Turkey: Revoking university posts threatens academic freedom

Turkey: Revoking university posts threatens academic freedom - Media

European Court of Human Rights

On 10 December 2021, ARTICLE 19 submitted a third-party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Akin and 42 other applications v. Turkey. The case concerns the revocation of academics from their posts and the cancellation of their passports based on emergency decrees following the failed July 2016 coup against the Turkish government. ARTICLE 19’s submission focuses on  comparative standards on academic freedom and submits that the Court should consider the current state of freedom of expression in Turkey and the wide purge of academics from their posts due to their political opinions when hearing the case. Additionally, we note that there is a significant lack of availability and effectiveness of domestic remedies for academics affected by the various measures based on the emergency decrees.

The applicants in this case are 81 academics who have been dismissed from their academic posts based on emergency decrees adopted following the failed coup against the Turkish government in July 2016. They had all previously signed in January 2016 a statement entitled “We will not be a party to this crime”, also known as the “Peace Petition”. The statement criticised the Turkish government’s actions in Kurdish south-east Turkey and called for an end to state violence. After it was published, academics were targeted as supporters of terrorism. The applicants were subsequently disciplined, and in some cases, arrested, on the basis of the emergency decrees for their alleged ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a recognised terrorist organisation by Turkey.

ARTICLE 19 believes that this case is an excellent opportunity for the European Court to rule on the compatibility of certain restrictions on academic freedom, such as the revocation of academics from their posts and the cancellation of their passports with international freedom of expression standards and in particular Article 18 of the Convention. Academic freedom is an integral part of freedom of expression. Through their work, academics share and impart information with others to broaden the public debate. They are an integral part of any democratic society. Without academic freedom, public debate would not be as diverse and individuals would not be able to engage as meaningfully in discussions. If States repress academic freedom, they are not only restricting an academic’s right to freedom of expression but also violating the right to access to information and freedom of expression of other individuals. Freedom of expression cannot flourish without academic research and debate.

Read the full submission here

In our submission, ARTICLE 19 addresses the following:

  • Restrictions on academic freedom must meet international free speech standards: Under international human rights standards, freedom of expression and academic freedom can be restricted for national security reasons. However, these restrictions must be limited to conduct that is truly terrorist in nature, only sharing information about a “terrorist” organisation does not automatically threaten national security. “Borderline” content or expression should be protected so long as it does fall under the definition of incitement to violence. Protections like these are necessary so that governments do not criminalise opinions that they disagree with. Without sharing opposing views, it is impossible to hold a government to account.
  • The availability and effectiveness of domestic remedies are insufficient: In Turkey, access to effective remedies in cases of revocations of academic posts are almost non-existent and rarely effective. Initially, there was immense confusion over which courts were competent to rule in these cases. For example, administrative courts rejected the cases on the grounds that the emergency decrees were legislative acts and not administrative ones. Although the Turkish Government created the State of Emergency Inquiry Commission (the Commission), tasked with reviewing acts directly undertaken by emergency decrees, it lacks institutional independence and there is the lack of safeguards to ensure that it provides applicants with a meaningful opportunity to challenge the measures taken against them. Moreover, the number of cases that the Commission decided on raises serious doubts about the effectiveness of the procedure accompanied by the lack of substance and grounding in law of the Commission’s decisions. Overall, the Inquiry Commission fails to offer effective domestic remedies.
  • The current context of academic freedom in Turkey: More than 5,800 academics have been dismissed from their public university posts on alleged terrorism charges since 2016. Once dismissed, academics have reported being blacklisted, unable to find work and have had their passports cancelled. Despite having their criminal convictions overturned by the Constitutional Court, they are unable to return to their old positions and face potential years of unemployment. The consequences of the measures are having devastating effects on academics’ professional and personal lives.

ARTICLE 19 concludes that the current situation in Turkey is highly restrictive on freedom of expression and academic freedom. It has created a chilling effect on freedom of expression as academics who speak out against the Government have faced multiple obstacles to simply exercise their professional role. We respectfully ask the Court to review this case with the current context in Turkey in mind as they rule on the compatibility of the measures taken with international human rights standards.

Read the full submission here