The terrible twilight of Turkish democracy






Last week I received a bizarre invitation. A bureaucrat in Istanbul asked me to help the Turkish government celebrate its commitment to democracy. I was invited to be one of about 30 journalists who will contribute articles to a special magazine that is to be distributed in Istanbul and six foreign cities on July 15.

Each article is supposed to be about “the benefits of strong democracies.”

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My friend Sahin Alpay, a veteran Turkish journalist who is also a political science professor, is better qualified than I am to write on that theme. As a young leftist, he was persecuted after both the 1973 and 1980 military coups in Turkey. He spent years in exile, mostly in Sweden. His political views moderated, and by the time he returned home, by his own account, he had gone from “disillusioned Marxist” to “convinced liberal social democrat.” He became a newspaper columnist and radio commentator. When Michael Dukakis visited Turkey in 1999, he translated Dukakis’s comments for other Turkish reporters. In 2002 he surprised some of his secularist colleagues by announcing that he would vote for the rising political star Recep Tayyip Erdogan, arguing that Erdogan’s democratic promise outweighed his Islamist impulses.

Unfortunately, my friend is no longer in a position to write articles for anyone. He is one of more than 200 Turkish journalists and other media workers now languishing in jail. His crime was writing columns that are now seen as having expressed subversive opinions. Prosecutors have asked that he be penalized with three consecutive terms of life imprisonment, plus up to 15 years for “membership in an armed terror group.” He is 73 years-old and the sweetest guy I have ever known.

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After his arrest, the German newspaper Die Zeit called him “one of the most important liberal voices in Turkey,” and concluded that “few arrests seem as absurd as that of Sahin Alpay.” My friend may or may not be a hero of the Turkish press. After he was dismissed from several newspapers for writing articles that disturbed people in power, he landed at one that was loyal to the exiled Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen. Several times he called Gulen a supporter of moderate Islam. He did not jump to protest when anti-Gulen journalists were imprisoned. Perhaps he made some misjudgments — a sin that many columnists, maybe including me, have occasionally committed. Now, for what he has written, he faces the possibility of spending years in jail. I am not allowed to visit him, but a news report several months after his arrest said that he was confined to a cell with two other prisoners and forbidden even to walk in the jailhouse courtyard. His wife brings him books and anti-depressant medication.


President Erdogan was once an ally of Gulen. They feuded, parted company, and became enemies. After a failed military coup in Turkey last year, their enmity turned deadly. Erdogan asserted that Gulen was behind the coup attempt. Anyone who ever worked for his newspaper or wrote a good word about him suddenly became the equivalent of a Jew in Nazi Germany: a vile traitor who deserved the nation’s hatred. I have no way of knowing whether my friend regrets anything he wrote. As a fallible newspaper columnist myself, however, I can only howl in protest at the specter of columnists being given sentences beyond those given to serial killers, simply because of what they published in a newspaper.

Turkey spent more than 80 years marching slowly, with many reversals, toward democracy. Now it is sliding in the opposite direction. President Erdogan, who rode to power partly due to the support of secular democrats like my friend, no longer tolerates the clash of ideas that is democracy’s essence. More journalists are now in jail in Turkey than in any other country.

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Sahin Alpay’s sad fate reflects more than the collapse of journalism in Turkey. It is part of a larger story: the terrible decline of Turkish democracy. Fifteen years ago the entire Middle East was abuzz with excitement over the “Turkish model,” a new mix of freedom and Muslim piety. Turkey seemed like the coolest place on earth. Now it is a world leader in repression.

Even bigger than that huge story is the global meaning of President Erdogan’s turn toward autocratic rule. From Egypt to Hungary to the Philippines, demagogues like him are using the tools of democracy to destroy democracy.

They show how fragile free institutions can be. It is a sobering message for all — especially, at this moment, for Americans. Once in a while, after reading too much about the madness enveloping Washington, I catch myself wondering whether my friends in Germany or Costa Rica or Canada will one day be writing columns lamenting my imprisonment because of something I once wrote.

Rather than ignore the invitation I received to write an article celebrating Turkish democracy, I replied. My proposal was to contribute an article asserting that any leader who imprisons journalists for what they have written is a deadly enemy of democracy.

There has been no reply.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

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