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May 13, 2012, Sunday

Difficulties and blockages

Encounters in cross-cultural domains are critically important in understanding, explaining countries and societies in transition.

The very transition itself, as a phenomenon, offers opportunities and pitfalls, but also transforms international platforms into battlefields for those who oppose change and those who push for it.

Turkey appears puzzling to the international community. To the extent that it puzzles other countries, it leaves the international domain more vulnerable to manipulation. The risk at this stage is that the ever re-shaping international opinion may be led to serve against the interests of the people of Turkey.

As the recent survey by Ankara-based MetroPOLL showed, for example, a clear majority of Turkey is against the coups, military dictatorships and the use of force in the political arena. But, it is also clear that an increasing number of Turks (and other ethnic groups living in Turkey) are beginning to doubt whether the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be able to deliver an institutionalization and consolidation of democracy.

This means that Turkey is not entering a new phase with neo-authoritarianism on the agenda, but a new stage where the challenge will be how to enhance diversity in politics and struggle against the arbitrariness of the disproportionately strong leadership of the AKP.

When I met some political officials in the German state of Bavaria, I was struck by the lack of fairness in the overall views on Turkey. It seemed that all of the opinions were shaped by selectiveness: There was a willingness to exaggerate the anxieties on media freedom, while ignoring the fact that Turkey with its vibrant social fabric has been addressing its issues. Many of the Bavarian politicians gave me the impression that their lenses still showed them an old Turkey that continues to hold its citizens under an iron grip. I hoped to see a nuanced perspective on Turkey in their narratives -- questions and comments -- but it was simply not there. In those circles, is there a sincere appraisal of democracy in Turkey?

Back to Turkey, in Antalya, I had my impressions somewhat confirmed. In a meeting supported by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, I had a chance to observe the mood among some German colleagues, as well as the mood among the Turks in the top echelons of the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC). I was struck by the general lack of “nuanced knowledge” among some of my German colleagues, but also by the ways my Turkish colleagues chose to present the problems that deal with media freedom. The former, shockingly, still saw a Turkey through the parameters of the 1980s and 90s. For them, for example, the “state” that once ruled Turkey was still solidly there; their inability to see that it is under revision and displaying cracks was so obvious. It was, in a way, understandable because what they have before them is a moving target, not a fixed, “frozen” one. This was rather discouraging, that a powerful and influential segment of the European press would remain “myopic” in its views on Turkey.

My Turkish colleagues, were also on an interesting path. Although it is obvious that the number-one issue in Turkey today is the freedom and right to express opinions, none of them acknowledged the fact that the very meeting itself was proof that there is opportunity to express one’s beliefs. Although, in that regard, Turkey is not even close to China, Iran, Syria or Azerbaijan, none of my colleagues were willing to underline this critical nuance. The lack of differentiation explains the rather unique nature of the transitional processes toward democracy. The picture depicted of Turkey was of brutal fascism, of systematic oppression, that “it is now even worse than the time following the coup of 1980.”

In the absence of German colleagues attempting to present diverse views, blending negatives with positives, I kindly dissented on what I saw as a tendentious oversimplification -- or “demonization” -- of the Turkish reality, and I faced opposition from a loud chorus. All I had was to conclude to them that these attempts to shut me up show how they respect dissent and the expression of opinion, the very subject of our meeting.

For two days, I took part in a meeting with the non-Muslim minority press: Greek, Armenian and Jewish colleagues from İstanbul. I was struck by a remark made by Ivo Molinas, editor of Şalom: “For the first time in the republic’s history, it was this government that repaired our synagogues,” he said, as the others nodded.

My conclusion is gloomy: As long as reality is what you want to see, as you ignore fairness, neither will the German public, for example, have a nuanced picture nor will Turkey’s troubled and polarized media sphere find common ground to focus on “freedom for all.”

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