The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Dan King is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in New York’s Adirondacks. He writes about free speech, civil liberties and LGBT issues.

President Donald Trump reportedly called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on winning the recently held referendum that expanded the Turkish leader’s powers to authoritarian levels. The State Department said Monday, “We look to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens.” However, the support from the Trump administration, and western powers broadly, for this strongman flies in the face of the values of a free society. Erdogan has repeatedly shown himself to be an opponent of free speech and it’s high time the United States condemns his crackdown on dissenting opinions and free expression, otherwise the problem will get worse as his powers keep expanding.

The complacency of western powers with Erdogan’s regime shows a blatant hypocrisy. The logic that leaders have espoused for supporting him is that he combats terrorism. But if his way of combatting terrorism is throwing the values of a free society out the window, then the terrorists have already won. Erdogan’s time in power has turned Turkey from a secular supporter of freedom to an authoritarian nightmare.

With only 51 percent of the vote on April 16, the Turkish people established a new constitution, which will go into effect in 2019. The constitution will effectively get rid of the separation of powers, removing the parliament’s ability to serve as a check on the president, and essentially giving the president control of the judiciary. If Erdogan is re-elected in 2019, which is likely to happen, this is terrifying news for free speech.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in 2016 Erdogan’s regime cracked down on the press in unprecedented ways. The Committee discovered that of the 259 journalists jailed worldwide, 81 or more were in Turkey. That’s the most any nation has jailed since CPJ began keeping record in 1991. To compare, only two journalists were jailed in 2016 under Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime in Russia.

Erdogan didn’t stop with jailing individual troublesome reporters. Over the course of a five month period last year, he shut down 178 different media organizations, most of which were not allowed to reopen. He also expanded the power of RTUK, the nation’s equivalent to the FCC, to regulate current media outlets and make it more difficult for new ones to open.

His target isn’t set strictly on credentialed journalists and media organizations; Erdogan has also gone after individual speech. Decree 680 gives the government power to target individuals who are critical of the regime for “crimes against the government.” If these critics are determined to be abroad, and do not respond to court summons, the Turkish Cabinet is authorized to revoke their citizenship.

These policies take the lives of otherwise law-abiding people and turn them upside down.

By and large, western leaders, who claim to hold free speech as a vital individual right, have been silent on Erdogan’s oppression. The closest a western leader has come to condemning Erdogan was a statement from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, stressing the importance of “freedom of opinion,” and “opposition.” However, she stopped well short of condemning Erdogan; and other leaders, such as Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May, have been vocal in their support of the Turkish strongman.

The startling crackdowns on free speech from Erdogan came during a time where he was seen as a “secular” leader with a parliament to keep him in check. Following the referendum, Erdogan is now effectively a one-man ruling party with more authority than ever before. Western powers cannot continue to call themselves defenders of classical liberal ideals, until they condemn the vast growth of Erdogan’s powers and his erasing of the most basic human right: free speech. When Trump bombed Syria, he said he did it for the people harmed by chemical attacks, but if he really wants to liberate a group of people, he should condemn the Erdogan regime and strip foreign aid, until Turkey begins showing it is serious about supporting enlightenment values. That will get the message across in a peaceful and fiscally-responsible way.

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