18th May 2015

A RECENT visit to friendly, beautiful Turkey revives awareness of how close are the bonds with Pakistan. Alas, one also realises there is one subject in which the two fraternal nations should not share a common feature ie the abysmally low ranking of both in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.

Turkey is placed at 149 out of 180 countries. Pakistan goes even lower, but not too far away at 159. However, in the ‘Abuses’ part of the score, the two countries are virtually in the same single rank. Turkey at 64.07, Pakistan at 64.91. While Turkey has a strong tendency to coerce or imprison critical journalists and media proprietors, Pakistan’s front-line journalists such as reporters, (a couple of TV) anchors and cameramen are either killed outright or are injured by mostly untraced elements, or threatened with violence.

The term ‘missing persons’ with so tragic a meaning linked to Balochistan becomes a less tragic yet highly disturbing term in Turkey. One knows exactly where the ‘missing person’ is! But one also knows that neither the judicial system nor the executive structure is willing to end the arbitrary jailing of journalists.

Critical media, opposition leaders, independent-minded police officers — all are seen as part of a conspiracy against the security of Turkey.

This writer came face-to-missing-face on a visit to the head office of the popular Samanyolu Broadcasting Group in Istanbul on April 27, 2015 to ‘meet’ its CEO, Mr Hidayet Karaca. Warmly welcomed by his colleagues and conducted to his office room, one saw the empty chair behind his desk.

Arrested in December 2014 for allegedly projecting content in a TV soap opera episode many months earlier that allegedly promoted terrorist-linked organisations, the CEO is unable to return to his desk despite two judges of a senior court ordering his immediate release two days before our visit. Reason: the chief public prosecutor questioned the power of the judges of that particular court to order the release. Meanwhile, to reinforce the prosecutor’s stance, the two judges were immediately suspended and investigations ordered into their own conduct! President Erdogan also contributed to the controversy with adverse remarks about dissidents.

Sixty-two police officers arrested earlier for allegedly conspiring to unjustifiably defame government ministers and officials with corruption charges, were also ordered to be freed by the same two judges. Only to be denied release on the same grounds as Mr Karaca. This process of persecution of some sections of media and police officers commenced in 2013 when details emerged of investigations into corruption in high places.

There is also a larger context. Critical media, opposition leaders, independent-minded police officers — all are seen as part of a conspiracy against the stability and security of Turkey. The leadership of the ruling AKP seems to have firmly decided to portray the eminent Turkish philosopher, Fethullah Gulen (who resides in Pennsylvania) and all those associated with him in the Hizmet Movement or any other of the several initiatives and enterprises — including media — launched by Mr Gulen, as being antithetical to the national interest.

For instance, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a public rally within hours of the decision by the two judges that the judges received instructions on the verdict a week earlier “from Pennsylvania”. Mr Gulen’s lawyers have filed both a civil suit and a criminal complaint against the prime minister for making unfounded accusations.

Conversations with prominent editors, columnists and citizens reinforced the view that about 70pc of Turkey’s privately owned print and electronic media have become virtually state-controlled. Coercive pressure is applied to terminate the services of outspoken journalists or discontinue publication of dissident op-ed writers. Government-sector advertising is withheld from critical media. Yet, because of its credibility and courage of conviction, the Zaman media group which includes the English daily, Today’s Zaman, continues to enjoy large, loyal audiences.

In public discourse, a recurring strain is vilification of Mr Gulen and his affiliates, or others who condemn the ruling party. An environment of intimidation is being fostered as the country heads toward parliamentary polls next month. This regression becomes the more unfortunate because the Hizmet Movement is dedicated to values of interfaith dialogue, pluralism and peace.

The movement is non-partisan. Nor does it seek political power. There is an extraordinary commitment to philanthropy and excellence in education. This is evident in the hundreds of schools, centres, colleges and universities operated by Hizmet in Turkey and in over 150 overseas countries.

In Pakistan, there are 25 Pak-Turk schools imparting a high quality of education with well-qualified teachers from Turkey. A marked feature of individuals associated with Mr Gulen is their humanism and humility. Perhaps this very aspect of unwavering altruism causes unease in a power-seeking political party.

In its initial terms of office, the AKP rendered valuable services. There was a re-assertion of civil, political supremacy to curb militarist adventurism. Reconciliation was initiated with the Kurds. Negotiations for entry into the European Union were conducted with self-confidence. A moderate conservatism defined a distinct new strand without completely destroying secular values. But in the past three years, a dangerous authoritarianism has rapidly emerged. A nexus with extremists in Syria is also apparent. These new tendencies imperil the societal freedom and stability of Turkey, beyond media freedom alone.

Postscript: Back to the Turkey-Pakistan equation. Or the lack of it. In the Human Development Index for 2014, Turkey achieves the 69th position in 187 countries. This is way above Pakistan at 146. But we make up for all this in the Happy Planet Index of 2012. Pakistan is at 16 out 151 (India struggles to make it to 32). With a literacy level of over 90pc, Turkey manages only a reluctant smile at number 44. There are statistics, there are indices — and then there are ambivalent realities.

As Published in The Dawn, May 18th, 2015