Emmet Malone: why Turkey shouldn’t host a major tournament, yet

Nation which recently hosted Ireland has the infrastructure but not the political climate

Turkey is a candidate for the 2024 European Championships. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters

Turkey is a candidate for the 2024 European Championships. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters

 

It is hard even in the space of a few days not to be struck by the potential of Turkey as a host of a major football championship. The country has been passed over on three previous occasions for the European Championships and will find out later this year if it is a case of fourth time lucky. It certainly has a fair bit going for it and the commitment of the country’s authorities to the cause is abundantly clear.

Antalya, where Ireland played last week, is one of nine cities, 10 venues, pencilled in to host games as part of a bid that is competing with that safest of options, Germany. The 32,000 capacity stadium, one of more than 30 of various sizes recently completed or currently being built, is impressive in itself but the city seems ideally suited to playing a part in a big tournament.

Over the first eight months of 2017 alone, some 7.2 million foreigners holidayed there it is not hard to see why. The setting is fantastic, the infrastructure good, the hotels top class and the locals just wonderfully, wonderfully welcoming. I have limited enough first-hand experience of the country, a few days for that play-off game in Bursa nearly 20 years ago and a couple of extended stopovers in Istanbul which I have used to race into the city and see some of its most magnificent highlights, but my impression has been universally positive.

And yet it is hard to understand why the decision regarding Euro2024 even appears to be heading towards a vote. As things stand, there is surely no question that Germany has to get the event. To give it to Turkey against the background of the country’s current political climate would be outrageous.

It has, of course, been pretty routine for major championships to be given to nations where fundamental freedoms are under attack from the state (Fifa have a couple of big examples scheduled even now, as it happens) but Uefa made much when setting out its stall for the 2024 bidding process of the specific criteria relating to “the respect of human rights” that would be a major part in its considerations when the time came to choose a host and it would be quite something to ignore that now.

The guidelines, drawn up in consultation with the “Sport and Rights Alliance,” a three year old coalition of international sports federations, trade unions and NGOs were established to put precisely these sorts of issues on the agenda when the very biggest events are being organised.

They are, in turn, rooted in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document Turkey signed up to in 1948. Articles 18-21 of that document relate to “constitutional liberties,” a term that covers public and political freedoms that in turn include freedom of expression and association. Any suggestion that Turkey is currently respecting these rights would be a tough one for its bid team to stand over.

It is estimated that since the attempted coup in 2016 between 120,000 and 150,000 people have lost their jobs with some 50,000 arrested, many of whom have been subjected to pre-trial detention.

Amnesty International has criticised the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as having overseen “a massive crackdown on civil servants and civil society” while in its report for last year, the international organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) put the number of Turks who had lodged appeals again initial sanctions (loss of public sector jobs, freezing of bank accounts, confiscation of passports etc) at 102,000. Special commissions were established to hear these appeals but HRW suggests that they are essentially controlled by the same people making the original decisions and that fuller appeals seem set to take years to complete.

Not that the judicial system appears to offer much hope just now. Taking just the situation with regard to the country’s media, HRW put the number of reporters, editors, proprietors etc currently behind bars at between at 150. That number varies from time but the New York based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) recently reported that: “despite releasing some journalists in 2017, Turkey remains the world’s worst jailer for the second consecutive year”.

The Antalya Stadium. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA
The Antalya Stadium. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA

In a case heard last month, it says, “at least 22” journalists were convicted of terrorism offences with most sentenced to six or seven years in prison. When the case had originally come to court a year ago, it reports, 29 had been charged but most were released pending their trial. All of these were re-arrested the same day, most were charged with more serious offences and the three judges who had granted them bail were suspended from their positions.

The CPJ described the proceedings as “a disgrace to Turkey’s judicial system,” and called on the authorities to “stop equating journalism with terrorism.” In the meantime, Reporters Without Borders ranks it 155th of 180 countries in terms of its regard for a free press and Platform 24, an organisation established specifically, it says, to promote and independent journalism in the country says the media is under “fierce political pressure”.

Many of those arrested are accused of sympathising with former Erdogan ally, Fethullah Gulen, whose supporters are blamed for the coup. Like Hakan Sukur, the former international footballer and later MP, whose wedding he attended with the now president, the cleric now lives in exile in the US because to return home would almost certainly result in immediate and very long term incarceration.

It’s worth noting, though, that Wikipedia is entirely blocked within the country and reporters working for the foreign media have not been exempt from persecution. When Ayla Albayrak was convicted in her absence of offences relating to her work for the Wall Street Journal last year, the paper’s Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker described the prosecution as an “unfounded criminal charge and wildly inappropriate conviction that wrongly singled out a balanced Wall Street Journal report.”

Turkish football federation vice president Servet Yardimci, meanwhile, says that he hopes that the selection process for these championships will be “more transparent,” than the one for 2016 when then Uefa President Michel Platini helped deliver the event for France by a final round vote of seven to six.

It certainly should be. Platini’s successor, Aleksander Ceferin says “the protection of human rights and labour rights must be of the utmost importance to Uefa”. He needs to back that statement up now with decisive action and be seen to do so if his organization is to retain credibility on the issue.

Everyone at the FAI will have been very well looked after last week but its chief executive and Uefa ExCo member John Delaney should, whatever his difficulties down the years with various reporters, also make a public stand.

The days when lavish hospitality for the tiny electorate and spending a billion euro on stadiums can trump a nation silencing its people and media when it comes to a selection procession like this have to be behind us. Unless there is reform on a scale that is, quite simply, unimaginable during the months ahead, this should not be Turkey’s time.

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