Many inconvenient truths in Turkey

Nieuws | de redactie
5 juni 2013 | Turkey holds the dubious record of having the highest number of journalists imprisoned. How about the academics? Does the clamp down on freedom of speech hit the academic world just as hard as it hits the media?

In September 2011 Nature reports of a ‘Scientific coup’ on the eve of the yearly Ramadan. By decree the government gave itself tighter control of Turkey’s two main scientific organizations: the funding agency Tübitak and the Turkish Academy of Sciences (Tüba). “The governance of which is now so altered that it can no longer be considered an academy at all”, concludes Nature.

Little respect for expert advice

“Tübitak, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, was already close to the government. Now that relationship has been reinforced and institutionalized. A triumvirate of president, prime minister and science minister will appoint some members of Tübitak’s decision-making scientific board, and nominate its president and two vice-presidents. The triumvirate lost no time, and on 30 August 2011 it replaced the incumbent president with electrical engineer Yücel Altunbasak.”

Worse than the takeover of Tübitak is the transfer of the Turkish Academy of Sciences to the Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology, thinks Nature. “One-third of the members of the Academy will be appointed by the government and one-third by YÖK, the Higher Education Council, most of whose members are in turn appointed by the government or president.”

Tüba is supposed now to create a series of basic research institutes, something that Nature judges a “Sovjet model of linking institutes to national academies.”

The journal concludes: “The government has made a big mistake in interfering with Tüba’s membership. Every democratic country requires an independent academy to provide independent scientific advice. But then this government shows little respect for expert advice.”

Jailed for sharing data

Prime Minister Erdogan has reigned in the research organizations, how about the academics working in the institutions? The organization Scholars at risk reports that individual academics and students are harassed and jailed. A case in point is the arrest of the epidemiologist Onur Hamzaoglu (Kocaeli University, Izmit).

Hamzaoglu revealed that the region’s industrial basin has high pollution levels and increased cancer rates. In his article he stated that the proportion of deaths caused by cancer in Dilovasi (Kocaeli province) is 3 times higher than both the national and world data records, which makes it an acute public health problem that should be dealt with as soon as possible. The epidemiologist is now being investigated for ‘unethical behaviour’ leading to ‘public alarm’, and faces a jail sentence.

Erdogan’s ‘fair trial’

When in 2010 news spread that another iron and steel plant was to be built in Kocaeli Province, very near the city center, public unrest arose. On his website Onur Hamzaoglu recounts that in 2011 he informed a journalist about his earlier studies on the impact of industrial pollution on human health.

Hamzaoglu: “In response, I told the journalist that according to measurements and test results from the research project there was air pollution and heavy metals in the air and these heavy metals were also found in the breast milk of women and feces of newborn children.”

“Misinforming the public”

The government responded by accusing the epidemiologist of ‘lying’ and denounced him as ‘charlatan’ in the media. A short while later the accusations in the press were followed by a formal complaint of ‘inciting fear and panic in public’ and asking for his imprisonment.

Even so, the YÖK (the Higher Education Council, see above) blamed Hamzaoglu of “misinforming the public about cancer without supporting data and documents and spreading fear and panic.” Apparently it’s not academic colleagues, but the government who decides on what is or what is not scientific in Turkey.

What followed was a quagmire of requests and postponements resulting in the fact that after two years the ‘punitive investigations’ against Onur Hamzaoglu are still ongoing: the Turkish version of ‘fair trial’ that is well known to many others in Erdogan’s country.

Forbidden words

And it’s not just research that compromises the interests of big industry. The Turkish government likes to ‘monitor’ closely what historians are doing. Historian and sociologist Taner Akçam investigated the Ottoman state archives for his study of the Armenian genocide. The mere use of the word ‘genocide’ resulted in his prosecution. Akçam was indicted for ‘insulting Turkishness’ under Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code.

The official government’s reading of events of 1915 is that ‘Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were actively joining the Empire’s enemies in World War I. Their fate can therefore not count as genocide and only 235 Armenians were removed from Istanbul.’

It is called genocide

However, on the basis of his research in the Prime Ministerial Ottoman Archives Taner Akçam concludes that well over 1 million Armenian and Assyrian Christians were massacred as the result of specific policies by the Ottoman government to pursue ‘ethno-religious homogenization’ as early as 1913.

Not surprisingly Akçam quickly lost his popularity with the Turkish government. Although in 2007 the Istanbul court decided not to prosecute, Akçam faced harassment and – fearful of the fate of his friend Hrant Dink – Taner Akçam moved to the United States where he is still working.

A small comfort: in October 2011 Akçam won a case in the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the Turkish law against ‘denigrating Turkishness’ violates the freedom of expression.

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