XPA 2017 country profile: Turkey

Civic Space 11 min read
ARTICLE 19

Population:

80 million approx.

System of Government:

Multi-party parliamentary democracy with President as Head of State. Currently, the largest party holding power is the Justice and Reconciliation Party (AKP). 

Legislative Structure:

The political system of Turkey is highly centralised. Executive power rests with the President, the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers. The legislative branch consists of the National Assembly, with 550 seats, representing 81 provinces. Members are elected through a proportional representation with an election threshold of 10 percent.

Freedom of expression: key legislation and instruments

Turkey has ratified the ECHR and the ICCPR. Positive court judgments on the right to freedom of expression usually reference the ECHR.

Freedom of Expression is guaranteed under Article 26 of the Constitution of Turkey (1982).  The Constitution also explicitly guarantees freedom of the press (Articles 28), publishing (Article 29), printing (Article 30). Freedom of Association is guaranteed under Article 33, the right to hold demonstrations under Article 34. Freedom of Information is also provided for under Law 4982 (2003).

Key problematic legislation includes the Penal Code (2004), which criminalises various forms of defamation or insult and the Anti-Terror Law (1991) which criminalises terrorism propaganda (Article 7 (2)) and praising or glorifying a terrorist organization (Article 6(2)).

Individuals are also frequently prosecuted on the basis of their expression using articles in the Penal Code seemingly unrelated to expression, such as aiding a terrorist organization (Article 220(7)), membership of a terrorist organization (Article 220 (1)) or attempting to overthrow the constitution (Article 309), National Assembly (Article 311) or government (Article 312) through “violence and force”.

Website blocking frequently takes place under Article 8 of the Internet Law (2007).

Major political developments 2016 /17

In 2016, mass street protests helped defeat a coup attempt by elements in the military. The coup attempt led to 265 deaths, the bombing of parliament, and an attempted assassination of President Erdoğan by military officers. The government accused the Gülen Movement, a religious/political group led by US-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, of being behind the coup.

Following the coup attempt, on 21 July 2016, a state of emergency was announced, enabling the government to rule by decree. The state of emergency has since been repeatedly extended and remains in place.

On the same day, Turkey notified the Council of Europe of its intent to derogate from the European Convention of Human Rights. Turkey later officially notified the United Nations of its derogation from a number of rights in the ICCPR, including the right to freedom of expression.

While violations of the right to freedom of expression were endemic before the coup attempt, the State’s response to the coup attempt has amounted to a large-scale crackdown on dissenting opinion and critical voices in the media, academia, and civil society.

In this context, significant changes to the constitution were introduced which strengthen the role of the president after a narrowly won referendum in May 2017. A major opposition party was excluded from the debate as they were nearly all detained on expression-related charges.

Key freedom of expression issues 

Media freedom

In November 2017, local rights groups estimate 153 journalists and media workers were imprisoned.[1] 184 media outlets have been closed by decree and only four nationally-distributed critical newspapers remain in publication. Hundreds of journalists have had their press cards revoked and countless others have had their passports cancelled.

Hundreds of journalists are being tried under terrorism propaganda or incitement charges. High-profile mass-trials of journalists in relation to the coup attempt are also on-going, including trials against Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest newspaper and main opposition outlet; against the Altan brothers and Nazlı Ilıcak, well-known government critics and public commentators; and against writers for Zaman, a newspaper allegedly affiliated with the Gülen Movement.

Civic space

Thousands of academics and teachers were dismissed through decrees and at least a thousand civil society organisations were permanently closed. 1,128 academics face criminal charges for “terrorist propaganda” under the vaguely worded anti-terrorism law for signing a petition calling for peace in the south-east of Turkey. Indictments were issued in November 2017 and trials start at the beginning of December 2017.

In July 2017, police raided a workshop on Büyükada, an island just outside Istanbul, and arrested all participants, including two foreign nationals and the Director Amnesty International’s Turkey section. These arrests followed the arrest of Taner Kiliç, the Chair of Amnesty International’s Turkey section, in June. On 25 October, after over three months in pre-trial detention, all defendants were released, apart from Taner Kiliç. The charges stand and the trial is on-going.

Protest and assembly

Authorities frequently impose arbitrary bans on demonstrations. The Governor’s Office of Ankara issued a month-long ban on public demonstrations in August 2017, ostensibly on security grounds. However, the banning order also mentioned two teachers, Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, who were arrested after carrying out a long sit-in and hunger strike in protest against their dismissal through emergency decrees.[2] The ban has since been extended twice.

The Istanbul Pride March was banned in July 2016 and in July 2017 on ‘public order’ grounds. In November 2017, the city of Ankara issued a banning order preventing LGBTQI groups from holding events indefinitely, on the basis that due to public sensibilities the events might provoke violence or animosity.

Lack of independent judiciary

Constitutional reforms introduced in May 2017 affect the independence of the judiciary.[3] The President now has more authority over the appointment of judges and prosecutors, directly appointing four out of thirteen of the members of the High Council for Judges and Prosecutors, (increased from three out of the twenty-two members which previously made up the body).[4]

Prior to the coup attempt, the independence of Turkey’s judiciary was undermined by the alleged relationship between a significant number of judges and prosecutors and the Gülen Movement. High-profile trials, including those of journalists, were marred by inconsistencies and allegedly falsified evidence.[5]

Following the coup attempt, approximately one fifth of Turkey’s judges and prosecutors were dismissed, with little transparency or guarantees to ensure the independence of the remaining judiciary. Although the government claims to have removed only judges associated with the Gülen movement, Turkey’s judiciary remains visibly politicised. Evidence presented at trials of journalists, human rights defenders, writers and academics consists mainly of their expression, association with particular media outlets, or contacts and sources. Independent judges would be expected to dismiss cases based on such little evidence, however trials on the basis of expression have continued this year, with many of the defendants being held for over a year in pre-trial detention.

Website blocking, access, and social media restrictions

Restrictions to expression online have a severe impact on the right to information, with courts regularly ordering media blackouts after terrorist attacks and the blocking of websites, including prominent sites like Wikipedia. This most affects the South-East of Turkey, where reliable information on human rights abuses resulting from the conflict is increasingly hard to access, as journalists struggle to report news safely.

While blocking of web pages or websites takes place on an enormous scale, the government sometimes restricts access to the Internet entirely. Access to the Internet was temporarily restricted in the South-East during protests against the removal of 28 mayors from office, in September 2016. There are also reports of ‘throttling’ where internet services are slowed down, usually corresponding to major political events.

According to Twitter’s biannual transparency report, Turkey leads in content removal requests. Between July and December 2016, 2,232 content removal requests, out of a total of 5,031 came from Turkey. While in the period January to June 2017, 1,995 out of a total of 8,359 content removal requests came from Turkey.[6]

Digital security  

While use of secure communications is not criminalised, their use and discussions around digital security are increasingly stigmatised as evidence of criminal activity. The indictment against the human rights activists arrested during a workshop listed their alleged discussions around digital safety practices as evidence against them.

Transparency

Despite having a freedom of information law since 2003, the crackdown on media under the state of emergency has severely impacted on journalists’ ability to carry out investigative journalism. Prosecutions on national security or defamation grounds have severely hampered the ability to expose corruption. The May 2017 murder of Aysin and Ali Büyüknohutçu, two environmental activists who successfully campaigned for the closure of a mine, has also had a chilling effect on environmental activism.[7]

[1] https://expressioninterrupted.com/census/

[2]http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/governors-office-bans-demonstrations-in-public-spaces-in-turkish-capital-116263

[3] https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/04/04/questions-and-answers-turkeys-constitutional-referendum

[4] http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=cdl-ad(2017)005-e

[5] https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/04/05/turkeys-political-contest-rule-law-real-loser

[6] https://transparency.twitter.com/en/countries/tr.html

[7]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/the-threats-continue-of-retired-couple-chills-fellow-activists-in-turkey