Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

Turkey - The Kurdish problem and declining press freedom

By Firdevs Robinson. Source: Public Service Europe

As intractable conflicts go, Turkey's Kurdish problem has been a very costly one - both in human lives and the damage it has inflicted on country's political, economic and social development. More recently, with Kurdish insurgency opting for full-scale war and Turkey's leaders pledging "immense revenge" in return, this rapidly escalating crisis threatens to erode democratic gains. As well as being the most urgent and difficult issue for Turkey, the Kurdish conflict has been the biggest obstacle for further democratisation and reform. Yet, without fundamental reform, it will not go away.

If you look at periods, such as the early 2000s, when Turkey passed crucial package of reforms aimed at boosting its membership chances of joining the European Union or when it took bold steps towards settling the Cyprus issue, you will see those times coincided with lulls in fighting in the south east. Or else, they were times when the insurgency was under control and the Kurdish militant group PKK – or Kurdistan Workers' Party – was in retreat with its leader safely locked up. Turkey has made substantial progress over the past 10 years. It has become one of the world's fastest-growing economies with increased prosperity and stability at home and growing influence abroad.

But as we have seen time and time again, democracy is still fragile. As the security situation deteriorates, already inadequate checks and balances weaken. Institutions become the guardians of the state rather than the guarantor of citizen's rights. This prolonged conflict traps Turkey in militarism and both Turks and Kurds in ultra-nationalism. Violence also gives both the PKK and the state a considerable economic and social power. There are many on both sides that will lose out if and when the fighting stops. How else do you explain the Kurdish insurgents' latest attacks happening on the same day of the first meeting of the parliamentary committee negotiating changes to the constitution? Was it a coincidence that the PKK deliberately escalated the conflict, just as the debate to give Kurds their long-fought ethnic rights got underway?

This vicious cycle of mutual destruction has now reached a very dangerous stage beyond threatening freedom of speech and other basic rights. The violent attacks perpetrated by the PKK on October 19, in the south east, caused widespread anger - increasing the risk of a Turkish backlash against Kurds elsewhere in the country. If the government responds beyond legitimate security measures, further escalation of violence and deepening of Kurdish grievances become inevitable. Those of us that have always believed that the best way to solve the Kurdish conflict was to have more democracy now find it ever more difficult to argue for change. It is not easy to convince others that a consensus-based, non-discriminatory set of rules - in line with universal values and international law - would be the best way forward, while indiscriminate violence goes on; undermining the basic foundations of democracy.

The day after the series of deadly strikes near the border with Iraq, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called media managers and newspaper editors to a three-hour meeting. It was off-the-record and details of the discussion were treated as a "state secret". In a statement afterwards, Erdogan said he had asked the media to avoid extensive coverage of acts of terrorism and to refrain from using sensationalist language. Journalists had already been under pressure. Turkish reporters writing about state links to Islamist movements or the Kurdish issue or the 1915 Armenian massacres often find themselves in serious trouble. Reporters Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener have been held in prison for more than six months. They are two prominent journalists known for critical reporting on the Turkish criminal justice system and the police.

In April this year - Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, asked Turkish authorities to bring the country's media legislation in line with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe commitments on media freedoms. She wrote to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, saying that the authorities must protect objective reporting even on sensitive topics such as terrorism or national security. "The public has a right to know such issues," she said. Erdogan has an extremely poor track record in his relations with the media. The numerous lawsuits brought on by Erdogan; an against journalists and hectoring tone he takes with media professionals set the tone in the country. Also, there are always plenty of pro-government journalists to verbally attack those that do not fall in line. The result is, despite countless number of publications and media outlets, a diverse - but not necessarily pluralistic - self-censoring media. Erdogan called it "imposing self-control and adopting a national standing". I call it a worrying decline in Turkey's press freedoms.