Academic freedom in Turkey: Theresa May has a choice to make

The UK must raise the issue of Turkey's appalling treatment of academia, says Mehmet Ugur

January 28, 2017
Turkey flag
Source: iStock

The UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, is visiting Turkey. So far, her government has remained largely silent despite the dictatorial drift in the country.

In the few announcements that have been made, the message has been one of appeasement. In September 2016, for example, her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, stated that the UK government would help Turkey join the European Union. This is despite his award for the “most offensive” poem on the Turkish president, and his Brexit campaign’s portrayal of Turkey as a potential source of insecurity, terrorism, criminality and uncontrolled immigration.

Of course, we cannot hold the UK government responsible for the Turkish government’s assaults on freedoms and democracy. Unless there is evidence to the contrary, however, the UK government will be historically held responsible for turning a blind eye to a brutal regime and lending international legitimacy to its rule.

May can make a choice that may qualify the historians’ verdict. She can stand for the norms that provide legitimacy for her own government and urge her Turkish interlocutors to stop the assaults on academic freedoms, human rights and political dissent, and to release and compensate all innocent victims.

We, a group of academics who come from Turkey and contribute to teaching and research in UK universities, would like to draw the prime minister’s attention to why such a course of action would be the right choice to make.

The Turkish higher education system is regulated by laws that contradict all international standards on academic freedoms, including those in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education, the Magna Carta Universitatum, and the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel. UK universities commit to abide by these international covenants and agreements, and this commitment underpins their success in research and teaching.

Article 4 of the Turkish Higher Education Law stipulates that the aim of the Turkish higher education system is to ensure that students are “loyal to Ataturk nationalism” and “conscious of the privilege of being a Turk”. The Higher Education Council that regulates the system consists of 14 members appointed by the president or the council of ministers and only seven members appointed by an inter-university board.

This legal/regulatory framework is a far cry from the international standards, which stipulate that the autonomy of higher education institutions shall be exercised by democratic means of self-government, institutions of higher education…are communities of scholars…pursuing new knowledge without constriction by prescribed doctrines, and education shall…promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups.

The Turkish government should be left in no doubt that its higher education system should be made compliant with the international standards, the relentless attacks on academic freedom and democratic opposition should be stopped, and innocent victims should be compensated. Here is a by no means complete summary of the tragic facts about the current state of the academic freedoms and democracy in Turkey.

Before the botched coup in July 2016, the AKP government instigated a campaign against Academics for Peace – more than 2,000 academics who signed a letter calling on the Turkish government to stop the destruction and civilian killings in Kurdish cities and towns. After the coup, thousands of academics were fired and around 20 universities shut down.

The president is now empowered to appoint all public university vice-chancellors. Scholars at Risk’s 2016 report states that the government’s actions have “harmed the reputation of Turkey’s higher education sector as a reliable partner” for research, teaching and other scholarly activities.

Currently, 10 lawmakers from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including the co-chairs Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, are in detention. Furthermore, 2,488 HDP members and activists have been detained over the past 18 months.

Turkey also tops the list of countries detaining journalists and violating freedom of expression. As of December, 128 journalists were in prison. The Turkish government has also suspended the credentials of 34 journalists and shut down TV channels, news agencies, radio stations, newspapers, magazines and publishing houses. 

Turkey also has an appalling record with respect to excessively long pre-trial detention of university students. The government is still silent on the issue, despite a parliamentary question having been submitted in October 2016. Estimates suggests that the number is around 400. These students are missing education and exams, with eventual denial of their rights to education. One of them, Ilhan Comak, has been in detention for 23 years.

Given the situation, we urge the prime minister to echo the demand of the UN Special Rapporteur who, in November 2016, called on Turkey “to release journalists, writers, and academics who are currently detained pursuant to counter-terrorism legislation and emergency decrees”.

May has the chance to demonstrate that her government stands up for academic freedom and democracy, and does not prop up an increasingly authoritarian and unpredictable regime.

This article was written and endorsed by:

Professor Mehmet Ugur, University of Greenwich
Dr Naif Bezwan, dismissed from Mardin Artuklu University
Dr Mehmet Ali Dikerdem, Middlesex University
Dr Tunc Aybak, Middlesex University
Dr Burce Celik, Loughborough University London
Professor Ozlem Onaran, University of Greenwich
Dr Ipek Demir, University of Leicester
Professor Bulent Gokay, Keele University
Dr Esra Ozyurek, London School of Economics
Sinem Aslan, PhD candidate, University of Essex
Dr Janroj Yilmaz Keles, Middlesex University
Dr Umut Erel, Open University
Dr Huseyin Dogan, Bournemouth University
Dr Ozgur Gundogan, University of Portsmouth
Hakan Sandal, PhD candidate, University of Cambridge
Professor Mustafa Ozbilgin, Brunel University
Dr Ece Algan, Loughborough University London

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