Turkish minister pressed on case of charged academics

The New York-based Scholars at Risk, or SAR, Network has urged the Turkish Minister of National Education, Nabi Avci, to make public a private affirmation of Turkey’s commitment to academic freedom and called on him to support ending the investigation of 1,128 academics from 89 universities who signed a petition criticising military operations in the south-east of Turkey.

Robert Quinn, executive director of the SAR Network, said issuing a public statement to that effect “could have very positive effect inside and outside Turkey”.

Some of the Turkish scholars have been investigated for and-or charged with criminal offences including spreading “terrorist propaganda”, “inciting people to hatred, violence and breaking the law”, and “insulting Turkish institutions and the Turkish Republic”.

The academics being investigated could reportedly face between one and five years in prison if convicted.

Quinn sent his open letter to the education minister on 31 March, the day that Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was visiting Washington DC to speak at the Brookings Institution.

Quinn shared with University World News a copy of the private letter that Avci had sent to SAR, in which he said: “As an academic I agree with you that academics should not be put under pressure for their opinions.”

Avci was responding to a letter sent by Quinn on behalf of an international coalition of academic organisations in January and went on to say that Quinn had misunderstood the meaning of the petition, which he said falsely accused the government of a “planned massacre”.

He questioned Quinn’s description of the petition’s message as urging Turkish authorities to renew dialogue efforts with factions in the south-east, saying “in reality the meaning has been understood as an obvious attack at the Turkish government and legitimation of what the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] terrorists have been doing in the region”.

However, he also said that the Turkish constitution and laws “guarantee university autonomy and academic freedom”.

He denied that the current investigation was “related to restricting academic freedom or freedom of expression”. Rather the Turkish Council of Higher Education, or YÖK, had begun the investigations in response to the public outcry created by the petition “as well as alleged criminal offences including making ‘terrorist propaganda’”.

“Finally, without hesitation, I would like to reaffirm Turkey’s commitment to academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association – all of which are under the protection of our constitution.”

Special responsibility

In his response, Quinn said while SAR appreciated that the opinions expressed in the academics’ statement “may be disputed or unpopular, the asking of questions and expression of ideas – especially disputed or unpopular ideas – is not only essential to quality higher education; it is the root of democratic legitimacy and the rule of law”.

He said academics have a “special responsibility” within democratic society to ask questions and to impart information and ideas to the public.

“This ensures that sensitive issues may be more widely understood, and affords the public a means of forming opinions based on evidence and reason over passion, prejudice or ideology.”

He said the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom are designed to protect scholars when they accept this responsibility, whether from overzealous “official reactions” or public outcry.

“We therefore remain concerned that the pending investigations and proceedings against the signatory academics are in response to public outcry – precisely the pressure against which institutional autonomy and academic freedom are designed to protect – and that the Turkish Council of Higher Education and judicial authorities appear to consider the mere act of signing a public statement a criminal offence.”

Clear statement

Quinn urged the Turkish minister to make a clear statement:
  • • Affirming that Turkey and the ministry remain squarely committed to the principles of academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association;

  • • Affirming that the asking of questions and expression of disputed or unpopular ideas are essential to quality higher education and democratic society, and that the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom recognised in Turkey’s constitution specifically protect scholars when they accept this social responsibility;

  • • Affirming that any pending investigations or proceedings against the signatory academics based solely on their public statement should be quickly ended.
He added that while the ministry may not have not have direct authority over many of the current actions against the signatory academics, it does have responsibility to protect the quality and reputation of the Turkish higher education sector.

“We are confident that a public statement from you would send a strong message and help to restrain further harmful and overzealous efforts. “

'Act of retaliation’

The arrests appeared to be an act of retaliation for the academics co-signing a public petition criticising military operations against Kurdish rebels in civilian areas in the south-east of the country and urging Turkish authorities to renew dialogue with factions to build a lasting peace, as reported in University World News.

The petition entitled “We won’t be a party to this crime”, called for a halt to “massacres” and urged the government to create conditions for negotiations and prepare a "road map that would lead to a lasting peace".

But President Erdogan accused those who signed the petition of engaging in “terrorist propaganda” on behalf of the PKK, membership of which is illegal, and of failing to condemn violence by the militants. He also said they were “the darkest of people”.

According to Bianet, administrative investigations have been launched into more than 500 academics following the declaration entitled “We will not be a party to this crime” signed by 1,128 academics.

Some 38 academics have been laid off on various allegations, 33 have been detained by house raid, six have been forced to resign.

For instance, on 31 March Assistant Professor Meral Camci was subjected to a custody order for signing the Academics for Peace declaration. An academic at Yeni Yüzyil University, department of translation and interpreting, she was fired on 24 February, Bianet reported.

Clampdown on dissent

The move against the academics is part of an increasing pattern of clamping down on dissent inside Turkey. For instance, the government seized control of one of the leading opposition newspapers, Today’s Zaman, in early March, an act which its editor described as meaning the “practical end of media freedom in Turkey”.

On 22 March, the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu continued the political attack on academics and anyone else who questioned the government’s policies on the Kurdish problem, warning MPs of an “evil alliance”, led by terrorists and supported by media groups, academics and opposition politicians, behind recent terror attacks, Hurriet Daily News reported.

“There is a treacherous plan behind the recent terrorist attacks. There is an alliance of evil composed of some media, academia, politicians and international actors in support of these attacks against Turkey,” he said.

“This is a struggle for our independence and our future. They know that Turkey is the only country resisting plans to re-draw the map in our region.”

However, on 25 March, Çaglar Demirel, group deputy chairperson of the People’s Democratic Party and MP for Diyarbakir, asked for an Assembly Commission to be set up to investigate discharges, suspension, investigations, detentions and arrests of academics who signed the petition.

She added that universities have to be allowed to fulfil their mission of creating free thought, and their basic right to freedom of expression had to be ensured, Bianet reported.