Turkey: Authoritarianism and Academic “Closure”

Photo: Majka Czapski. CC-BY

On February 7, 2017, Turkey’s ruling party AKP (Justice and Development Party) expelled 330 academics under the guise of the “fight against terrorism” by issuing a new decree, which has the force of law (KHK) under the ongoing nationwide state of emergency. This was the last step in AKP’s assault on Turkey’s academia since the failed military coup in July 2016. In the last seven months, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party AKP have issued five KHK which expelled 4811 academics from their positions in 112 universities.

Remarkably, this purge is 20 times larger than the number of academics expelled in the 1960, 1971 and 1980 military coups (T24, 10 February 2017). Furthermore, KHKs have inflicted serious damage on the Faculty of Political Science (Mulkiye) and Communication in Ankara University – the voices of critical thinking in modern Turkish history. Currently, 38 undergraduate courses, 5 graduate courses, and 50 dissertations cannot be attained in the former, while 40 undergraduate courses, 29 graduate courses, and 99 dissertations cannot be completed in the latter (Cumhuriyet, 8-9 February 2017). While recent government actions considerably threaten academic freedom in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party AKP have long been removing democratic rights from Turkey’s political and public life. Over the last decade, Turkey’s regime under AKP leadership has devoted itself to competitive authoritarianism.

In their seminal work, S. Levitsky and L. Way describe competitive authoritarianism as “civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents. In competitive authoritarianism, Levitsky and Way continue, incumbents’ manipulation of the state  debilitates at least one of the fundamental attributes of democracy – namely, free elections, civil liberties, and a level playing field. Regime assaults on civil liberties considerably disable opposition politicians, journalists and intellectuals from mounting a serious challenge. The incumbent’s repression may involve harassment and the arrest of dissenting voices as well as the use of legal means, including tax charges and defamation suits.

In this context, we see that the Turkish authorities sought to divert the regime into competitive authoritarianism long before the military coup attempt on July 2016. Erdogan and his Party systematically curbed civil liberties, distorted the political playing field, and so undermined the fairness of elections, since they won almost 50 percent of the national vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections. Furthermore, the incumbent regime “legitimized” its measures to restrain democratic rights and diminish the rule of law in the aftermath of the failed military coup in part of its fight with the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen’s movement Hizmet, accused of instigating the attempted coup.

Over the last decade, Turkey’s record under AKP reveals many severe violations of civil liberties. Already in 2008, the regime launched a campaign to penalize its critics after media outlets owned by Aydin Dogan covered news that indicated the involvement of AKP loyalists in the corruption case Deniz Feneri (Light House). The same year, Dogan’s 11 television channels were closed down. Since then, the company had to lay off many of its popular writers, known to be ardent critics of the regime, due to ongoing legal investigations brought by the government, which mostly pertained to the use of licences and tax codes. At the same time, the Ergenekon trial which continued for nearly six years, sought to uproot Turkey’s deep state which was allegedly composed of hardliner Kemalists positioned in the state with considerable influence over political matters, expanded to include journalists, intellectuals, and opposition politicians on the grounds of coup plotting. Similarly, AKP governments have arrested hundreds of Peace and Democracy Party officials and journalists under anti-terrorism laws in Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) trials since 2012. As AKP attacked opposition journalists and media outlets – by accusing them of being “terrorists,” “traitors,” and “enablers of terrorism” and for defamation, which is a criminal offense in Turkey – the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned Turkey for putting the biggest number of journalists behind bars anywhere in the world both in 2012 and 2013.

In May 2013, alienation of large segments in Turkey’s society from AKP’s growing authoritarian tendencies however manifested itself in Gezi Park protests. While the protest was started by a few people calling attention to the planned demolition of one of the “last public green spaces” in Istanbul, excessive use of force by police led thousands to march in streets across the country to show solidarity with earlier protesters. In the next few weeks of protests, many were injured while several individuals died. Police detained thousands of protesters. Of these detentions, many were included for taking part in peaceful demonstrations. Journalists reporting from demonstrations encountered police brutality through “insults, obstructions, the destruction of footage, and even physical violence.” Those who circulated information on social media on the issues such as the location of security forces, the sources of legal and medical assistance were also threatened with prosecution by the authorities. [1]

Along the same line, regime authorities sought to intimidate members of the core platform, Taksim Solidarity in Gezi Park protests through charges of “forming a criminal organization” under “anti-terrorism laws” in July. It accused various legal organizations – including Turkish Medical Association, the Human Rights Association of Turkey, the Chamber of Architects and Engineers – of encouraging people to “commit crimes … and rise up against the government.” Similarly, Erdogan called out Koc Holding for “cooperating with terrorists” after its Divan Hotel opened the doors to demonstrators fleeing police brutality. In the ensuing days, the company was hit with full-blown tax investigations.

Nonetheless, Erdogan and his party, accused of violating individuals’ rights to peaceful assembly, instructing excessive use of physical force on protesters and silencing dissenting opinions, embarked upon a path to legitimize their disdain for opposition voices by clamping down on them as potential instances of terrorism in the post-Gezi park period.  On April, 2015, Erdogan signed a domestic security law that designated more power to police forces in cracking down on any kind of protests. The law enabled security forces to detain persons with “criminal suspicion” in custody for up to 24 hours without the permission of the judiciary. It also allowed police officers to “remove those who risk the safety of others” from the scene, without detailing how and to where those individuals should be removed. Additionally, the new arrangement penalized protesters who cover their face partially or fully with up to five-year prison sentences, while making the use of coloured-water cannons by authorities permissible, which in turn makes government profiling of protesters easier.

While Turkey’s regime ruthlessly hindered grass-root activism, its repression of the media also increased after the Gezi Park protests. The AKP government continued to use more frequently the threat of prosecution to intimidate journalists, editors and media outlets. Two Cumhuriyet columnists, Hikmet Çetinkaya and Ceyda Karan, were put on trial on account of “insulting people’s religious values” after reprinting Charlie Hebdo cartoons that depicted Prophet Muhammad (Today’s Zaman, 8 April 2015.) In another case, two cartoonists from Penguen, a weekly satirical magazine, had been convicted to include a hidden hand gesture that supposedly insulted President Erdogan (Hurriyet Daily News, 25 March 2015). Cengiz Candar and Ertugrul Ozkok, who are very well known columnists of Radikal and Hurriyet, also testified over the similar allegations, among many others (Radikal, 10 November 2015). As a result, self-censorship became an every-day practice. In 2014, 339 media workers were either fired or forced to resign.[2]

Remarkably, AKP had greatly benefited from the influence of Hizmet – now listed as a terrorist organization – in using the judiciary and the police to suppress regime dissenters. Hizmet played a major role in the emergence and rise of AKP. However, disagreements about how to share power between the two turned into a very public conflict in December 2013. As a result, the regime also launched assaults on pro-Gulen media. In 2014, AKP ordered investigations of offices of Zaman, the top selling newspaper of Turkey at the time, and Samanyolu TV. Authorities detained 24 people – including Ekrem Dumanli and Hidayet Karaca, the editor-in-chief of Zaman and the chairman of Samanyolu TV, respectively – on charges of “establishing a terrorist organization.” In 2015, the government suspended Bugun TV and Kanal Turk owned by Koza Ipek Holding, a company accused of “financing the Gulen terrorist organization.” The same year, the daily newspaper Taraf was faced with tax penalty charges following its coverage of the government’s profiling of individuals (fişleme) linked to Hizmet.

While AKP silenced its critics in the media, it also did not shy away from creating a pool of media companies (havuz medyasi) to generate positive coverage of the government, while misusing state resources, as in the cases of daily newspaper Sabah and television channel ATV. [2] Additionally, as many media outlets owned by giant corporations that have business links with AKP officials in various sectors, editorial boards are compelled to retain from criticism of the regime.

Thus, AKP’s vision of democracy – one that resides only in the ballot box – had long been defying the exercise of civil liberties in Turkey’s public and political life. Admittedly, this worsened following the failed military coup in July 2016. Today, Erdogan and the AKP legitimize their crackdown on regime critics as part of their struggle with terrorism. The ongoing nationwide state of emergency since the coup attempt has been allowing the regime to issue KHKs to purge critical voices in state institutions on all sides, bypassing the parliament. Moreover, the recent waves of KHK considerably threatens academic freedom in Turkey, as many scholars are expelled with no means of defending themselves.

Turkish academe

To begin with, Turkey’s academia has long suffered from political encroachments. Following the two military coups in 1971 and 1980, a massive number of academics were purged from their positions. In 1981, the military government created YOK (Higher Education Council). In doing so, the regime put all universities under one central institution while ensuring a role for YOK in the appointment of university rectors.

This completely destroyed Turkey’s universities’ autonomy, which were then already weak. Next, the constitution in 1982 enabled the president to appoint university rectors and YOK as faculty deans across Turkey’s universities. Remarkably, the military regime’s efforts to regulate academic life are an explicit illustration of its goal in disciplining oppositional voices. Although all elected governments have promised to bring an end to these anti-democratic practices, none of them have taken steps to reconstitute the autonomy of universities. During the 1990s, Turkish governments further encouraged YOK to repress academic life, as the military struggle with Kurdish separatists continued. At the same time, a myriad of intellectuals and academics were put behind bars on charges related to terrorism.

When AKP came to power in 2002, it fiercely criticized YOK and its secularist line of thinking. Its advocacy against the ban on headscarves at university garnered popular support. Simultaneously, Erdogan and his party promised to “democratize” higher education in 2002-07. Notwithstanding this, the regime soon embarked upon a path of asserting its control over YOK and universities. To do this, AKP on the one hand sought to create loyal cadres in academia by appointing its supporters to key positions and establishing universities across the country (precisely, 92 universities in 10 years). On the other hand, the regime has led numerous legal investigations into dissenting voices and opinions in academia.

According to the Ministry of Justice’s figures, 2300 students have faced disciplinary investigation between 2008 and 2012 while 209 students were put in jail. TODI (Initiative for Solidarity with Arrested Students) reports the latter number as 771. Many students were arrested in the course of KCK trials and the Gezi Park protests. The lengthy KCK trials hampered students’ right to education. Similarly, AKP warned students that they may lose their educational rights – including state-sponsored grants and accommodation – if they participate in Gezi protests. The regime sought to silence every form of student protests, even the ones related to campus life such as transportation, meal plans and accommodation.

To avoid student protests on their visits to university campuses, AKP officials have brought their “small-scale armies” consisting of special forces, security guards and police tanks. During Erdogan’s visit to the Middle East Technical University in 2012, thousands of police clashed with students protesting the visit, by using water cannons and sprays. The regime’s intolerance of critical voices also became visible in 2014 when Abdullah Gul, then-president of Turkey, visited Harvard University. Emrah Altindis, a research fellow in the university, became “a victim of libel”, after reminding Gul of the police violence in Gezi protests.

Arguably the most serious is the regime’s assaults on academics. Lack of institutional autonomy makes academia widely susceptible to AKP governments’ ideological interventions. The regime’s “mild” repression, including the surveillance of research topics and curriculum, the depriving its critics of research grants and the preferential treatment in academic promotion, is widespread. In some cases, academics have been subjected to disciplinary investigations by their universities (at the request of YOK), seemingly because of questions they raise in student exams. Gokcen Alpkaya and Baris Unlu, both scholars in Mulkiye, have recently encountered such investigations. Alpkaya’s question involved evaluation of a petition signed by Academics for Peace and Erdogan’s response to it in the framework international law. Unlu’s error was to refer to a piece of writing by Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish leader in prison. By allowing dissenting voices to be heard in their own classroom, these scholars admittedly pushed the boundaries of a public debate dominated by the AKP. In the course of investigations, Turkey’s havuz medya and especially its Islamist sections openly attacked both scholars. In the recent waves of KHKs, the regime has expelled Alpkaya and Unlu.

AKP singles out academics in opposition and punishes them mostly through its control over academic institutions. Additionally, the regime has more frequently used the threat of disciplinary and also criminal investigations in recent years. When 1128 Turkish academics as well as internationally renowned intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky, David Harvey and Slavoj Zizek, signed the above-mentioned petition on January, 2016, AKP swiftly launched a campaign to distance these scholars from their academic positions.

While the petition condemned the regime’s military operations and the accompanying human rights violations in the southeast Kurdish provinces of Turkey, Academics for Peace called the government to lead a road to lasting peace. Within days, Erdogan was calling the signatories “so-called intellectuals,” “traitors,” and “sympathizers of terrorism.” YOK initiated disciplinary investigations against Academics for Peace. Since then, 491 signatories have been subjected to this form of harassment. Many also found their research, travel grants and sabbatical leaves revoked. All signatories also faced a criminal investigation on charges related to “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “insulting the Turkish nation or state institutions.” Three academics accused of these charges had to remain in pre-trial detention for 40 days. Additionally, a number of signatories were taken into police custody. Along with these investigations, AKP’s havuz medya orchestrated a smear campaign against the signatories.

While the regime had already severely curbed the right to free speech in academia, the failed military coup in 2016 has enabled AKP to remove all its critics in state institutions by KHK laws. In the wake of the attempted coup, Erdogan announced a nationwide state of emergency, which is still ongoing, by inciting Article 120 of the Turkey’s constitution. According to the law, the Cabinet under the chairmanship of the President after consulting with the National Security Council may declare a state of emergency when there are serious indications of widespread violence threatening a free democratic order. Most significantly, the state of emergency allows the cabinet to issue KHKs by bypassing parliament.

Since the attempted coup, the regime has removed 100,000 people from public service in 5 KHKs, as part of its battle against Hizmet members. This number includes 4811 academics in 112 universities. Additionally, 312 academics who were expelled are signatories of the Peace petition. The scope of this academic purge is remarkable as it is 20 times higher than all the academics expelled under military governments since 1960.

Kerem Altiparmak, a law professor in Mulkiye, highlights AKP’s abuse of power, with respect to the academic purge under this ongoing state of emergency. According to the Turkish constitution, Altiparmak says, a KHK can only regulate matters which are related to causes and purposes of a given state of emergency. Accordingly, Turkey’s Constitutional Court has to oversee if an issued KHK meets this condition. However, KHKs issued by the AKP regulate matters far beyond their stated purposes, and the Constitutional court wrongly remains silent about these irregularities. In accordance with Turkey’s constitution, Altiparmak points out that an academic can be discharged temporarily if s/he poses an imminent threat to public order. However, s/he cannot be expelled permanently with no right to defense, since the state of emergency does not entail this permanent expulsion.

As the AKP KHKs continue to violate academic rights and freedoms en masse, various acts of collective resistance have emerged. In Mulkiye, 23 academics that were recently expelled sought to defy AKP by returning to their offices. However, police forces blocked the academics’ entrance to the campus by clashing with them and their supporters. Some remaining academics discontinued their lectures, while students launched a week-long boycott in the faculty. Since Mulkiye is becoming the symbol of resistance against the AKP’s authoritarian tendencies, the regime may seek to punish its participants, to set an example.


Today, expressing a dissenting opinion in public has become an act of heroism in Turkey. AKP-led governments have systematically violated the rights of free speech, thought, and association over the last decade, whilst seeking to dismantle any potential sources of opposition. Admittedly, the failed military coup – in Erdogan’s words, a gift of God – enabled the regime to legitimize these violations. The regime’s growing assaults on journalists, intellectuals and academics at this particular moment seem aimed at promoting self-censorship ahead of the constitutional referendum in April, through which Erdogan plans to strengthen his authoritarian rule.

[1] Moreover, Turkey has requested the biggest number of content removal (338) on Twitter while it has ranked second with 5517 requests on Facebook in the world in 2014.  See: “Freedom of Thought and Expression Awards 2005,” Turkish Publishers Association, Istanbul, 2015, p.28.

[2] “Probe Reveals Hidden Rule of Business in Turkey: Bribery,” Today’s Zaman, 9 March 2014.

Source: Open Democracy.

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