It’s Not a Conspiracy – We just don’t like Turkey

‘Turkish shepherd shot dead by Armenian border guards.’ It was a small headline on a 100-word item in our local English language Turkish newspaper. Apparently the shepherd, 35 year-old Mustafa Ülker, had gone looking for a ewe that had wandered across the border in search of a quiet place to give birth. Armenian authorities notified their Turkish counterparts and handed over Mustafa’s body. It took a few days for the news to get out. It’s a long way from the restaurants and bars of Taksim and Cihangir to Turkey’s eastern frontier. Still, the guy was in the wrong, no doubt about that. You can’t just stroll into a foreign country, lost sheep or no lost sheep.
Turkish shepherd shot while invading Armenia
I was interested to see if anyone else had picked up the story, so I googled it. I checked three or four pages and couldn’t find a mention in any international news media – except for the Armenpress’. In that English language site I found a lengthy piece by an Armenian ex-pat living in California, Harut Hassounian.
According to that gentleman’s account, twoTurks had crossed from the Turkish side into Armenia and mocked the Russian border guards who ordered them back. The Turks ignored two warning shots fired into the air and one of them allegedly opened fire on the soldiers, whereupon the Russians shot one of the intruders. Hassounian then launched into a tirade about how the ‘fascist’ Turkish government was seeking to exaggerate this incident in order to draw attention away from its serious and well-publicised internal and external difficulties, which he itemised in some detail.
Well, who am I to enter into a debate on the issue? Clearly there are two sides to the story, and we will probably never know the truth. However, I will make an observation or two. First, as far as I know, the Turkish government has not made a big issue of the killing, and Turkish news media have pretty much ignored it. Second, I’m interested to learn that Russian soldiers are patrolling the border between Armenia and Turkey, but I don’t think it absolves Armenia from responsibility for such incidents, merely because they have delegated the duty to a foreign power. Third, it’s hard to imagine a Turkish country bumpkin, or even a couple of them, defying armed border guards who would, we must assume, have been wearing military uniforms. Does this version ring true to you?
I couldn’t help wondering whether ‘the world’ might have taken more notice if the headline had read ‘Armenian shepherd shot dead by Turkish border guards,’ but I’m not going to speculate further on that. The sad thing is, however, that Western media all too often accept and disseminate an anti-Turkish view of events without considering that there might be an alternative position. Let’s be charitable, for the moment, and call it laziness. One of Mr Hassounian’s criticisms was The Turkish Prime Minister’s threatened lawsuit against The (London) Times for publishing a full-page paid letter, signed by dozens of prominent Western intellectuals and artists, which would more widely expose his intimidating tactics.’
Well, at least he acknowledged that the ‘intellectuals and artists’ had paid for the page, or  someone had. I can’t speak about the legal position, but it does suggest questionable editorial judgment for a reputable major newspaper to allow private citizens to buy a page for the purposes of slagging off the leader of another country, especially an important and long-standing loyal ally. Most of the famous signatories seemed to be film stars or directors, which may or may not qualify them to be recognised as ‘intellectuals and artists’ – but even if it does, it’s another jump to give serious credence to their opinions on international affairs.
Much was made, internally and abroad, of the presence of actors and other ‘artists’ among the protesters in Turkey’s recent anti-government street demonstrations. Apart from attracting media attention, I’m not convinced that their participation added anything of substance to the rallies. About as much, probably, as the fans of Istanbul’s three major football clubs who laid aside their differences during the summer break to unite in comradely çapulcu[1]action.
It is interesting, however, that just last week, after a lengthy investigation, police drug squads raided residential premises in several Turkish cities, and took in a number of well-known actors and directors for questioning. Not surprisingly, there have been accusations that the government was seeking revenge against activists, invading the privacy of citizens, and damaging the reputation of those apprehended. The implication seemed to be that the bust was a set-up by police acting on government instructions. I suspect the courts will take some convincing, given that 115 cannabis plants were discovered, as well as high amounts of ecstasy, marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, measurement devices and cash’ in the Cihangir apartment owned by one of the actors.
Whatever the outcome, it gives some indication of the freedoms and rights some ‘intellectuals and artists’ include in their understanding of democracy, and highlights the contrast between their lives and that of the shepherd out east who would have been happy just to take his lost sheep back home without being shot to death.
What worries me is that this tiny minority of privileged people tweet and twitter their narrow picture of what is going on in Turkey, and foreign media swallow it and repeat it as though it is a fair representation of on-the-ground reality. Just this week, a Turkish court finally reached a verdict on the long-running Ergenekon case, handing down lengthy prison sentences to top military brass hats and an odd collection of academics, writers, journalists, lawyers, known gangsters and extreme left wing activists. Justice has taken its course and we can no longer speak of an alleged conspiracy. Mountains of evidence have been presented and sifted; teams of lawyers have tried every trick in their book to discredit the prosecution and the government, and stretch out proceedings with delaying tactics and unsuccessful appeals to the European Commission on Human Rights; mainstream media and the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) have done their best to undermine the legal proceedings and sell the line that this too was a government-sponsored attempt to get rid of rivals and exact revenge for previous grudges. Despite all that, the court deemed at last that the majority of the accused were in fact involved in ‘a clandestine and terrorist gang guilty of attempting to overthrow the government,’ and sentences reflected the gravity of the crime.
Once again I went a-googling. I was keen to see how the international press viewed an event which one might think had fairly major significance for the future of democracy in a troubled part of the world. In fact, there was surprisingly little to be found. Even the New York Times, normally a rich source of comment on affairs in Turkey, seemed unsure what to make of the trial and its aftermath. I turned up only one article on its website, relegated to minor importance behind the ‘election’ of a new president in Iran and the discovery of a 15-tonne ‘fatberg’ in the sewers of London.
Apparently it took three writers to pen this particular piece, only one of whom was actually in Turkey, and she in the city of Izmir, a hotbed of anti-government fervour a good 7-hour drive from Istanbul. Most of the article focused on the deep divisions within Turkish society between Islamists and secularists’ and quoted a defence lawyer accusing the government of ‘silencing opposition and intimidating patriotic people with secular principles’. Readers were told that ‘Nearly half of the country did not vote for Prime Minister Erdoğan’ but not what percentage of US voters did not vote for President Obama. The article concludes with a reference to ‘Turkey’s poor record on media freedom’, quoting the French organisation Reporters Without Borders, which ‘ranked Turkey 154th of 179 countries, behind Iraq and Russia, in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index’.
My own country, New Zealand, did marginally better. The TVNZ website I use to keep up with events back home also turned up only one article on the trial, but at least managed to summarise the case and report the outcome with more objectivity and without the outrageous innuendo of the NY Timespiece.
Elsewhere, I read that the European Union Commissioner Stefan Füle had expressed concerns about ‘how the trial was conducted’. In particular, he was worried about the rights of defendants, lengthy pre-trial detention, and the nature of the indictments. He seemed unsure about ‘compliance with EU standards’ and pointed out, perhaps unnecessarily, that ‘a fair independent and accountable judicial system is a key pillar of any mature and functioning democracy.’
Well, I won’t say I was shocked, because nothing much can surprise me about how Western media portray Turkey. Disappointment might be a better word to describe my feelings. One of the major sticking points, as far as I am aware, to Turkey’s acceptance into the European Union, for example, has been the country’s record of human rights abuses. Undoubtedly there is some truth in such accusations, but surely it must be obvious that most of the torture and disappearances occurred in the lead up to, or aftermath of military coups that took place on a regular basis from 1960 into the 1990s. That the AK Party government of Tayyip Erdoğan has finally managed to pull the teeth of armed forces commanders who considered themselves constitutionally above the elected politicians should surely be a cause for congratulations by true lovers of democracy everywhere.
The congratulations have been muted, to say the least. The Turkish Prime Minister and other spokesmen have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the military action that deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July. Their lonely and principled stance has been criticised on two counts. First, we would expect them to oppose what happened in Egypt because they are scared of the same thing happening at home. What? They should hypocritically support an action in Egypt that has been the subject of criminal prosecution in their own country? And at the same time lend moral credibility to those anti-government forces in Turkey who wish to overthrow the elected government? Second, there is the realpolitik argument thrown at them by all the governments (from Saudi Arabia to the USA) that have chosen to ignore what happened in Cairo and recognise the new regime: what’s done is done. Swallow the reality and get on with business as usual.
One might have more sympathy for the realpolitikargument if the United States, for example, didn’t have a history of interfering in the affairs of sovereign states and deposing leaders considered unsympathetic to US interests. Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq but the US wanted him out. Egypt’s Mubarak was a military dictator with a 29-year record of oppressing his people, but he supported the US and Israel. Morsi, on the other hand, was an unknown factor who may have been more responsive to the will of the Egyptian electorate. Maybe we didn’t help to get rid of him, but we’re not sad to see him gone. Turkey should shut up and fall into line with the rest of us. Am I overstating the case?
As for the European Union, the contrast between words and action is perhaps more obvious in that that august body is more prone to occupying the moral high ground than their more pragmatic trans-Atlantic partner. As a Turkish correspondent observed, ‘The problem . . . emanates from the fact that the EU tries hard to position itself as a “normative power” that puts special emphasis on democracy, human rights, and freedom more than any other actor in the world. This discrepancy between principles and actions [in the case of Egypt] is a tragedy deserving of a global audience.’
Another criticism I am reading of the Ergenekoncourt case in Turkey is the harshness of the sentences handed down. Certainly it has come as a shock to most in this country to see the former supreme head of the Turkish Armed Forces sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Well, maybe there was a plot, say some, but in the end, those guys didn’t actually do anything, did they? To which there is a very clear response. They didn’t achieve their aim because they were found out before they could put it into action. If they had been successful, they would have been the new leaders of Turkey, and God help the elected politicians they had deposed. The crime is the plot, and it is only a crime if you are unsuccessful – otherwise you legitimise your own actions retrospectively, as in Egypt.
As a comparison, I am waiting to see what happens to Private Bradley Manning who was 22 years old when he is alleged to have supplied the Wikileaks website with material seriously embarrassing to the government and military command of the USA[2]. Last I heard, the charges against Manning could have him put away for 90 years – for telling the truth and making available information that many would argue the American public had a right to know. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (who is not even a US citizen) have been forced to seek asylum in foreign states to escape the long arm of American democracy.
The NY Times article quoted above refers to Turkey’s ranking of 154 out of 179 countries for press freedom according to that Paris-based organisation Reporters Without Borders, I gather, because of the number of ‘journalists’ in custody in this country. I have to tell you I find that ranking beyond laughable, and I’ll tell you why. I read at least one Turkish newspaper every day, and I find no shortage of criticism of the government within their pages. It’s fairly clear that you have to do more than merely express disapproval or contrary opinions to get yourself locked up. At least six of those ‘journalists’ have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment for their involvement in the Ergenekon conspiracy. If the US legal system can put away a young naïve gay computer nerd like Private Manning for 90 years, I can’t imagine what they would do to a gang of 5-star generals, university professors, mafia bosses, lawyers and communists who were caught planning to depose the president by force of arms.
And take a close look at that list of countries prepared by those borderless reporters. Turkey’s ranking of 154 places them behind such paragons of democracy as Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Maldive Islands, whose courts can order women flogged for having sex outside of marriage, comes in at 103rd, while Armenia, whose Russian border guards shoot wandering Turkish shepherds on sight, ranks an impressive 74th.
I’m not saying that Turkey has surmounted its final hurdle on the path to true democracy – but if RWB had placed them a little closer to the US ranking of 32nd, it might have been a fairer reflection of comparative press freedom. It’s not easy to define occupations like ‘writer’, ‘journalist’, ‘artist’ and ‘intellectual’. Does writing a blog and possessing a good-sized home library entitle me to claim a place in any of those categories? What about Julian Assange? I would give him a tick for at least three out of four – and I can well understand why he is not keen to be extradited to the USA for questioning. As for the US media, it’s interesting to note how outlets that were originally delighted to publish material from Wikileaks seem now to have forgotten what those leaks were about, and chosen to focus instead on Assange’s alleged sexual peccadilloes. In the United Kingdom, whose media were all too ready to criticise Turkey’s police for using excessive force on demonstrators, sectarian troubles have once again broken out in Northern Ireland, we hear, and police have had recourse to water cannon and plastic bullets.
What’s my point, you may be asking? Merely this. A government’s job is to govern – and a major part of that role is to maintain order and the rule of law. Most of us would probably agree that the job is easier when the general populace is allowed a say in who will govern them. If pressed, we might also express a feeling that freedom from outside interference will also produce better results in the long term. The Republic of Turkey is a youngish democracy that has made, and continues to make, tremendous strides on the road to economic and political freedom for its people. In the interests of natural justice, foreign critics could focus more on the progress that has been made – or failing that, work on removing the beam from their own eyes.


[1] A Turkish word used by the Prime Minister to disparage the protesters, and picked up on social media to satirise the government’s position.

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