Turkish Medical association targeted, media blackout following Istanbul bomb attack
On 18th November 2022, the government-allied Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) introduced a draft bill which requests the removal of the word 'Turkish' from the Turkish Medical Association's (TTB) official title, revokes TTB membership for medical workers that have been discharged by presidential decrees and lifts mandatory membership requirement for physicians with independent practices. The proposals came shortly after TTB head Şebnem Korur-Korur-Fincancı was arrested on charges relating to "terror propaganda" (see previous update). Rights advocates say recent actions targeting the TTB, which has over 110,000 members across 65 cities in Türkiye, are designed to weaken the association's capacity to mobilise ahead of 2023 elections and silence one of the most vocal groups in Turkish civil society.
On 22nd December 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) joined six other human rights and physicians’ groups in seeking the release of a Turkish physician and one of its most internationally respected human rights defenders, Prof. Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincancı, who has been detained since 26th October 2022, ahead of her trial in Istanbul on 23rd December 2022. Amnesty International, DIGNITY, Human Rights Watch, IRCT, PHR, REDRESS and the World Medical Association reiterated their calls for all charges against Dr. Fincancı to be dropped and for an end to the unjust targeting of physicians and dissenters in Türkiye. Despite these calls, on 11th January 2023, Istanbul 24th Heavy Penal Court sentenced her to two years, eight months and fifteen days’ imprisonment on charges of “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation” under article 7/2 of the Law on the Fight Against Terrorism. The court also ruled for her release from prison. Korur Fincancı stated that an appeal against her sentence has been lodged at the Istanbul regional court of appeals.
On 12th December 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), Mary Lawlor, said in a statement that she is deeply concerned by the apparent misuse of counterterrorism legislation to target human rights defenders. Lawlor’s statement came a day before the trial of 18 human rights defenders who are charged with “membership in an armed terrorist organisation.” The 18 human rights defenders are charged in relation to their current or previous membership in GÖÇİZDER, a non-governmental organisation working to highlight serious human rights violations brought about by forced displacement in Turkey and to contribute to the repatriation processes of those who have been subjected to such violations.
According to the annual trial monitoring report of the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), 800 people were tried for having attended peaceful protests and demonstrations as per their rights guaranteed in Article 34 of the Constitution. Among those who faced the charge of “defying the Law no.2911 on Demonstrations and Assemblies” were 328 activists including Saturday Mothers/People and 285 students who were tried in nine separate cases which were opened because of the protests initiated after President Erdoğan’s appointments of rectors to the Boğaziçi University (see previous updates). The report also mentioned that, in some cases, the prosecutors cited the arbitrary demonstration and protest bans of district or provincial governorships and demonstration bans imposed by the Provincial Public Health Boards during the pandemic in order to prove that the demonstrations and protests cited in the indictments were “unlawful.”
The following protests took place during the reporting period:
- On 20th November 2022, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) organised demonstrations in several cities in protest against Türkiye's airstrikes in Syria's north and Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government. The police did not allow the demonstrations and dispersed the protesters taking part at the gatherings, resulting in some being injured, in the Kurdish-majority provinces of Diyarbakır, Van, Dersim and Hakkari, as well as the southern cities of Adana and Hatay. Several people were also detained. In three cities, governors issued demonstration bans.
- On 7th December 2022, workers of a mining company affiliated with Eczacıbaşı Holding, one of Türkiye's largest business groups, protested outside of Esan Mining in Balya, Balıkesir in northwestern Türkiye after being fired. 243 workers were fired on 4th December, World Miners Day, because of company losses.
- On 7th December 2022 and 12th December 2022, the TİP and the Left (SOL) Party held separate demonstrations outside the Hiranur Foundation in Sancaktepe, İstanbul, after revelations of a case of child marriage and sex abuse in the religious community. The protesters accused the government of helping such religious sects to grow their influence on society, especially through educational organisations.
- On 15th December 2022, thousands of people protested against the conviction and political banning of Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul’s Mayor, for voicing criticism of Turkey’s government ahead of the 2023 elections. Imamoglu was sentenced for two years and seven months in prison for insulting public officials in a speech in 2019.The conviction has been widely condemned as a blow to Turkish democracy by Western governments, EU officials, European cities and rights groups.
- Some prisoners in the Ereğli Type-T Closed Prison in Konya, central Türkiye, have been on a hunger strike for 78 days in protest against rights violations. The prisoners started an indefinite hunger strike demanding to be placed in three-people cells, more time outside the cells, and an end to confinement. On 3rd January, six inmates in a prison in Turkey’s western province of Afyonkarahisar also went on a hunger strike to protest rights violations in the prison.
Separately, Engin Eren, formerly a reporter for the now-closed Dicle News Agency (DİHA), has been sentenced to three years, one month and fifteen days in prison for "aiding an illegal organisation while not being a member of it" due to participating in a sit-in protest against the conflict in the country's Kurdish-majority regions in 2015.
Concerning picture highlighted in reports
According to the annual trial monitoring report of the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), journalists continued to be tried in terrorism cases in which their news articles and social media posts were cited as evidence in the charges. A radical increase has been recorded in prison sentences handed down during this period. This illustrates the “pressures on freedom of expression and the will of the courts to punish those who exercise this freedom in line with the changing political conjuncture,” the report stated. It found that 67 people tried in 41 trials were sentenced to a total of 299 years, two months and 24 days in prison (not including the life sentence given to journalist Rojhat Doğru and the aggravated life sentence given to human rights defender Osman Kavala).
In the latest report entitled “A Glance at 20 Years of Media Freedom 2001 – 2021”, which assessed the last 20 years of freedom of expression in relation to media organs and journalists in Turkey, bianet/ IPS Communication Foundation said that Turkey is still far from the standards of international law in terms of freedom of expression. The report stated that almost half of the freedom of expression cases submitted to the ECtHR originate from Turkey. It also noted that the ambiguity of the concepts of "legitimising", "praising" or "encouraging" in the text of the crime of "propagandising for a terrorist organisation" in Article 7 of the "Anti-Terror Law" led to serious interferences with the right to freedom of expression. The study also found that the offence of insulting the president, which is regulated by Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code, is one of the most frequently cited legal regulations related to violations of freedom of expression over the past eight years.
Media blackout following Istanbul bomb blast
In the aftermath of the Istanbul bomb attack on 13th November 2022, the government imposed restrictions on social media and broadcasters and issued a broadcast ban on the use of close-up videos and photos of the blast and its aftermath. A media freedom expert warned that these restrictions were not in the public interest. Despite the public need for information, the Turkish authorities gave a “media blackout order", blocking independent journalists’ access to press conferences and throttling bandwidth for social media platforms. Following the order, demand for VPN services in Turkey increased by 853 percent, as Turkey’s internet users turned to VPNs to circumvent the restrictions.
Incidents against journalists
Several detentions of journalists were reported in the reporting period. According to RSF’s latest report “Round-up of the Journalists Detained, Killed, Held Hostage and Missing in 2022”, Turkey is one of the six countries in the world that detained the most journalists. RSF notes that the Turkish government’s pressure continues to be high, especially against female journalists.
- On 13th December, journalist Sinan Aygül was detained on charges of “inciting hatred and hostility” after reporting on a child abuse incident in Turkey’s eastern province of Bitlis. Aygül is the editor-in-chief of Bitlis News and the head of the journalists’ association in the province.
3 saat önce yaptığım taciz haberinden dolayı halkı kin ve düşmanlığa tahrik iddiasıyla gözaltına alındım .Polisler tarafından su an evde arama yapılıyor. Gözaltına alınıp karakola götürüleceğim. Ben bir gazeteciyim #gazeteciliksucdeğildir— Sinan Aygül (@sinanaygul) December 13, 2022
- On 16th December, Sibel Tekin, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, was arrested at her home in Ankara for “filming a police car”. The next day she appeared in court and the prosecutor demanded that she be remanded in custody and charged with being a member of "an armed terrorist organisation".
- From June to December 2022, 25 Kurdish journalists have been imprisoned in Turkey. After the arrest of sixteen Kurdish journalists, suspected of “belonging to a terrorist group” in the Turkish Southeast province of Diyarbakir on 16th June, nine more Kurdish journalists were arrested on 29th October 2022 under the same accusations and put in prison. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the Turkish authorities to immediately make the indictments public and to take urgent measures to safeguard the rights of journalists and press freedom.
- Other incidents also took place: journalist Halil Tekin was assaulted by the police while covering a clash between police and football fans, journalist Timur Soykan faced online harassment, while journalist Amberin Zaman was subjected to online trolling, death and rape threats and a travel ban was imposed on Turkish Cypriot Editor Başaran Düzgün.
In addition, Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog imposed a fine on three TV stations critical of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for reasons that include “visually approving of terrorism.”