Turkey’s emerging police state

A recent raid on media outlets and legislation changes point to intensifying securitisation of the Turkish state.

Staff members and supporters of Zaman newspaper shout slogans and hold placards reading 'Free press can not be silenced' during a protest against a raid by counter-terror police in Istanbul [AFP/Getty Images]

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected president this summer, the future of the Turkey seemed one of anxieties and unknowns. Since then, the political scene has been overwhelmed by growing despotic state power that functions through intense securitisation of state-society relations, on one hand, and an increasingly salient public discourse of morality that takes religion as its primary reference, on the other. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government was shaken, one year ago by a corruption scandal. As of today, there has been no prosecution process over corruption allegations.

This massive corruption scandal was the peak point of the struggle between once-allies Erdogan and his cronies, on one hand, and the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, whose name is associated with the leadership of the Hizmet movement. What followed was an extended crackdown on dissent, which is still going on.

From friend to foe

The AKP government immediately responded to the corruption allegations by relocating and firing officers within the police force involved with the case. In addition, the public prosecutors working on the corruption lawsuits were relocated as well.

Turkish journalists detained in police raids

Reorganisation within the police force and the judiciary as well as legislation changes such as the ones that endowed the justice minister with extensive power to appoint judges and public prosecutors have been aimed at disempowering those who are close to Gulen and the Hizmet movement. The recent raid on December 14 on the two main media institutions that are known for their affiliations with the Hizmet movement, the newspaper Zaman and Samanyolu TV, is yet another phase of this fall-out.

Indeed, many in the national media interpreted the raid as taking revenge for the corruption scandal, and at the same time as a strategic move to efface it from public debate at its one-year anniversary. Given the increasingly hostile nature of the relationship between Erdogan and Gulen following the disempowerment of the military establishment, this recent operation signals a full-fledged attack by Erdogan and his cronies to consolidate state power and create a state of fear to curb dissidence.

Increasing securitisation  

The legal context in which the raid on Hizmet-related media institutions was possible is worth mentioning here. Recent legislative changes have empowered the executive branch of the state over the judiciary. Following the 6-8 October demonstrations in support for Kobane and during which 38 people died, the Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu announced the preparations for a domestic security reform package to empower the police force.

Among the changes were the enabling the investigation of suspects based on “reasonable doubt” in their guilt; potential limitations on lawyers’ right to access court case files; expansion of the authority to suspend the rights of suspects and to seize their property; expansion of surveillance measures such as monitoring phone conversations and text messages; and granting excessive power to police officers such as authorisation to detain citizens for a period of 24 hours without any permission from the prosecutor general.            

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Two things are important here. First is the increasing securitisation of state-society relations that these legal changes imply. In fact, PM Davutoglu warned European media in advance, at a speech he delivered at the weekly meeting of AKP on October 21, “not to make a fuss that Turkey is becoming increasingly authoritarian when these proposed changes are legislated” especially given that there are “similar examples [of securitisation] in Western liberal democracies.”     

Second is the arbitrariness and uncertainty in legal actions and proceedings. Here, the recent shift in the law from beyond reasonable doubt to reasonable doubt as the evidential basis of detention is important. On December 12 Erdogan approved the law proposal (#6572) that makes reasonable doubt legally sufficient for law enforcement to proceed with detention. In fact, alleged accusations against the personnel of Zaman and Samanyolu TV are based on the existence of reasonable doubt for plotting a coup against the Republic of Turkey and being a member of a terrorist organisation.

Discourse of morality

Intense securitisation of state-society relations and manufacturing uncertainty in legal actions contribute to the consolidation of despotic power in the hands of Erdogan and his cronies. Such power manifests itself in the war on dissidence articulated through a polarising language. The realm of politics, under these circumstances, is narrowed down to a banal discourse of morality the primary reference point of which has become religion.

In fact, the vision of “new Turkey” is put into implementation through a social engineering project of reviving what is considered the authentic roots of the nation. The recent debates around incorporating Ottoman Turkish in national school curriculum, recent decisions taken at the National Education Council about compulsory religious classes, and debates within national media about the role of family and women are just a few examples of this social engineering project that is implemented by the state and popular among various societal factions.

This conservative form of politics that has been on the rise across the world, and is certainly not unique to Turkey, is an essential tool to polarise society. It does so by reducing the essence of political debate to moral issues around faith, gender relations, and family. Those who exercise despotic power easily label any dissident voice as the enemy of the societal vision that they carry and implement. It is, therefore, not very surprising that President Erdogan lumped together, in a recent speech he delivered immediately after the December 14 operations, “those who banned the veil” and “those who consider it secondary,” pointing at the single party government of the 1920s and the 1930s and the Hizmet movement, respectively.

In this alarming context of rising despotic power concealed under the mask of moral authority, it is important to be able to stand against this war on dissidence even if one of the victims today was once an AKP ally, in assaulting the opposition. Journalist Ahmet Sik, who was victimised by AKP-Hizmet alliance and imprisoned on allegations of being part of a coup plot, rightfully tweeted on the day of operations that what is happening to Cemaat [referring to Hizmet movement] today is fascism” .We are passing through a period in which it is crucial to avoid getting stuck in polarising debates around moral issues, and to adamantly and objectively support freedoms.  

Sinem Adar is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in Sociology at the University of South Florida.