Freedom of Expression under Threat in Turkey

Freedom of Expression under Threat in Turkey

Paris – The country in focus this week is Turkey after being in the spotlight over numerous trials concerning the fate of many media workers, journalists and NGOs since the country’s deadly July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The crackdown on media outlets and journalists exercising their democratic rights, freedom of speech, press freedom, and peaceful activism is still a harsh reality almost four years on. The trials over the past few weeks have sparked international attention with many criticizing Turkey for its politically motivated actions directed at silencing its opponents and crushing any chance of a thriving civil society.

Context – One of the bloodiest days in all of Turkey’s political history saw members of the Turkish military coordinating a widespread campaign to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government in several major cities across the country. Soldiers, tanks and fighter jets desolated the country but as news of the coup attempt spread across social media, thousands of citizens took to the streets with kitchen utensils to challenge the coup. With the help of police and other soldiers, the government declared victory in a few hours, however the triumph came with a heavy price as the overall death toll amounted to 241 and 2,194 people were injured. On July 22, 2016, the government declared a state of emergency and began arresting thousands of suspects most of them members of the Fethullah Gülen organization for their “alleged” involvement in the coup attempt. Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish businessman and leader of many religious movements known as “Hizmet,” and an erstwhile ally of president Erdogan was quickly designated as the leader of the coup, and his organizations were officially classified as “terrorists.” This came on the background of an ongoing bureaucratic and political spat between “Gülenists” and president Erdogan’s ruling party leading to conflict between them. Indeed, Gülen has been in self-imposed exile since 1999 and has denied any allegations implicating him or his supporters in the coup. In the days following the coup, thousands of military officials, civil servants, teachers, academics and journalists were dismissed from their jobs for their “alleged” ties to Gülen and his movement. In addition, scores of media outlets were shut down for their suspected link to the “terrorist” movement.

Current Situation – Although the state of emergency was lifted in 2018, almost four years on, journalists and media workers are still enduring persecution by the government with 157 remaining in jail, with a combined number of days in prison amounting to 218,143 according to the European Federation of Journalists. The government’s assault on the media and journalists are based on the pretence of terrorism related charges and crimes against the state. The government’s systematic attempt at silencing the media and any potential scrutiny included alleged physical attacks on media organizations and journalists, interference with publications, pressure on media outlets to dismiss critical staff and the forced closure of over 180 media outlets and TV stations.

In a 69-page report by Human Rights Watch, they found that the crackdown not only targeted journalists and media associated with the Gulen movement but also pro-Kurdish media and other independent voices known for criticizing the government such as prominent newspaper, “Cumhuriyet” and its journalists. Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia Director said, “Keeping journalists and media workers in jail and closing down media and publishing outlets under the state of emergency shows how Turkey is deliberately flouting basic principles of human rights and rule of law central to democracy.”

Over the last few weeks, a series of trials have taken place to decide the fate of many media workers and journalists. Accusations of “membership in a terrorist organization” and “attempting to overthrow the government” appears to be a recurring trend with many journalists and media outlets being tried for content published in daily articles and reports. On Thursday 20 February 2020, editors-in-chief of now-closed Özgür Gündem newspaper, Eren Keskin and Hüseyin Aykol appeared in court for charges of “making terrorist propaganda,” “praising the crime and criminal” and “inciting public to commit a crime” along with daily’s managing editor Reyhan Çapan and journalist Hasan Başak. The trial has been adjourned until Thursday 14 May 2020.

Şirin Kabakçı, Konya correspondent for now-closed Zaman newspaper, was arrested on 1 May 2017, on charges of “membership in a terrorist organization.” He is accused of alleged links to the Gülen movement. His trial took place on Thursday 20 February 2020, the court acquitted him for “breach of confidentiality” charges and sentenced him to six years and three months in prison for “membership in a terrorist organization.”

Another hearing involving 11 human rights defenders, including former leadership and members of Amnesty Turkey took place on Wednesday 19 February 2020 but was adjourned at the request of defense lawyers after the hearing reached its sixth hour. Taner Kılıç, the chair of the Turkey branch of Amnesty International is facing up to 15 years in prison if found guilty on charges related to “membership in a terrorist organization.” Accused of orchestrating a coup attempt in 2016, Kılıç spent 14 months in jail before being released in August 2018.

Amnesty’s former director, İdil Eser as well as nine others are also accused of plotting a coup during a meeting in 2017 at a hotel on Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands, Büyükada. All of the 11 activists, who in fact, were on a digital security workshop were arrested after a police raid and charged for spying and facilitating a terrorist organization. Eight of the activists spent 113 days in prison before being released on bail.

As the fate of these individuals hangs in the balance Amnesty International has called for all 11 of the activists to be acquitted, “From the moment they were arrested, it was clear this was a politically motivated prosecution aimed at silencing independent civil society within Turkey. After months in jail and years before the courts, and with no credible evidence presented to substantiate the charges made against them, any verdict other than a full acquittal for all 11 activists would be an outrage.” The court was expected to announce its verdict on Wednesday 19 February 2020 and a new hearing is yet to be scheduled.

According to the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) and the International Press Institute (IPI), preliminary results of a trial monitoring plan have found that Turkish courts are regularly violating journalists’ right to a fair trial. Some of the key findings included: Of the trials observed, 34 percent of them found that the court denied the defendant the right to be present in the courtroom, alternatively they were present through a courtroom video link, which in many cases malfunctioned thus preventing the defendants from being present at all. Another finding found that in 27 separate cases, at least one defendant had been held in ongoing pre-trial detention, with over half of them spending more than one year in pre-trial detention which violates Turkish law. The report also questioned the overall quality of evidence used to prosecute media workers and journalists. Read the full report here.

The targeting of journalists, human rights defenders and other citizens has escalated dramatically since the 2016 coup attempt that distressed Turkey. According to Amnesty International, the ongoing assault on civil society has resulted in the closure of more than 1,300 NGOs, 180 media organizations, and the arbitrary dismissal of almost 130,000 public service workers.

Our View – The Freedom in the World Report has given Turkey a measly aggregated freedom score of 31 out of 100 and reported the country as “not free.” The Francophone Association for Human Rights (AFDH) believes that Turkey needs to stop behaving as if the state of emergency is still ongoing. Moreover, authorities must cease the persecution of journalists and activists under the umbrella of “fighting terrorism,” contrary to the country’s commitment to international standards of human rights.

AFDH urges the international community and the UN to use their influence to encourage the Turkish government to respect freedom of speech and end the prosecuting of journalists and media organizations. Furthermore, the government should lift its hand from civil society and allow it to flourish once again.

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