Retrograde steps for democracy in Turkey
Trials have begun of those said to have been directly involved in coup against Erdogan’s regime and of prominent journalists
More than a year after the attempted military coup against Turkey’s government, trials have begun of 486 of those said to have been directly involved and against prominent journalists accused of collusion. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the failed coup attempt as an excuse to jail over 50,000 people and has overseen the dismissal of more than 110,000 from government and public services suspected of supporting or sympathising with it. He made the coup a central case in winning a referendum on presidential rule which consolidates a decisive shift towards authoritarianism.
This was a real effort to overthrow the Turkish government in which 249 people and 30 coup participants died. The military group on trial is mainly from the Akinki Air Force base near Ankara accused of bombing key government buildings. Erdogan acted pre-emptively to head off the coup by rallying thousands of his supporters on to the streets, ensuring it rapidly lost momentum. His government says those accused were adherents of the reformist Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, also one of the accused, in whose name it was launched and whose followers penetrated the civil service and key professions in pursuit of influence. That also provides the government’s justification for the mass jailings and sackings often on the flimsiest evidence of any responsibility for the coup and by labelling those involved terrorists.
These retrograde trends for democracy and the rule of law in Turkey are most plainly seen in the trial of journalists, executives and lawyers which opened alongside the military ones. The accused are from the authoritative and secular opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, for its alleged association with the Gulenists and the Kurdish PKK in its news and editorial coverage, despite repeated condemnations of both in its pages. The court proceedings saw former editors and correspondents reject the allegations and affirm their professional commitment to independent news coverage and commentary.
Symptomatically their trial has received minimal coverage in a media now much more subject to government control and fearing for their survival after up to 170 outlets were closed down in the last year. Eight hundred journalists have been prevented from working or travelling abroad under the state of emergency, according to opposition statistics. Erdogan, ever sensitive to criticism, disputes the figures, saying all media personnel affected are terrorists or criminals.
Turkey’s journey towards a more authoritarian and intolerant future is strongly contested by many of its citizens, who ensured Erdogan won the constitutional referendum by only a slender majority. His chosen path puts him squarely at odds with Germany and the European Union on potential Turkish membership and the agreement on migrants and refugees.