One by one, Turkish authorities close off avenues for dissent
As the crackdown against government critics continues, Turkish authorities are ratcheting up their efforts to curtail freedom of expression and punish dissent. Authorities are using the judicial system to systematically persecute dissidents for "spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation” as they also encourage a culture of impunity for those who commit abuses against journalists. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the intimidatory tactics and physical threats against journalists that have grown more frequent since the crackdown began. The report noted:
'Over the past year there have been a number of physical attacks on journalists by private individuals, by members of the security forces, or by individuals acting in collusion with state officials or politicians. The attacks have taken place in an environment in which smear tactics by politicians against critical journalists have become commonplace. Most journalists Human Rights Watch spoke to said that they received threats, either directly or via smear campaigns led against them, in some documented cases even by government officials themselves.'
The Turkish authorities' assault on media freedom has led to a situation where nearly all independent media outlets have now been coopted by the government or forced out of operation. Even those who are still operational are intimidated into silence if they express any criticism of President Erdoğan or his government.
Effective 1st January, the authority overseeing state advertising in newspapers issued a decree prohibiting adverts in non-Turkish language publications. The move has been viewed by many as an attempt to financially enfeeble Kurdish news outlets. The decree also forbids journalists facing terrorism charges from being employed and obliges the publication to terminate their employment within five days. If owners of a publication are themselves facing terrorism charges, the authorities have the right to close the publication. Many have drawn attention to the arbitrary application of counter-terrorism legislation against dissidents; and the fact that Turkish authorities are now able to alienate, silence and persecute critics without impediment through spurious allegations.
'They throw you into a hole': celebrated Turkish novelist reveals detention ordeal https://t.co/ts1tmMcnkL— Guardian news (@guardiannews) December 30, 2016
At the end of 2016, Turkish authorities ordered police raids, the closure of media houses, confiscation of assets and property, jail sentences for journalists, arrest warrants, detentions, as well as the revocation of press cards. Even journalists working with international media outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal, Voice of America, and BBC also faced threats, arrests and detentions. A shocking 195 media outlets have been shut down since the failed coup. The routine harassment and detention of media workers in Turkey is closely documented in the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)'s weeky crackdown chronicle. CPJ note that at the end of December at least 81 Turkish journalists, editors, producers and other media workers languish in detention - the highest number ever recorded by the civic group in any one country. This number is reported to have increased further during January 2017.
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, free expression on social media platforms is frequently curtailed in Turkey with access to social media intermittently blocked to restrict online dissent. In December, access to Twitter and YouTube were blocked after a new propaganda video from Daesh (also known as the Islamic State or ISIS) emerged just before midnight on 24th December. While activists were able to previously bypass blanket bans on social media using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), reports from the ground note that Internet Service Providers in Turkey have buckled under pressure from Turkish authorities to ban VPN access. Consequently, it is now much more difficult for activists to circumvent restrictions on online expression in Turkey. In this context, arrests due to Facebook, Twitter or video posts which are alleged to have defamed the president or spread terrorist propaganda are on the rise. Currently, an estimated 10,000 social media users are under investigation on suspicion of using social media to support terrorism.
On 21st December, Turkish authorities issued a media gag on all networks regarding the investigation into the murder of the Russian ambassador in Ankara. In a separate event on 1st January, Turkey’s Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK) delivered a court ruling to newspapers, television and websites announcing a broadcast and publication ban following a car bomb attack in Izmir.
While no new laws hindering freedom of expression have been recently introduced, on 4th January the National Parliament extended the state of emergency for another 3 months.
As already reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Turkish security forces have a well-documented track record of using excessive force to quell protests. Numerous protests have led to clashes between authorities and protesters; the use of teargas, water cannons, rubber bullets and mass arrests are a frequent feature of mobilisations.
While no requests have been denied, on 12th December, activists protesting to mark International Human Rights Day were barred from delivering a public statement outside a high-security prison, where many journalists are currently behind bars. Security forces compelled the protesters to relocate the protest or face prosecution.
In spite of the difficult conditions, numerous protests have place in Turkey over the past few months on various issues. Detailed below are several flash points for citizen mobilisation:
- Citizens protested against planned constitutional changes set to expand the president’s powers, leading to clashes;
- Turkish academics held a sit-in protest demanding reinstatement to the university, and were detained after the protest and beaten at the police station;
- Thousands took the streets to protest against the crackdown on Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party, its lawmakers and mayors in the country’s southeast;
- In Istanbul, thousands of activists protested against a bill that would set free men who assaulted underage girls if they marry their victims. The bill was later withdrawn in light of the mass mobilisations;
- Hundreds protested outside the Iranian embassy in Istanbul against Iranian militias turning refugee convoys back into Aleppo;
- Thousands protested at the Turkish border against a siege of Syria's second city of Aleppo that prevented deliveries of aid;
- Protests were organised outside the Russian Embassy against Russia’s Syria policy and attacks on civilians in Aleppo;
- Around one hundred people mobilised to condemn a deadly stadium blast;
The crackdown on independent civic groups has led to mass closures of CSOs and widespread persecution of government critics. According to the Turkey Purge outlet, to date 1125 associations, 560 foundations and 19 trade unions have been shut down since the failed coup in July. On 22nd November, 375 registered associations were permanently closed following executive decree No. 677, with their assets transferred to the Treasury. As previously reported, many of the CSOs were allegedly linked to Gulenists, The Kurdistan Workers Party, leftist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front and the Islamic State and closed without proper recourse or judicial review; many of these CSOs had previously had their activities suspended in early November.
Following three other decrees on 7th January, a further 83 associations and foundations in 20 provinces have been closed.