Seven years ago, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan bestowed Cetin Altan, one of the most celebrated public intellectuals in Turkey, with an award that recognized his lifetime achievements in a country where respect to dissent was a luxury.
Erdogan, who was imprisoned for three months for reciting a poem in 1997, took a swipe at the hostile judiciary, then under heavy influence of the military, to criticize thought crimes. “Turkey is not a country anymore where Cetin Altan is put on trial for 300 times,” Erdogan said, highlighting the progress his government had made in the 6 years of his reign. “You cannot move forward if you cannot tolerate the criticism,” Erdogan emphasized back when Turkey’s democratization was not some illusion.
Cetin Altan is dead now. So is what Erdogan espoused back then. One of Altan’s sons, Ahmet Altan, had been an editor of Taraf daily, a newspaper that made its life’s mission to undermine military’s role in politics. He is sitting in a jail for several days now, accused of “sending a subliminal message” during a talk show a day before the failed military coup d’etat on July 15.
His brother, Mehmet Altan, an economist and a frequent commentator on Turkish politics, was also detained for remarks he made at the same program, hosted by veteran journalist Nazli Ilicak. All journalists at that program are now imprisoned. And that TV channel, along with 130 other news outlets, was shut down in a single decree by Erdogan in July.
Erdogan’s remarks as he awarded Cetin Altan and the arrest of his sons seven years later illustrates the backslide in Turkish democracy, with every major rights advocacy group ringing alarm bells about Turkey’s troubling path.
At least 217 authors from around the world, including three Nobel laureates, signed a letter that called on Turkish authorities to immediately “end vendetta” against Altan brothers. “We the undersigned call upon democrats throughout the world … to protest the vendetta the government is waging against its brightest thinkers and writers who may not share their point of view,” the letter said.
Nobel laureates Herta Müller, JM Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk are among 217 signatories of the letter.
“We therefore call upon the Turkish government to cease its persecution of prominent writers and to speed the release of Ahmet and Mehmet Altan as well as so many of their colleagues wrongly accused,” the letter noted.
The arrest of journalists has accelerated since the failed coup attempt. According to a tally by press advocacy group Platform for Independent Journalism, the number of jailed journalists has risen to 120, surpassing China (49), Egypt (23) and Iran (19). More than 200 journalists are wanted for arrest, most of whom are in hiding.
Pen International, another press advocacy group, said the arrest of Altan brothers, is yet “another illustration that Turkey’s freedom of expression situation has reached a crisis point,” and called on Turkey to immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against them.
ARTICLE 19 also joined the international campaign for Altan brothers. “The accusations against Ahmet and Mehmet Altan are both absurd and groundless,” Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia Programme at ARTICLE 19, said in a statement.
While authors around the world lobby for the release of Altan brothers, lawyers of the jailed authors said they are having a trouble in reaching prosecutor Tuncay Can responsible for their case as he is on a holiday vacation.