Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva is a global city, a financial center, and worldwide center for diplomacy. Many of the United Nations agencies are headquartered there, as well as the International Red Cross. Geneva is the city that hosts the highest number of international organizations in the world. It is also the place where the Geneva Conventions were signed. Switzerland has remained neutral, avoiding alliances that would necessitate military or political action, since 1515. Its policy of neutrality has been internationally recognized since 1815. Switzerland is a very small nation, thus the need for neutrality. Although small, Switzerland is a nation in and of itself. It is not affiliated in any way, nor under the rule of Turkey. Yet … President Erdogan of Turkey believes that he has a right to tell Switzerland, just as he did Germany, what is or is not acceptable.
In 2013, during a peaceful protest in Turkey, 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, who was reportedly not a part of the protest, was hit in the head with a tear-gas canister thrown by Turkish police. Elvan remained in a coma for 269 days, before he died in 2014. Elvan’s photograph, taken by Swiss photographer Demir Sönmez, is on display at an exhibition across from the United Nations complex in Geneva. In the photo, there is a banner with the phrase “My name is Berkin Elvan. The police killed me, on the order of Turkey’s prime minister.” On Monday, the Turkish consulate filed an official complaint with Geneva demanding that the photo be removed from the ongoing exhibition.
Last week, you may remember, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, made the decision to allow Erdogan to file a civil action against Jan Boehmermann for a poem he read on German television mocking Erdogan. Germany and Switzerland both have an outdated ‘lese-majeste’ laws on their books that make it illegal to insult foreign leaders. It is apparent that Merkel’s decision last week may have set a precedent and given Erdogan the idea that he can control satire and mockery of himself and his leadership in all nations. Chancellor Merkel has indicated that she intends to change the German law, and presumably at this juncture Switzerland will do the same, but meanwhile Erdogan’s complaints must be acted upon, which gives him a large degree of power that is unwarranted, not to mention frightening. Boehmermann’s poem, granted, was by all accounts crude and extremely insulting. However the banner and picture of young Berkin Elvan is not. It seems that if Mr. Erdogan finds it offensive, then he must in fact find his own actions embarrassing.
Dutch journalist Ebru Umar was arrested and detained in Turkey for posting ‘tweets’ and also a column she wrote for the Dutch Metro newspaper criticizing Erdogan. Over the past two years, more than 1,800 cases have been brought against journalists for criticizing Erdogan, and the Turkish government has urged Turks living in the Netherlands to report insults to either the Turkish government or Erdogan. Ms. Umar was released on Sunday.
It is the opinion of this writer that the world needs to sit up and take notice of President Erdogan’s actions. Technically, Turkey is a Parliamentary Democracy. Realistically, it appears to be moving more toward a dictatorship. I am cautious in using Hitler comparisons, as it is an easy trap to fall into, often without validity. But in this case, I see some parallels. Hitler curtailed freedom of speech and press in 1933 Erdogan is pushing for an expansion of his power within the Turkish government and recently commented that Hitler’s Germany was an example of “an effective form of government.” The Turkish government has already taken over one media group, Feza Media Group, and Erdogan has greatly curtailed freedom of speech and freedom of the press within Turkey. Now, he apparently seeks to lengthen his reach to other nations such as Germany, the Netherlands and even Switzerland.
Part of the reason Erdogan thinks he has some leverage with members of the EU is that he has agreed to take some of the refugees and asylum-seekers that the EU cannot, or will not, accommodate. In truth, this may actually give him a degree of leverage, some wiggle room to impose his will up to a point. Certainly the refugee situation is dire and Turkey’s willingness to accept new refugees is important. However, the world cannot afford to allow Erdogan unlimited authority, or to accede to his demands. There must be limits placed on his power outside of Turkey, and the time to place those limits is now.
Erdogan became president of Turkey in 2014, just two years ago. Simon Tisdall of The Guardian, a UK/International publication, writes that Erdogan’s grab for power is similar to that of Russia’s Putin. Certainly Putin also bears watching, as it is apparent that his goal is to re-establish a Soviet-style empire and he has already taken certain steps toward that goal with his actions in the Crimea, Belarus, Finland, and even Syria. Despite the hostilities between the two leaders, there are similarities.
In addition to Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Spain and a number of Middle Eastern countries have ‘lese-majeste’ laws, making it illegal to insult foreign leaders. Let the current situation be a wake-up call to the governments of those nations that these laws need to be changed before dictators such as Putin and Erdogan begin to reach their tentacles into freedoms of the press across the world.