- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2007

“We thank you for your commitment to democracy and freedom,” President Bush said to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a White House meeting nearly five years ago. It represented congratulations to Mr. Erdogan for surviving a 10-month prison term he served over a speech he had given. In two weeks, Mr. Erdogan will likely announce his presidential candidacy. His election would mark a historic change: Mr. Erdogan would become Turkey’s first Islamic president.

Whether that is a good or bad thing is a separate question. But the larger debate within the Turkish media focuses on one principle: If Turkey is really a democracy, it must accept an Erdogan presidency. So it’s worth examining his commitment to democracy.

It’s possible that Mr. Erdogan’s understanding of democracy and freedoms is flexible — adjusting to times that suit his interests. According to the State Department’s 2006 report on human-rights practices in Turkey, “Prime Minister Erdogan, through his attorneys, filed 59 cases on the grounds of defamation, of which 28 were pending at year’s end. Among the 31 cases decided, 21 ruled in favor and 10 against Mr. Erdogan.” Mr. Erdogan is the prime minister least tolerant of criticism.

In a recent interview, former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel told me, “The Turkish media in general is criticized for not being able to represent the voice of the people — especially about domestic politics… The current administration significantly influences the media. There are some complaints about that.” Mr. Demirel argued that the reason is the media owners’ stakes in other businesses. “If media owners are at the same time business leaders in other sectors, people are at the mercy of their interests to be heard. You can’t expect them to serve the people when they also have to make profits. They will have to watch their own interests.”

In the United States, media owners are not forbidden from owning other businesses, but any attempt on their part to influence government decisions faces public scrutiny — and that transparency keeps favoritism, bribery and coercion from developing. The Turkish media is just beginning to expose how media owners — like Aydin Dogan, Turgay Ciner, Dinc Bilgin and others — deal with the government.

The coverage of these disclosures and the ethics of the business people blunt, rude and muddy, but it is how the press will free itself from government suppression. They will neutralize each other. And it will happen in spite of the media owners; there is no Turkish equivalent of the late Washington Post owner Katharine Graham — willing to fight for free speech on behalf of journalists. But the change is just beginning. As Mr. Demirel said, Turkish journalism has great resources and the ability to succeed.

It’s time to fight for freedom of speech in Turkey. The State Department’s 2006 human-rights report listed the names of journalists who have battled government suppression. But one has gone underreported. Tuncay Ozkan’s Kanalturk has been under financial investigation for more than six months. Mr. Ozkan, an investigative journalist, had uncovered numerous corruption cases Mr. Erdogan faced when he was the mayor of Istanbul. Their bad blood has gone on for a decade.

Yet when I interviewed Mr. Ozkan, who is a well-known critic of administration policies, he made clear that the government is not directly pursuing the probe to curb his free speech. The problem is, even though it has found nothing illegal, the financial investigation keeps on going and there seems to be no clear purpose. He also said that people in his company have been asked to turn over their personal credit-card records. But similar pressure on journalists is not without precedent. Even in America, President Theodore Roosevelt used the FBI to investigate and tap the phones of journalists and newspaper publishers who opposed his policies. Under the current Patriot Act, no one knows for sure whether the same thing isn’t happening today.

American democracy is well established compared to Turkey’s. “If there is no free media in a country, the system of democracy cannot work,” said Mr. Demirel. “Think of the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and others in the [United States]. They are as powerful as the state.” People’s trust in the Turkish media is low, and this is a critical juncture in whether or not it will win real freedom. In that environment and in the midst of veiled calls for advertiser boycotts, Mr. Ozkan’s Kanalturk is fighting to survive and keep opposition views on air.

Mr. Erdogan knows how to speak about democracy; practicing it is a different matter. Mr. Bush should look at Mr. Erdogan’s compensation from the journalists and cartoonists who criticized him. Imagine what he could collect if the American system operated in the same way.

Incontestably, these two religious men — Mr. Bush and Mr. Erdogan — have distinct understanding about the freedom of speech that assures all other freedoms to flow in a democracy. If he becomes Turkey’s next president in a month, it is unimaginable for him to reverse his record. And one cannot stop wondering how Mr. Bush will greet him at the White House the next time.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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