Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Turkey exploiting the international community in order to suppress dissent?

Is Turkey exploiting the international community in order to suppress dissent?


According to Turkish journalist Uzay Bulut, Erdogan throws around charges of being a Gulenist or associated with Jews or a member of a terror group in the framework of spreading “conspiracy theories” against his opponents.  According to Turkish journalist Rafael Sadi, “Erdogan’s government is very scared and is looking everywhere for Gulenists.  They are suspicious of everyone.  No one feels free to talk or write.”  In fact, according to recent reports, Erdogan has even gone to the level of exploiting the international community in order to suppress dissent.   

For example, Akgun Bilgin, an advisor of the Turkish government, told Foreign Policy Blogs in an exclusive interview that a Turkish court sentenced UN Judge Ayden Sefa Akay to 7.5 years in prison for being a Gulenist in 2017.  He was subsequently released but barred from traveling abroad.   According to an interview Foreign Policy Blogs conducted with Turkish journalist Yavuz Ultin, he was released after serving 7 months in prison.  At the time, Bilgin claimed that Akay said that because he was a UN judge at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, he had diplomatic immunity and his arrest by a Turkish court violated international law.  

Following that, Bilgin noted that Turkey filed a criminal complaint to the ICC about Akay’s immunity.  After that, he noted that the representatives of 101 countries voted to dismiss Akay due to his trial.  Bilgin added that now since his diplomatic immunity has been removed, Akay will be jailed again to serve his sentence if the matter is approved by Turkey’s Supreme Court.  However, some members of the international community were greatly disturbed by this.   According to Time Magazine, Judge Christoph Flügge recently resigned from his position in protest over the fact that Turkey used its veto in order to end the tenure of Akay, who was likely innocent of the charges brought against him. 

Bulut told Foreign Policy Blogs that Akay says that he is a member of a Freemason lodge but was never a Gulenist: “Akay denies that he or his family ever had anything to do with Gulen.”  Sadi told Foreign Policy Blogs that to be a Freemason in Turkey is not a criminal offense.  However, Bulut noted that to be a Freemason in Turkey has many negative connotations and that a Turkish Islamist website claims the following about Freemasons: “Masonry is an organization that’s mostly based on Judaism and that aims to distort national and spiritual values.” 

As Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil noted in an interview with Foreign Policy Blogs regarding Akay’s plight, “This is another case demonstrating Turkey’s widening democratic deficit.”  According to the Gatestone Institute, other incidents include the detention of Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who was described as working for the “famous Hungarian Jew George Soros,” and a lawsuit being filed against Turkish journalist Esra Solin Dal, who was charged with “doing journalism against the state” and being “a member of a terror group” merely for writing for the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya news agency.  

Nor are Akay, Dal and Kavala the only victims.  Feminist journalist Ayse Duzken was sentenced to 18 months in prison because she acted as editor-in-chief of Ozgur Gudem in an act of solidarity with the newspaper, a pro-Kurdish daily which was shut down by the government.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Erol Önderoğlu, the Turkey representative for Reporters without Borders (RSF), Şebnem Korur Fincancı, an academic and columnist for the leftist daily Evrensel, and Ahmet Nesin, a writer and columnist for the leftist news website Artı Gerçek, were also charged with participating in the campaign.  They are charged with “making propaganda for a terror organization.”  

Journalist Nedim Turfent was sentenced to 8 years and 9 months in prison for covering Turkey’s military operations against the Kurds in the south-eastern part of the country for the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency and was charged with being a “member of a terror group” merely because of his journalistic reports.   Idris Sayilgrin, a reporter for the same publication, was sentenced to 8 years and 3 months in prison on similar charges.  To date, Turkey remains the number one jailer of journalists in the world.  According to Human Rights Watch, more than 175 journalists and media workers are imprisoned in Turkey. 

Dr. Aykin Erdemir, a former MP in the Turkish Parliament who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Ahval: “Both Turkish officials and Turkey’s pro-government media have systematically propagated conspiracy theories to smear and criminalize dissident journalists, academics, and politicians in the country. The ongoing character assassination campaign is coordinated with Turkey’s highly-politicized courts, and aims at not only silencing and discrediting vocal dissidents but also intimidating the rest of the society.”

Yavuz Altun, editor of the Turkish Minute, concurred, adding in an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy Blogs: “Jailing journalists with terrorism charges has two functions: 1) Intimidating the media sphere and hence implanting Erdogan’s own narrative points about his enemies or his main agenda, 2) Devaluation of the ideas opposing him.”  He noted that over the years, more and more journalists are quitting their jobs and many other media outlets were closed down by the government.  He warned that in 10 years, there may no longer be any home for dissident media outlets in Turkey.

According to Altun, Erdogan is able to get away with suppressing dissent: “Those who are jailed unfairly or subjected to ill-treatment or government oppression apply to international institutions such as UN or ECtHR, for their rights, and as Turkey is part of several international agreements, they are entitled to do it. In Brussels, from time to time, I hear that the Turkish officials put pressure on international bodies to avoid such cases. One of the important topics in diplomats’ agenda is to remind European decision-makers of Turkey’s “concerns” about “terrorists” (Gülenists and Kurdish opposition) constantly, even if they’re untrue or baseless. And still, the Turkish government maintains good relations with the executives of the European Council. I think, Erdoğan basically knows that such behavior costs him very little in diplomacy because the Western countries need Erdoğan (or Turkey) more than he needs them.”

Erdemir concurred, proclaiming that Erdogan utilizes the UN in order to further suppress dissent: “In June 2016, 230 NGOs from around the world penned an open letter to ECOSOC to criticize the politicization of the work of the United Nations’ Committee on NGOs. Over the years, Turkey has received criticism for its use of procedural tactics to block the granting of consultative status to NGOs as well as the withdrawal of that status as a form of reprisal. Both the United States and the European Union have expressed their concern for the number of deferred applicants and called for an end to arbitrary questioning of NGOs at the committee. In February 2018, the Geneva-based human rights group UN Watch has condemned the election of Turkey as the vice chair of the committee that accredits and oversees the work of human rights groups at the world body.”

In conclusion, Altun proclaimed: “Jailing journalists and other dissidents has no real cost for Erdoğan in his business with the Western countries. A European Parliament member told me that European leaders want to work with him, unless a better alternative arises. Therefore, as long as he clings to power inside Turkey, namely as long as he convinces the majority inside the country, nothing can really harm him.” He claimed that journalists especially are easy targets because the Turkish public cares very little about the function of the media in society.  For this reason, Altun noted that Erdogan can get away with accusing journalists of being a PKK supporter or Gulenist for “Erdogan’s reach to the public is far greater than any information hub.”



Rachel Avraham

Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and the editor of the Economic Peace Center, which was established by Ayoob Kara, who served as Israel's Communication, Cyber and Satellite Minister. For close to a decade, she has been an Israel-based journalist, specializing in radical Islam, abuses of human rights and minority rights, counter-terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iran, and other issues of importance. Avraham is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media," a ground-breaking book endorsed by Former Israel Consul General Yitzchak Ben Gad and Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara that discusses how the media exploits the life stories of Palestinian female terrorists in order to justify wanton acts of violence. Avraham has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She received her BA in Government and Politics with minors in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.