Freedom House again classes Turkey as 'Not Free', but does the Turkish government care?

The U.S. NGO Freedom House’s annual index of freedom around the world has been published, giving Turkey a score of 32/100. Turkey’s score has been bumping along at the low 30s after declining rapidly from the early 2010s.

Turkey scores particularly badly on whether “various segments of society have full political rights and electoral opportunities”, noting that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seen to favour Sunni Muslims, has expanded religious education, and that LGBT+ people and refugees remain marginalised.

Turkey also received a low score for measures to stop corruption: “Corruption—including money laundering, bribery, and collusion in the allocation of government contracts—remains a major problem, even at the highest levels of government.” And on ‘openness and transparency’, Turkey scored zero out of a possible four points in the index. 

As with other issues that affect Turkey’s democratic systems, this is directly related to the lack of media pluralism in the country, as “external monitors like civil society groups and independent journalists are subject to arrest and prosecution if they attempt to expose government wrongdoing.”

Turkey also scores low for academic freedom, freedom of assembly, and the independence of the judiciary, all of which seem to be on a downward trend in 2021. Turkey scored 0/4 for due process in criminal cases.

Amy Slipowitz, who runs the Freedom in the World project at Freedom House, told Ahval that Freedom House hoped the report would be used by activists in Turkey to advance their advocacy efforts.

Although Turkey’s overall score in the index has remained the same as last year, over the last 10 years, Turkey’s score declined by more than any country except Mali.

#Turkey’s score remained unchanged in this year's @freedomhouse #FreedomInTheWorld report, but it has experienced the second-largest score decline over the last 10 years (behind Mali). The pandemic was used as a tool to further suppress public discourse.

— Gina S. Lentine (@ginayogina) March 3, 2021

Slipowitz noted that “We saw Turkey settle into a new, downgraded status quo after the flawed constitutional referendum in 2017. Its overall score has remained virtually unchanged, and this continued during 2020. The previous year, we were encouraged by opposition victories in key municipal elections, but recognize that serious obstacles remain, including the appointment of “trustees” to replace HDP mayors.”

It is noteworthy that the U.S. also features on the list of countries where freedom has declined most in the recent past, with its score dropping by 11 points. All this data can be found in the extended report.

I suggested to Freedom House that Turkish government supporters would dismiss the report as biased, because Freedom House has been funded by U.S. government grants in the past. Slipowitz clarified that while Freedom House’s overall work has been funded by U.S. federal grants, the Freedom in the World project is not. “The most recent edition was funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and a couple of private foundations (listed here),” Slipowitz said.

She continued, “To maintain our objectivity, Freedom in the World does not take funding from the US government. We also minimize subjectivity in our analysis as much as possible through a series of standards and reviews. Some of the ways this is done is by thoroughly vetting country analysts prior to contracting them in order to avoid political bias or lack of methodological rigor, reviewing and discussing all scores among a panel of Freedom House staff and outside experts, and comparing scores to those of other countries in the region and world, both that year and across time, to ensure the methodology is being applied consistently”

Turkey has this week announced a Human Rights Action Plan, which seems to be aimed more at improving its relationship with the EU and U.S. than in actually improving human rights or the rule of law. One of the announcements made as part of this plan is for Turkey to produce its own human rights report. Given their poor score in Freedom House’s report, you can see why this might be an attractive thing for Turkey to do.

I asked Amy Slipowitz if Freedom House had made any assessment of the Action Plan yet. She responded that “Freedom in the World’s goal is to assess people’s real-world rights and freedoms, so we need to wait and see if these reforms are actually implemented and how much teeth they have.”

The Turkish economy has undoubtedly been affected by this decline in freedom and the rule of law. It’s hard to quantify exactly what level of damage has been done, but hundreds of thousands of young, educated people have left Turkey, seeing no future for themselves in the country. 

Erdoğan has made no secret of wanting to build a pious generation of young Turkish citizens, but what that says to people who do not share these religious, conservative, nationalist values is that they are not wanted, and that they will not be favoured for jobs by Turkish public or private institutions controlled by the government and their allies. The Turkish government thinks some of its most successful and educated citizens are too Western, too liberal, and too progressive, so who can blame these people for wanting to move to Europe or the U.S. instead?

The strange thing is that the AKP are not making more of an effort to make their human rights plan sound legitimate, rather than a PR exercise containing precisely nothing. In fact, the AKP is mulling changes to electoral law which could make it easier for them to win elections.

With its support in polls dropping & disenchanted followers unlikely to be lured back this time, #Turkish President Erdogan’s AK Party is considering changes to electoral laws which could rescue its prospects in elections due to be held by 2023

— Hümeyra Pamuk (@humeyra_pamuk) March 2, 2021

According to Reuters, “Three AK Party sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said plans included dividing large urban electoral districts into smaller constituencies, changes which one party official said could significantly boost the number of AK Party lawmakers.”

Given such proposals coming from the Turkish government, the prospects for Turkey’s Freedom House index score rising next year do not look very promising. The Turkish government’s lack of commitment to a democratic, open and pluralistic society are clear, and they are not fooling anyone with their latest PR campaign. The trend for freedom in Turkey will continue to be negative unless real, concrete actions are taken to reinforce the country’s crumbling democratic institutions. Besides the Turkish government itself, few people are optimistic that any democratic reforms will be enacted.