Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Turkey’

Turkey’s Most Important Election

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th June, 2015

imageimageTurks are going to the polls today in what are probably the most important parliamentary elections the country has seen in a generation. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while not a candidate himself, is hoping his AKParty will obtain a two- thirds majority, which would enable a constitutional change bringing in a powerful executive presidency, in which he would have sweeping new powers. Given the way Mr Erdoğan has already exceeded normal authority, first during his decade as Prime Minister and lately as President, this possibility is viewed by most foreign onservers, including friends of Turkey such as myself, with alarm. Curbs on political dissent, reduced media freedom and the flagrant misuse of courts to harass or punish the president’s critics have grown exponentially. Mr Erdoğan still enjoys a lot of support, notably from the rural poor, as he has presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth, though some of the new infrastructure projects (including his enormous new presidential palace) are grotesquely grandiose. The problem is that the main opposition party has been unable to offer a leader or a package of policies that offer a persuasive alternative. Instead, oddly, the best hope for a brake on Mr Erdoğan’s ambitions comes from the predominantly Kurdish HDP and its attractive leader, Selahattin Demirtas. It is touch and go whether the HDP will manage to cross the 10% threshold now needed to win representation in the Turkish parliament, but many Turkish liberals will be voting HDP in the hope that they do. Otherwise I fear Mr Erdoğan will get his mandate as Turkey’s Sultan, ever more remote from reality and European political norms.

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Media and Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th May, 2015

imageBefore leaving London for Lisbon, I was one of two guest speakers (alongside my friend and colleague Lawrence Joffe) at a seminar on media and democracy at the House of Commons for visiting students from Turkey. I argued that without a free and diverse media than can be no true democracy; hardly original, I know, but particularly important in the context of modern Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is overseeing an assault on much of the Press — not just the Zaman media group affiliated to s ears thine friends but now major critics, the Gulen MovemeNt but really any last form that dares to challenge the orthodoxy that what the President does is right. In a few days time, Turkey will go to the polls, and although it is expected that the AKP will fall back a little it’s support is still strong in the rural areas especially, where people’s main source of information is the staterun television! which gives an un realistically rosy picture of events (as was shown graphically in its non-coverage of the Gezi Park protests a while back). Turning to the recent UK election I said that TV leaders debates are here to stay, and even if some of the content was superficial the fact that so many people watch them underlines their significance. Of particular relevance for an audience of school pupils, however, was the role of social media which, I maintained, offer people a way of engaging with politicians and holding them to account. Certainly no politician worth his or her salt can afford to ignore them.

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An Historic Moment for the Kurds?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th February, 2015

Thousands of Kurds from across Europe gathered in Strasbourg this afternoon for a rally by the city’s stadium. As one of their foreign guests I gave the following short speech in English, simultaneously translated into Kurdish:

image We are gathered here under the Strasbourg sun at what I believe may be an historic moment in the long struggle for Kurdish cultural and political rights in Turkey. Yesterday, a petition with more than 10 million signatures, calling for the release from prison of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, was delivered to the Council of Europe in this city. It was a remarkable tribute to the determination of the Kurds and to the growing solidarity from people across Europe.
Tomorrow, 15 February, in Ankara, the HDP and AKP are due to publish the framework of an agreement for a settlement of the Kurdish question and to declare their intention to move towards making Turkey a genuinely democratic republic, with a new constitution. If this does indeed happen it will mark a giant stride forward.
Of course, we cannot take success for granted. There have been so many disappointments as well as hopes regarding Kurdish rights. At times it has seemed that the government in Ankara was taking one step forward and then one step back. But an agreement is possible, with sufficient good faith on all sides.
I know that from the experience of my own country, Britain, where decades of
political strife and violence in Northern Ireland were largely laid to rest by the courageous Good Friday Agreement, which integrated the IRA and its political arm Sinn Fein into the mainstream, with an agreed ceasefire, power-sharing and the release from prison of militants. So it can be done.
Finally, I would like to send two messages to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Firstly, Mr President, please carry forward measures to ensure that Turkey’s Kurds enjoy full cultural and political rights in the future. And secondly, Mr President, please release Abdullah Ocalan so that he can sit at the negotiating table with all the dignity of a free man.

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Kurds Petition for Abdullah Ocalan’s Release

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th February, 2015

imageKurds from all over Europe — including many who had matched long distances — converged in Strasbourg today to mark the handover to the Council of Europe of a petition signed by more than 10 million people calling for the release of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the banned PKK, who has been in prison on an island in Turkey since his capture and rendition by the CIA in Kenya. The PKK figures on the list of terrorist organisations in several European countries, but many Kurds believe that is unjust. Though there was a bloody war between Kurdish militants and the Turkish security forces for decades, the AK Party government that has been in power in Ankara for over a decade has conducted a stop-start peace process with the Kurds, granting certain cultural rights after long years of oppression. But some of the international speakers who were present at a press conference this morning to highlight the petition handover argue that just as the release of Nelson Mandela was an essential element in the move towards reconciliation and more racial justice in South Africa so the release of Abdullah Ocalan is a prerequisite to a permanent settlement of Turkey’s question. It was pointed out that PKK fighters fought alongside Peshmerga forces in liberating the town of Kobane in the Kurdish area of Syria recently, scoring an important victory over Islamic State, which maybe might help a review of how the PKK is viewed. As someone who lived through the years in Britain when IRA bombs were a feature I know how important it was for the British and Irish governments to talk to former terrorists in order to make the Good Friday Agreement a reality. As has often been said, one does not make peace with one’s friends. And if there is going to be a Kurdish settlement in Turkey it seems crucial to me that Abdullah Ocalan should be a full party to the negotiations, however difficult some Turks might find that to stomach.

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Turkey: Drifting away from Europe?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th December, 2014

imageSince the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the country has tended to look westwards to Europe. That was certainly the intention of Kemal Ataturk, who believed that Ottoman traditions and Islamic religiosity were impediments to progress. So it was no surprising that Turkey applied to join the European Union; in principle there should not have been any problem, when one considers how far into South Eastern Abd Eastern Europe the Ottomans stretched. Besides, Turkey was an early and valued member of NATO. But the passage to EU membership has not been as smooth. Some current EU member states were worried about Turkey’s relative poverty and large population. The former has been changing fast; the latter continues to increase. But then it became clear that some EU states were reluctant in principle, Germany largely for reasons of labour migration, Austria, more controversially, because Vienna sees the EU as an essentially Christian club. But Turkey continued to adjust its nature to meet EU demands, not just on economic and trade matters but also relating to multi-party democracy, abolition of the death penalty, respect for human rights, etc. So far, so good. But over the past decade, Turks have understandably got fed up of being on the EU’s waiting room and wonder whether it’s all worthwhile. Technically, the government in Ankara still thinks so. But at the same time, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly paternalistic rule, Turkey has started to drift away from a European destiny, apparently feeling more comfortable in a Middle Eastern context. Worryingly, the government has been cracking down on expressions of political dissent and press freedom — both essential elements of the European matrix. As a regular visitor to Turkey, I am aware how the atmosphere is changing, and not necessarily for the better. President Erdoğan is increasingly establishing himself as the moral arbiter of the country, and when I was in Istanbul earlier this week I met several people who are nervous about expressing their views. I cannot escape the impression that Turkey is drifting away not just from the EU, but also from European, liberal and secular values. I find that very sad, but only Turks can realistically do anything about it.

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Abdullah Gul in London

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th November, 2014

Abdullah GulI was pleased last night to return from the ALDE Congress in Lisbon in time to attend the launch of Gerald MacLean’s new book, Abdullah Gul and the Making of the New Turkey*, at the Turkish Embassy. A particular draw was the subject himself, who was in London on what he said was his first foreign trip since ending his term as Turkey’s President. Gerald said in his own remarks that the volume is not hagiography, though there was a degree of cooperation with Mr Gul, his wife, friends and family. I shall reserve judgement until I am able to read it. Also present last night was Jack Straw, who said that he and his wife had forged a close friendship with the Guls while he was Foreign Secretary. Mr Straw lamented the fact that Turkey had effectively been kept out of EU membership by the strong opposition from states such as Austria, though many of us who follow Turkish affairs closely feel that in fact Ankara has recently been drifting further away from rather than nearer that objective. Mr Gul himself was in nostalgic mood, recalling his own university studies in Britain (at Exeter University). As he has been Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and President of Turkey I guess the next stage would be some international role. He could of course write his memoirs, but he might feel Gerald MacLean has stolen his thunder on that.

* OneWorld, £35

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Censorship by Satellite Jamming

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th March, 2014

MEMOsatellite jammingYesterday I attended a seminar organised by Middle East Monitor on satellite jamming — the how and the why and some thoughts about how to overcome it. The day was particularly focused on Egypt and how both Hosni Mubarak and the current interim regime in Cairo have used jamming (directly or by proxy) to stifle TV channels of which they don’t approve, thereby adding another layer of censorship and the stifling of free expression on top of station closures, the arrest of journalists (such as those from Al Jazeera), and so on. I chaired the afternoon session that looked at issues of International Law, in which the Iraqi President of the Arab Lawyers Association UK, Sabah al-Mukhtar, gave an excellent presentation outlining the challenges involved. In my own remarks I said that maybe Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights needs finessing, as new technologies of which people in 1948 could not even have dreamt have totally changed the nature of media, not least twitter, YouTube,etc (hence the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to shut them down). Perhaps what is needed is an elaboration of the concept of free expression to take into account access to information as a fundamental human right. That would give a solid basis on which an area of International Law could evolve; at present, only such precise things as genocide and war crimes can be the basis of international tribunals. Of course International Law develops slowly and different parts of the world have different domestic legal systems, but it should be possible to develop a plausible ad effective framework in which governments or leaders who censor media through deliberate jamming or in other ways could be held accountable.

Link: http://www.middleeastmonitor.com

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Newroz in Finsbury Park

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd March, 2014

Newroz Finsbury ParkThis afternoon I stood in bright sunshine on a stage in London’s Finsbury Park, speaking to a crowd of several thousand Kurds, to mark the festival of Newroz. In traditional Kurdish villages, people would jump over a fire at Newroz, but as I said in my speech, although there was no fire in front of me I could feel the fire in the people before me. They are right to be proud of their long history, culture and language, and to struggle for greater rights in the Middle East. In recent years I have been to Amed (Diyarbakir) and surrounding districts in predominantly Kurdiah areas of south-eastern Turkey, monitoring elections, though I won’t be able to go to cover the local elections in Turkey next month as I’m staying in London to campaign for the European elections. I said to the crowd it is important that they — if they have British or other European Union passports — vote on 22 May for a party that supports the rights of minority peoples and is committed to Britain remaining in the EU, or otherwise urge their neighbours and friends to do so. Apart from Sarah Ludford MEP (who also has a longstanding interest in Kurdish issues) and myself, on the LibDem list for London we also have a Turkish Kurd, Turhan Ozen. The situation in Turkey is frustrating in that Recep Tayyip Erdogan made some significant moves towards recognising Kurdish rights but like so much of his policy, this has often been a situation of one step forward, one step back. In Syrian Rojava the situation is critical for many Kurds and in Iran several Kurdish leaders have recently been executed or harassed. Only in the Kurdish region of Iraq (KRG) — which I visited this time last year — is the situation markedly better. So Kurds have a lot to struggle for. But as I concluded in my short speech, today is a day for celebration. Newroz Piroj Be!

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Has Erdogan Finally Lost the Plot?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th March, 2014

Erdogan twitterThis evening the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan closed down twitter in his country, having previously warned he might do so. As a longstanding friend of Turkey I tear my hair out. There’s a saying in Britain that politicians go off the boil after 10 years (think Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair) and Erdogan has gone off big time. When he was first elected he and his moderately Islamist AKP seemed destined to lead Turkey through to a bright new future, unworried by the sort of military coups that have peppered the country’s political history. And indeed the government pushed through many remarkable achievements in infrastructure and economic development (sometimes without taking the environment into due consideration). Huge swaths of the economy were privatised and per capita GDP levels rose at a rate that suggested Turkey might indeed be capable of meeting the criteria to join the European Union in the foreseeable future. Sure, there were some warning signs, such as the on/off nature of the PM’s reaching out to the Kurds — one step forward, one step back. And while some people in the media might have been involved at some stage in some shady business did not justify a situation in which there are more journalists in prison in Turkey than in any country in the world. Then with the Gezi Park protests last year the wheels really started to come off the AKP bandwagon. What started as a grassroots campaign to preserve one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul quickly turned into something much broader — not least when the police and security forces cracked down brutally. The protests have not completely gone away, but Erdogan meanwhile has been inflating conspiracy theories: declaring that outside forces (including the foreign media) have been fomenting dissent and that certain groups, including his erstwhile ally, the Gulen Movement, are out to bring him down. Thus the banning of twitter — which had become for him an agent of the great conspiracy — had to be silenced, despite the fact that it has been one of the most faithful, consistent and up-to-the-minute channels for ordinary Turks to voice their opinion. Like an ancient Roman Emperor, Erdogan has chosen to kill the messenger, rather than listen to the message. Will the voters forgive him when the local elections come round shortly? He certainly still has a formidable body ofsupport, especially in conservative rural areas, though nowhere near the approximately 50% he garnered for his third general election win. No, this silencing of twitter smacks of the acts of a desperate man who has lost touch with reality. His days must surely be numbered, but don’t ask me to guess how many.

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Press Freedom in Turkey

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th February, 2014

Yavuz BaydarWilliam HorselyLike many longstanding friends of Turkey I have been dismayed by some of the developments in recent months, several of which seem retrogressive rather than progressive. The way the Gezi Park protests were handled by the police and security forces — water cannon to the fore — was cack-handed and the fact that most of the mainstream media in Turkey –not least the TV — ignored them at first was a worrying indication of the way that self-censorship in the country is now rife. Moreover, scores of journalists have found themselves sacked, imprisoned or with the threat of prosecution hanging over them, which has resulted in Turkey now figuring way down the list of states in the world when it comes to freedom of the Press. So it was timely that this evening the Zaman newspaper group organised a meeting on Press Freedom in Turkey in the House of Commons, which I chaired. The parliamentary sponsor was Simon Hughes MP, recently appointed as Justice Minister in the UK’s Coalition Government and therefore in a position to make important representations on an international level, though as I pointed out one of the most disconcerting things about the current situation is the way that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised the spectre of foreign plots and conspiracies, which is a narrative that resonates with his supporters when they reject criticisms from abroad. The main speakers at tonight’s meeting were the Turkish journalist and blogger Yavuz Baydar — who was sacked from his position Ombudsman on the newspaper Sabah for political reasons — and William Horsley, formerly Europe Correspondent of the BBC, currently Chairman of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) UK Section and a key player in freedom of press issues at the Council of Europe and elsewhere. All of us were distinctly downbeat in our analysis of the current situation, which is made more complex by the fact that Mr Erdogan is under heavy scrutiny because of allegations of corruption based largely on recordings which he declares are fakes. There is a common argument that maybe he has suffered from the Ten Year Test (a la Thatcher and Blair), but as I pointed out there will be a real power vacuum in Ankara if he falls or the AKP does really badly in upcoming elections, as no opposition party seems ready and able to seize the moment. I still love Turkey, but I worry increasingly for its short-term future, as the Prime Minister and his administration become more authoritarian and ever more removed from common European values.

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