"As Erdogan turns screws, time for civic solidarity is now"

If this newspaper were published in Turkey, the rest of this column might be entirely blank, except for an author photograph at the top and the words, printed in large type, '124 days deprived of freedom'.

Timothy Garton Ash Source: theguardian.com
Young supporters in old military uniforms greet Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul (Tanjug/AP, file)
Young supporters in old military uniforms greet Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul (Tanjug/AP, file)

That's what the country's most important surviving oppositional newspaper, Cumhuriyet, regularly prints for its imprisoned columnists – with the tally of days in jail ticking up and up.

One leading columnist, Kadri Gursel, who is also a board member of the International Press Institute, recently sent a moving letter which begins 'I salute you all with love from B Block, Ward Number 25 of Silivri Prison Number 9'.

To travel to Turkey today is to journey into darkness: tens of thousands of state employees and thousands of academics dismissed, more journalists locked up than in any other country, and a chilly mist of fear. I talk to Hasan Cemal, one of the country's most celebrated journalists, who received a 15 month suspended sentence for a piece of investigative reporting about a leader of the Kurdish PKK – good journalism which the regime travesties as 'conducting terror propaganda'. (This week he received another sentence, for 'insulting the president'.) Cemal calmly tells me about conditions in Turkish jails. Even a Turkish-German correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt has been arrested.

Reporters who exposed the Gulenist networks, which undoubtedly were a significant force behind last summer's attempted coup, are now imprisoned for being Gulenists. Gursel, the Cumhuriyet columnist, writes 'oddly, we are guilty because there is no evidence against us.' Kafka, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

Outside a lecture hall at the Bogazici (aka Bosphorus) University, where I am to deliver a lecture on free speech at the invitation of an independent Academy of Sciences, students hand out boiled sweets with tiny strips of paper attached. They look like those flimsy strips you get in Christmas crackers or fortune cookies, but instead of jokes or vacuous prophecies these say 'free speech at Bosphorus University has been under threat for months! Don't be silent!' Afterwards, some very unsilent students ply me with urgent questions over hot, sweet tea: 'what should we do?' I wish I had a good answer. Then a young female student, pale-faced, with intense eyes peering through rimless spectacles, says 'you know we feel so powerless - the only thing I have is my body… to put it out there protesting'.

I have two urgent questions of my own. First, as we approach the 16 April referendum on changes to the constitution, what is the most accurate description of Turkey's current political system? The answers I receive in Istanbul range from 'pure authoritarianism' to 'electoral authoritarianism' – a regime type which, like Vladimir Putin's Russia and (in a softer form) Viktor Orban's Hungary, legitimates fundamentally authoritarian rule with periodic elections or plebiscites.

The repertoire of this new generation of authoritarians is by now familiar. You control the media through the oligarchs and business conglomerates that own them. (The Hurriyet newspaper, owned by the Dogan group, recently did not print an interview in which the Nobel prizewinning writer Orhan Pamuk said he would vote 'no' in the referendum). You knit a patchwork quilt of elastic legal provisions under which you can prosecute almost anyone. (At the moment, Turkey still has the post-coup state of emergency, but all the old bad articles too.) You ensure political control over a cowed judiciary. You pump out your own nationalist populist narrative through television and social media, while accusing independent media and local NGOs of being a fifth column paid by foreign sources. And so it goes on. The proposed constitutional changes will give massive new powers to president Erdogan, as well as allowing him to remain president until 2029, but in practice he already rules like a sultan.

This brings me to my second question. Like the students, I ask myself 'what should we do?' But my 'we' means Europe, the West, people everywhere of liberal mind and heart. Despite all the pressures, the referendum outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Opinion polls show only a small majority for yes, and in this case the equivalent of 'shy Brexiteers' and 'shy Trump voters' may well be 'shy no voters'. Therefore a large presence of international as well as domestic election monitors is vital.

What about broader European and American leverage? My Turkish friends look back with almost painful nostalgia to a golden age at the beginning of this century when Turkey, under its supposedly 'soft Islamist' government, believed it might join the EU – and the EU seemed to be serious about taking in Turkey. All gone, gone utterly. Rightly or wrongly, Angela Merkel probably still feels she depends on Erdogan to hold back the flow of refugees in the run-up to Germany's general election. France is preoccupied with its own election, while Theresa May hops like a travelling saleswoman from Trump to Erdogan to India's Narendra Modi, with narry a dignified word about the freedom which Brexit Britain is supposed to represent. And only a lunatic would count on Trump to stand up for values of which he is the walking antithesis.

My conclusion is that if we are to do anything to help the other Turkey, we must do it ourselves. Although not entirely to be despaired of, EU, US and other governmental leverage seems unlikely to change the direction of Turkey's politics. But less ambitious, lower level interventions do sometimes work. Depressing though it is to be back with the kind of thing we used to do for dissidents in the Soviet Union, this is where we are.

So universities around the world should intervene on behalf of scholars and institutes they know. Academies should offer partnership and support to Turkey's independent academy of science, think tank to think tank, theatre to theatre. One of the most depressing things I heard in Istanbul is that ever fewer foreign academics, writers, journalists and artists are visiting the country, so our colleagues feel cut off. Whenever we can, we should go, listen, report and speak out. A writers' delegation from PEN International recently did just that.

Human rights and free speech advocacy organisations must keep up the drumbeat of publicity for oppressed individuals and groups, and every reader can support these campaigns. For the media, which is under particularly ferocious attack, you can follow some of these solidarity actions via the Twitter hashtag #FreeTurkeyJournalists, while the International Press Institute has just launched freeturkeyjournalists.com. Individual newspapers and magazines can support embattled counterparts in Turkey, by helping them directly but also just by keeping an international journalistic spotlight on what is happening to them. Where our governments are not taking any big steps, it is all the more important that we take many small ones. As Erdogan turns the screws, the time for civic solidarity is now.

Timothy Garton Ash on Twitter: @fromTGA

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