundamental rights standards are also among the staunchest defenders of Turkey´s accession to the EU, despite obvious electoral benefits in doing the opposite. We have no interest in bashing Turkey or directing undeserved criticism at a country whose candidacy we firmly support.

However, to seek to destroy an unpublished book, raiding newspapers in search of electronic copies, is unprecedented and unacceptable by any measure. The prosecutors' argument that the journalists were arrested not for their journalistic work but for their alleged affiliation with a terrorist organization (namely Ergenekon) fails to justify such a blatant violation of individual freedoms, especially since the court is yet to decide whether or not Ergenekon exists.

We believe Turkey's accession to the EU will benefit both. Most of all, it will enhance the freedoms, rights and opportunities of people in Turkey. If the Turkish government is serious about joining the EU it would be wise to show sympathy to the words of its strongest allies in Europe. It is those Europeans that have both advocated and defended Turkey´s EU accession who are now speaking out. This is not about singling out Turkey, but about defending the fundamental value of press freedom, in the EU and outside. Prime Minister Erdogan should seek and not avoid conversations with his European friends on this important topic.