Those who do not respect freedom of speech at home, are not entitled to spreading propaganda abroad

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by Sabine Balk

If Turkish leaders want serious debate, they are welcome

The attitude of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan towards Germany, the Netherlands and the European Union has become an absurd stage play. In the run-up to the constitutional referendum, in which Turkish voters will decide whether their head of state will get more power, Erdogan is reacting aggressively to every opponent and potential opponent. Now he sees enemies not only in his own country, but all over Europe.

Erdogan is deliberately provocative. In February, Deniz Yücel, a journalist with both Turkish and German citizenship, was arrested and kept in custody for vague reasons. The event triggered a German-Turkish crisis. A judge later accused him of terrorism and ordered him to be detained until trial. Yücel works for a German broadsheet newspaper, and his writing is not known to incite hate or promote violence. He has, however, expressed criticism of Erdogan.

The problems were compounded when German authorities, for security reasons, denied some Turkish leaders to campaign for migrants’ votes in German towns ahead of the referendum. Similar decisions followed in the Netherlands, where two Turkish ministers were denied entry. The Dutch authorities said they wanted to prevent unrest among their Turkish community, which is divided over the referendum.

Now Erdogan is styling himself and his country as victims, accusing Germany and the Netherlands of using “Nazi methods”. Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected such accusations, but Erdogan and his supporters keep reiterating the claim.  

One example is Akif Cagatay Kilic . He is the Turkish minister of sports. Kilic grew up in Germany, speaks fluent German and knows the country very well. On German TV, he reiterated the Nazi comparison. He demanded mutual understanding and insisted on the freedom of speech – in Germany. Erdogan’s Turkey, however, does not grant its people this right anymore, but that is something Kilic did not comment on. Kilic had the guts to face critical questions, concerning Yücel, for example, but his answers were evasive and unsatisfying.

Freedom of speech is not just a phrase. It is a universal, democratic principle. It is needed to foster serious debate, in which opposing views are exchanged, facts are established and some kind of compromise is brokered. Obviously, this kind of debate requires mutual respect. Democratic parties agree to disagree, but none of them claims to be the only legitimate force in politics.

The depressing truth is that the Turkish leadership is shying away from this kind of debate. It does not accept opposing views as legitimate and denies critical voices in the media and society in general the space they would need to engage it in serious debate. The truth, of course, is that not everyone who disagrees with Erdogan is either a terrorist or a Nazi.

Locking up journalists, by the way, is a method the Nazis used. According to Reporters without borders, 49 media workers are currently in detention in Turkey. Yücel is probably the most prominent, but not the only one.

If top members of Erdogan’s party wanted to come to Germany to engage in serious democratic debate, involving different parties and opposing views, they would be welcome. But, to judge by the government’s repressive action in Turkey, this is not what they want. They are keen on mobilising supporters with cheap propaganda. Accordingly, there is no reason to allow him and his allies to campaign in Germany or other EU countries. Those who do not respect freedom of speech at home, are not entitled to spreading propaganda abroad.

Erdogan has had the nerve to say he wants to show Europe how “democracy works”. No, thank you. We know what is going on in Turkey.

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