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Friday, August 29, 2014

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Erdogan bares his fangs to Turkish protesters

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This week’s column is dedicated to Mordechai Ben-Dat, who is leaving The CJN after 19 years as editor.

 

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As a further illustration of the extent to which turmoil and discord continue to affect just about every country in the Middle East, no sooner did the May 30 “According to Reports” state that Israel and “arguably” Turkey were the stable exceptions to this pattern than widespread protests broke out in dozens of Turkish cities and towns, foremost in Istanbul. These protests grew over the next two weeks until, on the night of June 11, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been angrily warning of a crackdown, unleashed the riot police. 

Under the gaze of the international media, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters and used bulldozers to tear down barricades in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

The protesters had been reacting mainly to Erdogan’s increasing authoritarian and Islamic-inspired rule – a challenge to the country’s secular heritage that has prevailed over much of the last century.

Let’s recall that Erdogan boasted not all that long ago in Egypt, as the “Arab Spring” was in its initial stages, that Muslim-dominant but non-Arab Turkey should serve as a model of how a secular democracy can function effectively. At the same time, however, he was gaining a reputation as an illiberal leader, targeting journalists among others.

On June 12, Canadian media reported that two CBC News correspondents, Sasa Petricic and Derek Stoffel, who had been covering the protests, had been detained by police in Istanbul. This led to Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, protesting to Turkey’s ambassador. While Petricic and Stoffel’s detention was short-lived, large numbers of other journalists, mainly Turkish, have not been so fortunate. But even the CBC incident exposes something troubling about Erdogan’s attitude to liberal democracy.

Also on June 12, a Der Spiegel report declared bluntly that “Prime Minister Erdogan tolerates no criticism.”

The report went on to describe the hostile atmosphere for journalists: “While CNN International showed live images of the dramatic clashes between police and protesters [in Taksim Square], the Turkish channel aired a documentary about penguins. Many newspapers complied with the de facto news blackout.

“Whether the journalists were following government instructions or simply suppressing the news in an act of preemptive obedience is still unclear. Freedom of the press and diversity of opinion have been in jeopardy in Turkey, and not just since the current unrest began some two weeks ago. After years of persecution, no other country in the world – not even China or Iran – has more journalists in prison than Turkey, which hopes to be accepted into the European Union. It’s an embarrassing world record.”

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On June 9, the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) provided an in-depth look at how tiny Israel manages to lead the world in cyber security.

As CSM explained: “With double the number of scientists and engineers per capita compared to the U.S. and 10 times more active-duty soldiers relative to its total population, Israel already has impressive human capital in scientific fields such as cybersecurity. But now it is also tapping everything from high school classrooms to venture capital firms to extract cream-of-the-crop cyber experts, hone their skills and ideas, and fund their development.”

CSM cited an American cyber security expert Alan Paller, who said that, on a per capita basis, the Israeli skill level in this field, “outdoes everyone, even China.”

Still, experts agree that Israel needs to do even more to keep pace with the threats it faces, mainly from Iran. 

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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