The attacks against independent media and an upcoming controversial referendum pose serious risks to the future of Turkish democracy, experts told a Vienna audience today at an event examining the role of the OSCE in a complex security environment.

Under the title, “Shrinking Democratic Space,” the Diplomatic Academy Students Initiative Conference (DASICON) welcomed a panel of five academics and representatives of the OSCE to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna on March 3.

“We see massive democratic backsliding and the destruction of freedom of speech and freedom of the media,” said Dr. Kerem Öktem, professor at the University of Graz. “And it’s not only journalists who are in jail but thousands of academics.”

Turkey has been deeply criticized in recent weeks for holding an estimated 153 journalists and media workers behind bars, many of whom, according to the International Press Institute, have been targeted for their journalism.

This is a trend, which fellow panelist Matthijs Berman, principal adviser of the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, says points to bigger implications about the freedom of democracy in Turkey.

“Freedom of the media is the cornerstone of democracy,” Berman said. “The coup d’etat has been condemned by the whole world and repeatedly so. Nevertheless this cannot be an excuse to put in prison journalists who do nothing else than their work writing about opposition figures.”

Berman also referenced the recent detention of Deniz Yücel, a correspondent for Germany’s Die Welt, which has deepened the tension between Turkey and Western Europe. Yücel, a German-Turkish dual national, was detained in Turkey after he reported on a hacking attempt against Energy Minister Berat Albayrak. The minister also happens to be President Erdoğan’s son-in-law.

On Monday, Yücel’s detention was extended under the current state of emergency sparking protest across Western Europe.

Öktem says suppression of the media is just one of several disturbing problems that Turkish democracy faces in the months and years ahead. “Now there is a deeply undemocratic referendum looming on the horizon,” he said. “The government has pretty much been saying whoever votes no is a terrorist. And it is kind of establishing this narrative of terrorism which of course is not a democratic way of dealing with the referendum.”

Criticism of Turkey’s suppression of media and upcoming referendum met with opposition from at least one audience member. Raising her hand during the call for questions, a representative to the Turkish Permanent Mission to the OSCE challenged the panel. After being cautioned by the moderator to stick to posing a question rather than defending the Turkish government, she argued that, “It’s the freedom of expression.”

“Our ministers were denied to make speeches in some European capitals,” the representative to the Turkish Mission said, referring to Turkish political rallies in Germany that had permits ta­­­ken away by local governments just hours after Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded the release of Yücel.

“Europe always talks about the freedom of expression but they do not tolerate freedom of speech,” she said. “Is that a contradiction?”

Berman says no. “There are no excuses for these kinds of arrests. If you are reporting terrorists, you are not a terrorist, you are a journalist,” he argued. “This dialogue is not easy when the basic principles of the Council of Europe are in difficulty.”

Öktem added that the Turkish governments’ tendency to label the opposition as terrorists will only cause problems for the upcoming referendum. “This is not a democratic way of dealing with the referendum,” he said. “If those who are in power say there is only one legitimate option, we can ask whether a referendum makes sense in the first place.”