Turkey: Freedom of expression is essential to preserve democracy post-coup attempt

Turkey: Freedom of expression is essential to preserve democracy post-coup attempt - Media

Photographers and film camera people use an abandoned fire vehicle as a vantage point to cover ongoing clashes between police and protestors in Taksim Square.<br><br> Protests against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan spread across Turkey after a peaceful sit in organised by environmental activists in Gezi Park were violently broken up by the police, causing numerous injuries. The park had been slated for redevelopment and was to be turned into a shopping complex with a mosque and a replica of a former army barracks. On 4 June 2013, after two deaths amongst the protesters had been confirmed, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologised to protesters for the death and injury caused. On 11 June 2013 police moved in to clear the protesters' camp from the square and park and battles ensued with police firing teargas and being pelted with stones. Erdogan's AK Party has been in power for over a decade and many accuse the Prime Minister of becoming increasingly authoritarian, eroding public liberties and imposing Islamic values. Protesters have vowed to continue their activities.

ARTICLE 19 and the Guardian Foundation call upon the government of Turkey to protect freedom of expression in light of Friday’s attempted coup. This is essential for preserving democracy and respect for human rights.

“We condemn the plot to overthrow a democratically-elected government, and mourn the loss of over 265 people, including one journalist”, said Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19.

“In light of these tragic events and the current turmoil, the Turkish government must ensure that democracy is protected in Turkey. Freedom of expression is now more important than ever. The Turkish government has long sought to muzzle critical voices in the country. However, in its response to the failed coup, the government must ensure independent media and broader civil society are able to freely and critically report on the situation, and the state must refrain from politically motivated arrests,” added Morris.

Failed Coup

On the evening of 15 July, members of the Turkish army launched an attempted coup to overthrow the government. The plotters were defeated after all major political parties condemned the coup attempt and President Erdogan called upon the population to resist the coup through street protests.

President Erdogan has accused Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric based in the USA, of having orchestrated the coup.  Since a corruption scandal in 2013 which led to the resignation of MPs close to the President, Erdogan has argued that Gulen has sought to create a parallel state within the country, implicating members of the police, judiciary, and media. Accusations of affiliation with the movement have long been levelled at government critics.

In the aftermath of the coup, the Turkish government has arrested thousands of military and civilian personnel accused of involvement in the plan, including judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, governors, and civil servants.

The speed with which the arrests have occurred and the lack of credible evidence presented has raised concerns that Erdogan is using the coup as a pretext to purge state institutions of any critical voices. World leaders have already expressed concern that the arrests are occurring without appropriate checks and balances, and called upon the Turkish government to respect the rule of law in responding to the coup.

Purging critical voices

Reports that the government plans to arrest journalists and writers suspected of involvement in the coup are particularly worrying.

“We are concerned that the government is using the coup to purge dissident and critical voices. Rumours of forthcoming arrests of independent journalists and other dissidents have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. The government must reassure the public that these are false rumours and actively encourage full public debate on the current situation”, said Ben Hicks, Executive Director of the Guardian Foundation.

On Sunday 17 July, a pro-government Twitter user released a list of more than 70 dissident journalists and writers, allegedly to be detained on suspicion of involvement in the coup. While some of those featured do have links to the Gulen movement, this does not prove involvement in the coup. Moreover, many of those named have no known affiliation to the movement but are well-known for their opposition to the government. They include a number of high profile journalists, such as Can Dundar and Mehmet Altan; columnists working for the few remaining independent media outlets in Turkey; and dissidents working with opposition parties, such as Atilla Tas, a former singer and member of CHP, the Republican People’s Party.

Limiting access to information

President Erdogan has proved sensitive to any form of criticism and over the past year has shut down critical media outlets and harassed remaining independent media in the country. This has enabled the government to dominate mainstream coverage of the coup, severely restricting the public’s access to diverse views on the topic.

Moreover, reliable sources within Turkey have reported that multiple websites have been blocked since Saturday, including a number of independent and critical media.

Attempts to obstruct the free flow of information about the coup and its aftermath undermine democracy within Turkey, hindering the ability of the media and the public more broadly to ensure the government is held accountable for its reaction to recent events, including the mass arrests.

ARTICLE 19 and the Guardian Foundation call upon the government of Turkey to refrain from politically-motivated persecutions in wake of the coup. They must ensure that arrests only occur on the basis of clear evidence and that due process is observed in line with international standards on the right to a fair trial.

The government must further ensure that the public have access to reliable and pluralistic information about the coup and the government’s response. They must ensure the safety of media professionals and provide the media with explicit guarantees that they will not interfere into their reporting. They must also refrain from blocking independent media reporting on events.