“Democracy can only be defended by more democracy”

April 17 2012 Text: Ola Larsmo Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed Illustration: Jesper Waldersten

How should we understand the current events in Turkey where, almost in secret, hundreds of journalists and writers have been imprisoned? Among these are two of Swedish PEN’s honorary members: the publisher Ragip Zarakolu and the short story writer and human rights lawyer Muharrem Erbey. In this edition of the Dissident Blog Zarakolu gives his own rendition of the development in his country—a development that has led to the imprisonment month after month without trial of this eminent and highly respected publisher in a high-risk prison for terrorists until he was unexpectedly released last week.

If one regards these unfolding events from an eagle’s perspective certain patterns and connections emerge. The crisis for the Euro has weakened the EU thereby making the EU less attractive as a negotiating partner than before. Also, the ‘Arab spring’ has eliminated several notorious leaders around the Mediterranean, and lastly, what must now be described as a civil war in Syria opens up the political situation in the region to suggest a new role for Turkey. This perspective helps one to make sense of the remarkable state of affairs where Prime Minister Erdogan demands that Syria on the one hand respect human rights—as he did at the summit meeting in Seoul—while on the other hand imprisoning journalists, lawyers, and writers in his own country—actions that wholly contradict the rights that he previously celebrated.

This is of course sheer hypocrisy. No matter how precise the domino theories might be in the analysis of the ‘geopolitical situation’ needed to make sense of such paradoxes, we are still left with one simple truth: Turkey is a country where there is a deliberate harassment of writers and dissidents. Nothing can erase this fact. From PEN’s perspective the issue is clear: human rights are not negotiable and there is no excuse for those who jeopardise them. They apply as one entity or not at all. Prime Minister Erdogan’s advice to Syria lacks credibility unless his regime shows respect for the rights that he himself propagates. Period.

Another text in this edition of the Blog asks similar questions. Larry Siems from American PEN, who for many years has been working on the website The Torture Report, which has now been published in book form, describes how the USA in the years after 9/11 undermined the rule of law for both their own citizens as well as for citizens of other nations. He discusses how the country came to re-instate torture as a legal interrogation method now free to be used in a country that describes itself as a democratic state governed by law. He also discusses how this change—implemented by one of the leading countries in the world—step by step has impaired also the international judicial system. In his article Siems forcefully discusses how the tools of democracy are the only means of throwing light on and eventually turning this development. It is via the American “Freedom of information act” that American PEN and ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, has managed to create a debate about torture as an interrogation method, and to redress the brave soldiers who refused to use these methods. Democracy can only be defended by more democracy. This is a truth that is applicable in Turkey, in the USA, and in Sweden. Without freedom of speech and a free debating climate none of the tools of democracy are at hand.