Turkey: Stop attacks on free speech and civil society immediately

Turkey: Stop attacks on free speech and civil society immediately - Protection

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ARTICLE 19 is alarmed by the intensifying crackdown on free speech in Turkey over the past weeks. We call for the immediate release of Sedef Kabaş, a well-known journalist, who was arrested last week for “insulting the President” and for these charges to be dropped. The Turkish government must also cease all attacks against artists, journalists and other members of civil society, stop curbing civic space and align its legislation on freedom of expression with international standards.

On 22 January, journalist Sedef Kabaş was detained following a night time raid on her home by police. She was charged for insulting President Erdoğan and is now jailed pending trial. The arrest was allegedly prompted by a proverb that Kabaş used on TV channel TELE1 during a discussion about the President and on her Twitter account. She said: “An ox might find his way into the palace but it doesn’t make him a king. It does, however, turn the palace into a barn.” 

In addition, on 24 January, Turkey’s Radio & TV Higher Authority (RTÜK) issued a 5% revenue fine for TELE1 for Sedef Kabaş’s statements and stopped the broadcasting of the program where Kabaş attended as a guest for five episodes. Another 3% administrative revenue fine was issued against TELE1 after journalist Uğur Dündar criticised the RTÜK.

Sedef Kabaş was charged under Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code which deems it illegal to “insult the President of Turkey” and carries a penalty of imprisonment of up to four years. Since Erdoğan became president in 2014, these provisions are frequently used to silence criticism and dissent. For instance, between 2014 and October 2021, 160,169 investigations were launched under Article 299, with 35,507 cases going to trial and 12,881 convictions. ARTICLE 19 has long called for abolishing these provisions as they are incompatible with international and European standards on freedom of expression. Similar conclusions have been made by the regional human rights bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Venice Commission. The Turkish Government has so far ignored these calls. 

The case against Sedef Kabaş is yet another example of a severe crackdown on journalists, civil society and activists. Human rights defender Osman Kavala and former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş remain imprisoned, regardless of  binding European Court decisions finding that their detention was politically motivated and they should be released. Infringement proceedings against Turkey are expected to be formally initiated at the next meeting of the Committee of Ministers.  

Following Kabaş’s arrest, another journalist was targeted by the authorities. Alican Uludağ, journalist for Deutsche Welle Turkey, received multiple death threats on social media as a result of his reporting on the judge who ordered Sedef Kabaş’s imprisonment pending trial. Uludağ indicated that the judge does not meet seniority criteria to serve at the magistrates court in Istanbul. Uludağ noted that the threats came just a day before the 29th anniversary of veteran journalist Uğur Mumcu’s assassination, which to this day, has gone unpunished, and only days after the anniversary of the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, highlighting severity of threats against journalists in Turkey.

Turkey’s determination to tighten its grip on freedom of expression greatly affects not only journalists. On 21 January 2022, President Erdoğan publicly threatened Sezen Aksu, one of the most well-known musicians in Turkey for the lyrics in one of her songs (“Say hello to those ignorant Eve and Adam”). President Erdoğan responded with veiled threats:  “No one can defame our prophet Adam. It is our duty to rip out those tongues. No one’s tongue can say those words to our mother Eve,” hence de facto calling for violence against the singer. Aksu also received multiple threats from religious groups. 

ARTICLE 19 notes that Sedef, Alican and Sezen were targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression. We reiterate that protection of freedom of speech extends to expression that some might find offending, shocking or disturbing. Heads of states and public officials should also tolerate more, not less, criticism than ordinary citizens.

We call on Turkish authorities to release Sedef Kabaş immediately and drop the broadcast fines issued against TELE1. Turkey has a positive obligation to protect journalists from attacks. Authorities must carry out a prompt and effective investigation into death threats against Alican Uludağ and Sezen Aksu. Politicians and other public figures should avoid making statements that might promote discrimination or undermine equality. We renew our call to authorities to align domestic legislation with the international standards to ensure wide protection of free speech including decriminalisation of Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code.