"I have worked in war zones but Taksim was terrible", said freelance journalist Ahmet Sik on June 11, 2013. "The security forces were hunting people down. Media personnel are targeted twice over. By demonstrators who think they are siding with the government and not covering events properly. And by the security forces, who deliberately fire at us."
On the evening of June 15th, protests that had rocked Istanbul for the past three weeks came to a tipping point. Police swarmed Gezi Park, the epicentre of Turkey's recent anti-government demonstrations, and unleashed a wave of violence and arbitrary arrests on protesters and journalists alike. According to eyewitnesses, protesters were mercilessly beaten and gassed, including in the hotels where they took refuge, while journalists were targeted by police with beatings, detainments and arrests.
This, unfortunately, is the norm in Turkey. After clearing out Taksim Square on June 11, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan then made good on his promise to clear out Gezi Park. Since demonstrations began in May, Turkey's fledgling democracy has been shaken to its core. Over the past decade, Turkey has made astonishing economic and political progress, but recently progress has stalled on the political front. And while Gezi Park might have caught much of the world off-guard, the protests embody the political inertia of Turkey's past, as civil society has come head-on with the AKP's stalling democratization process. One glaring example is the repression of the media.
Before the Gezi Park protests, Turkey's record on press freedom was already troubling. The country is the world's largest prison for journalists, with 65 media personnel behind bars including at least 33 held in connection with their reporting. The majority of these journalists come from the Kurdish media, who have come under pressure for their critical stance on the minority's treatment within Turkey. More so, Erdogan has been quick to lash out at the non-Kurdish media when they've challenged the government. Take the cases of columnist and television host, Nuray Mert, and columnist Hasan Cemal, both of whom lost their positions through alleged government pressure after covering politically sensitive stories related to the Kurdish minority.
Fastforward to today and press freedom in Turkey has taken an even sharper turn. While many Turkish media outlets chose not to cover the protests during the first couple of days of unrest, those that did have come under harsh government scrutiny. Halk TV, Ulusal Kanal, Cem TV and EM TV have all received stiff fines from Turkey's broadcast media regulator, accusing them of "harming the physical, moral and mental development of children and youths" for airing footage of the clashes.
The crackdown continued on the night of June 4, as 34 young Twitter users were arrested in city of Izmir on charges of "incitement to commit a crime" and "incitement to disobey the law." However, most of the tweets were merely the phone numbers of doctors and lawyers ready to provide assistance to demonstrators in distress.
Meanwhile, at least five people have been killed and more than 5,000 injured in the nationwide unrest. The violence has not been confined to protesters either. At least three journalists were injured during the clashes on June 11. Following the crackdown on June 15, this trend of violence was ramped up, with at least eight journalists having been briefly arrested, while countless others attacked and forced to delete their footage.
More so, this crackdown has not been limited to Turkish journalists. French journalism student, Lorraine Klein, was violently arrested on June 4, while trying to cover the protests. She was later released on June 8, but not before being threatened with deportation. Similarly, two Canadian journalists, Sasa Petricic and Derek Stoffel, were held for an entire day after being arrested on June 11. Russian journalist, Arkady Babchenko, who was violently arrested on June 14, now has difficulty walking because of repeated blows to his legs from police. Finally, Italian photographer Daniele Stefanini was held for more than a day after being arrested and beaten up by police officers on June 16.
In many ways, Gezi Park has revealed that as much as things have changed under Erdogan, the more they have remained the same. Journalists and civil society members who criticize the government are criminalized and the use of force is still a key component of the state's repertoire.
However, the biggest test for Turkey's democratization process is how the AKP will address the Kurdish question in the aftermath of the protests. Kurdish unrest, the judicial-reform process, the drafting of a new constitution -- these are all issues that have a profound effect on the openness of the country and its future stability. Now, to its credit, the AKP has been fairly successful in its negotiations, resulting in PKK fighters departing from Turkish soil pending a broader amnesty agreement. But much can still go wrong in this fraught political process.
This is where the issue of press freedom and the Kurdish question converge. Addressing Turkey's press freedom deficit is critical for ending the country's three decade-long conflict with the PKK. In order for the current negotiations to succeed, Turkey must make space for the country's Kurdish minority to express its grievances fully and publicly. As PKK armed units are withdrawing from Turkey, the Kurdish movement is expecting the government to respond with "confidence building measures" or in other words -- freedom of expression, freedom to assemble and demonstrate, and ending long and arbitrary detentions.
A Cornerstone of these measures is the long overdue reform of the country's anti-terror law. Specifically, its overbroad definition of "terrorism," which has made it the main tool to crack down on dissent. Most of the journalists currently held in Turkey's prisons are charged on the basis of this law, but over twenty articles of the Turkish Penal Code will also have to be reformed before freedom of information can be considered truly guaranteed. Given recent events, it is safe to say that the AKP is not on a path to carrying out the necessary reforms for an inclusive and open Turkey.
Gezi Park is an unprecedented challenge for the AKP government and it will no doubt have immense reverberations in Turkey's social and political future. On June 18, Prime Minister Erdogan, while announcing an increased police presence in the country, attributed Gezi Park to a massive conspiracy, saying that "internal traitors and external collaborators" were behind the protests.
This shows how little Erdogan has learned from the social changes taking place within his country. Building peace with the PKK and the Kurdish minority is tightly linked to wider democratic progress in Turkey. Given that Erdogan is still using the old pattern of "us" versus "them" to refer to liberals, what are the Kurds to expect when disagreement eventually arises with the government?
If Gezi Park wasn't a wake up call that the old pattern of a military state with a controlled democracy is no longer wanted, it's hard to imagine what can cause Erdogan to arise. The old ways die hard in Turkey, indeed.
Special thanks to Reid Standish