A friend of mine has been living in Turkey for years, but has now moved to another country. From Turkey to a country with a full and working democracy. She said that she has just begun to realize again how nice it is to live in a democracy, after which she asked: ‘Don’t you miss living in a democracy?’
Intriguing question of course, especially since I was in my home country last week, which is one of the democratic countries of the world. Whenever I am in the Netherlands I realize what I miss from there: friends to open a bottle of whiskey with and talk of love and life in my mother tongue, a more international cultural life with something as basic as good documentary films on TV, racing through the city on a bicycle, and restaurants where you can choose from more than Adana kebab, Urfa kebab, Iskender kebab and lentil soup, lentil soup and lentil soup. But do I miss democracy?
The last elections I participated in were the Dutch parliamentary elections in 2010. The coalition government formed after those elections didn’t make it to the full four year term, but in 2012 I decided not to vote again. I didn’t feel connected enough to what was happening in my home country. I do feel connected to what happens in Turkey, but unfortunately I am not eligible to vote here.
But let’s not be so stupid as to reduce ‘democracy’ to the voting process. Democracy is also, to name a few things: a functioning press, accountable politicians, separation of powers, a thriving civil society, respect for internationally recognized human rights (and for the authorities trying to enforce them) and the protection of minority groups.
On all these crucial issues, Turkey is failing big time.
In a democracy, journalists are not thrown in jail or fired for what they write and the government isn’t in control of what papers publish and TV stations broadcast. In a democracy, ministers take responsibility for wrongs in society instead of covering them up and making money from them. In a democracy the separation of powers is not thrown overboard to serve the power of one party and its leader. In a democracy, an evolving civil society is not threatened with court cases and smear campaigns. In a democracy, leaders don’t ridicule rulings of international courts on minorities and disregard them with pride. In a democracy people don’t feel cornered into taking up arms to fight for their rights. And in a democracy, no megalomaniac 615 million dollar, 150,000 square meter (that’s five Ikeas!) presidential palace is built.
But these things in general don’t affect my personal life. I am in a privileged position. I may detest the state of the media in Turkey, but as a foreign journalist I can work freely without the risk of being thrown in jail or being prosecuted for what I write. I don’t have a poor family in which the men have to work in a mine or as a smuggler and risk their lives every single day. I don’t have children who are being indoctrinated in the Turkish education system without the possibility to learn their mother tongue properly. I’m not a transsexual at risk of being murdered on the street without the state caring a tiny little bit or doing anything to prevent it.
But still, the lack of democracy is creeping up on me. The human rights situation in Turkey is worsening again (I write ‘again’ because we shouldn’t forget that Turkey was no democracy before AKP rule either), and I know every foreign journalist in this country wonders if and how this will eventually affect their work too. Up until the nineties, foreign journalists were prosecuted and removed from Turkey and that isn’t happening anymore, but we are increasingly targeted by government officials and their affiliated media outlets. I refuse to censor myself, but lately more than ever I wonder if what I write could get me into trouble, and if so, what kind of trouble and what I could do about it.
When I am targeted or even threatened on twitter, I wonder what I should do. I never went to the police, and one of the reasons is that I don’t have much trust in the flawed Turkish justice system, which often protects the ones it should prosecute. When I’m in line for the passport check at the Turkish border coming from abroad, I always feel a bit nervous, and then effusively relieved when my passport is stamped – I’m allowed in again! And when I cover a demonstration, like recently at the border close to Kobani, with every teargas canister shot I am afraid it will hit my head.
That is what a lack of democracy is: you cannot count on the state to leave you alone when you are, like most people in this country, not doing anything illegal (or anything that should be illegal) and just live your life and do your job. And you cannot trust the state to protect you when it’s necessary because fundamental rights are not rooted in the system.
So, do I miss democracy? Maybe for my personal life that’s too big a word. I don’t miss it in the sense that I even consider for one second leaving Turkey and going back to my small democratic country by the North Sea. The Netherlands may be a (flawed) democratic state; it is also a country with a closed society which is not welcoming to foreigners, with people who are harsh, impolite and very individualistic. Can you believe that Dutch citizens of Turkish descent, whose grandparents migrated to Holland, are still considered foreigners? I have been living in Turkey for eight years now, and countless times I have been told by Turks and Kurds alike that I am not a foreigner anymore.
For now, the lack of democracy in Turkey doesn’t outweigh the joy and personal and professional fulfilment that living in Turkey gives me. But it worries me that I have started to wonder how much more democracy has to decline before the balance changes.