04/06/2011 11:24 am ET Updated Jun 06, 2011

Europeans and Americans Should Freely Urge Turkey to Respect Free Speech

A polarized debate on fundamental freedoms is waging in Turkey. This
debate further intensified after the recent arrests of journalists following
a court order that criminalizes the possession of a yet unpublished book.
Soon after the arrest of the book's author, journalist Ahmet Şık, Turkish
police have raided publishing homes and newspapers in search of draft copies
of Imam's Army, with a warrant that stated that spreading the manuscript
-- dealing with the infiltration of a religious group within the police -- was tantamount
to aiding and abetting terrorists. The draft will be published online shortly.

The arrests are the last wave in Turkey's Ergenekon case where
prosecutors accused hundreds of conspiring to overthrow the government
or, as is the case with dissident journalists, creating a 'psychological environment'
for a coup.

When the Ergenekon case started in 2007, many in Europe supported the
effort believing it was aimed at dealing with Turkey's anti-democratic
past -- especially the role of the military which has staged three
coups since the republic was founded in 1923 and continued to meddle
in politics. But our optimism soon made way for concern as no
convictions followed and pre-trial detention periods kept extending.
Our concern has turned into alarm as we witnessed the fear,
polarization and mistrust the recent arrests caused in a large part of
Turkish society.

This is why European Union officials joined by their American
colleagues called upon the Government of Turkey to safeguard
fundamental rights and the freedom of press. Prime Minister Erdogan
reacted saying Europe "should look at itself" before criticizing
others. It is suggested his planned trip to Brussels was cancelled to
avoid critical talks about the state of freedom in Turkey.

In Europe, we have had our share of experiences on banning and burning
books. These were the preludes to the darkest days of our history. The
efforts lead by European Parliament to change the restrictive Hungarian
media laws and to promote media pluralism in Italy, are reflective of our
ongoing work to improve press freedom in the EU as well.

In most cases, Europe goes quite far in protecting free expression.
When in 2006 cartoons picturing the Prophet Mohammed led to riots
and grave national security risks, they were not banned, nor was the
cartoonist arrested. One of the few banned books in some European
countries is Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, which coincidentally was a
bestseller in Turkey in 2005

Protecting fundamental freedoms is a responsibility of any government.
Being elected into office or the principle of judicial independence does
not absolve the government of Turkey from this basic duty from which it
derives its own legitimacy.

Democracy is not limited to free elections and the separation of
powers does not exist in a vacuum either. When Americans assessed that
publications on WikiLeaks posed a grave threat to national
security, not a single news desk was raided as it is understood that the
constitution favors the freedom of speech beyond a single legal case.
Meanwhile, we continue to monitor and criticize, any violations of civil liberties
in the ongoing WikiLeaks investigation.

A popular Turkish saying, 'dost aci soyler', means friends tell the
naked truth. Today's most outspoken critics of Turkey's fundamental rights
standards are also among the staunchest defenders of Turkey´s accession
to the EU, despite obvious electoral benefits in doing the opposite. We have
no interest in bashing Turkey or directing undeserved criticism at a country
whose candidacy we firmly support.

However, to seek to destroy an unpublished book, raiding newspapers in
search of electronic copies, is unprecedented and unacceptable by
any measure. The prosecutors' argument that the journalists were
arrested not for their journalistic work but for their alleged
affiliation with a terrorist organization (namely Ergenekon) fails to
justify such a blatant violation of individual freedoms, especially
since the court is yet to decide whether or not Ergenekon exists.

We believe Turkey's accession to the EU will benefit both. Most
of all, it will enhance the freedoms, rights and opportunities of
people in Turkey. If the Turkish government is serious about joining
the EU it would be wise to show sympathy to the words of its strongest
allies in Europe. It is those Europeans that have both advocated and
defended Turkey´s EU accession who are now speaking out. This is
not about singling out Turkey, but about defending the fundamental
value of press freedom, in the EU and outside. Prime Minister Erdogan
should seek and not avoid conversations with his European friends
on this important topic.