Turkish pop star arrested for comments, disinformation law passed, targeting of journalists
On 22nd July 2022, law enforcement officers sealed the association DIAYDER’s office in Istanbul after a court decision on 22nd June 2022 to suspend the activities of the association. This follows a lawsuit filed in December 2021 against 23 members of DIAYDER that alleged they were “members of a terrorist organisation” and “terrorist offenders.” The Ministry of Interior also launched a “special investigation” into the Istanbul Metropolitan municipality for allegedly employing members of the association.
On 5th August, the Boğaziçi rector suspended the activities of the student film club for a month over LGBTQI+ movies. This comes after the school administration cancelled the screening of a LGBTQI+ open-air film screening event in July 2022 organised by the Boğaziçi University Cinema Club. Despite the cancellation the club defied the order to comply with this censorship, resulting in its suspension.
#SansüreKarşıHepBeraberiz— BÜ(S)K/BÜLGBTİA+ (@bounsinema) August 3, 2022
Gerekçe gösterilmeden sansürlenen 3 açık hava gösterimimizden birini Boğaziçi Üniversitesi Kulüpleri olarak bugün gerçekleştireceğimizi duyurmuştuk. Bunun üzerine bu sabah üniversitemizin kayyum yönetimi tarafından kulübümüze gönderilen belgede, + pic.twitter.com/6jdZKPjosm
On 25th August, the Directorate General for Civil Society Relations (STİGM) opened its consultation on draft legislative amendments in the field of civil society as part of its 11th Development Plan for civil society. The "Legislation on Associations", the "Legislation on Aid Collection" and the "Legislation on Tax Benefits for Civil Society Organisations" contain some amendments to the current legislation. Volunteering, which has repeatedly been on the agenda in recent years due to the lack of legislation, has been addressed as a new draft law. A few weeks earlier, a Specialisation Commission for Civil Society Organisations in the Development Process was established as part of the preparation of the Twelfth Development Plan, which covers the period 2024-2028.
During October 2022, Turkish police detained 543 people in several cities, targeting members of the purged but supposedly reorganised network of so-called Gulenists and their financial activities. The operation is among the largest in recent years targeting people linked to the US-based exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who authorities claim is the mastermind behind the failed 2016 coup attempt.
EU report paints a concerning picture
On 12th October 2022, the European Commission published its "Turkey Report" as part of the 2022 Enlargement Package, in which it noted that civil society is facing increasing pressure and that civic freedoms are increasingly restricted, while further restrictions on CSOs were imposed with the implementation of the 2020 Law on the Prevention of Financing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The report noted that there has been further regression of freedom of peaceful assembly and association due to investigations, court cases, repeated bans and administrative fines against demonstrators, disproportionate use of force, interference and accusations of terrorist activities or violations of the Law on Demonstrations and Marches during peaceful demonstrations. It is also noted that stigmatisation, hatred and discriminatory statements against CSOs and individuals working in the LGBTQI+ rights are on the rise.
Several protests took place during the reporting period, including for labour rights and women’s rights.
- On 20th July 2022, members of the We Will Stop Femicides Platform, the Women's Platform for Equality (EŞİK) and the Socialist Women's Movement gathered in İstanbul's Kadıköy and İzmir's Alsancak and protested against the decision of Turkey's top administrative court on the decree which withdrew Turkey from the İstanbul Convention. The Council of State refused to reverse President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's decree and ruled that the decree was not unlawful.
Bugün Kadıköy’deki eylemimizde Eşik Gönüllüleri (@esik_platform), İşçi Emekçi Kadın Komisyonları ve Sosyalist Kadın Hareketi (@skadinhareketi) bizimleydi.#İstanbulSözleşmesi için mücadeleye devam edeceğiz.— Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu (@KadinCinayeti) July 19, 2022
Hukuksuz Kararı Tanımıyoruz#İstanbulSözleşmesindenVazgeçmiyoruz pic.twitter.com/BbVafsWWs3
- On 12th August 2022, construction workers working on the construction of a new building for the state-run Halkbank in İstanbul's Ataşehir Financial Center protested to demand better working conditions. Police did not allow the protest to continue and detained the workers and a journalist following the protest. On 6th September 2022, the workers staged a protest in front of the office of their employer Emlak Konut GYO. Riot police surrounded the workers to disperse them after they gathered and chanted slogans.
- On 30th August 2022, private school teachers gathered in the capital city of Ankara in protest at low wages and poor working conditions. The protest was organised by the Private Sector Teachers' Union. Police surrounded and blocked them, and used pepper spray on the teachers when they insisted on marching. Seven people, including two lawyers, were detained during the incidents.
- On 21st September, ahead of the fifth hearing of the case against some members of the Saturday Mothers/People, the group gathered in front of the İstanbul Courthouse in Çağlayan. Police prevented the group from reading out its statement, detaining at least 10 people, including its lawyers and union representatives. Journalists following the trial were blocked by the police. Three police officers used physical force against Artı TV Reporter Meral Danyıldız and twisted her arm. She was prevented from filming and subjected to physical attack.
Kollarımı sıka sıka, tırnaklarını gecire gecire, hincla saldırdılar. Bir kisi hincini alamayinca uc kisi birden. Suc duyurusunda bulunacagim. Siz de yargilanacaksiniz. https://t.co/cU1supYPXU pic.twitter.com/aPTbwfapL7— Meral Danyıldız (@meraldanyildiz) September 21, 2022
- On 2nd October 2022, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Turkey to condemn Iran’s crackdown on women-led demonstrations sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death after her arrest by the country’s notorious morality police. In İstanbul, many Iranians were among the hundreds of people who chanted slogans against the Tehran regime and in support of Iranian women, holding red roses, Iranian flags and signs bearing the words “women, life, freedom”. Similar gatherings in support of Iranian women also took place in Diyarbakır and Izmir. In Ankara, where several protesters were detained.
- On 3rd October 2022, journalists and members of the İstanbul Branch of the Journalists' Union of Turkey (TGS) gathered in İstanbul to protest the "disinformation bill” and demanded the bill be scrapped. According to the Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ), the bill “provides a framework for extensive censorship of online information and the criminalisation of journalism, which will enable the government to further subdue and control public debate in the lead-up to Turkey’s general elections in 2023” (more info below). Police who were present during the action notified the head of the TGS that they would not be allowed to enter the building.
- On 9th October 2022, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was injured as a result of police intervention during a demonstration held in the south-eastern Turkish province of Hakkari to protest the 1999 arrest of the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan. Protests were held across Turkey to mark the 24th anniversary (October 1998) when a series of events that led to the PKK leader’s arrest began and aimed to draw attention to Öcalan’s years-long imprisonment. Police also briefly detained 20 protesters, while 42 demonstrators were detained in İstanbul, including lawyers and journalists. 55 other protesters detained in eastern Van province were also released later the same day.
- On 18th September 2022, thousands attended an anti-LGBT protest in Istanbul and denounced gay 'propaganda' in the country – when in reality LGBTQI+ events are prohibited. Islamist and conservative groups organised the protest named “Big Family Gathering”, claiming that family values are under attack in Turkey. Critics of the protest deemed it a hate crime.
- On 27th October 2022, police in Istanbul detained 57 people who were protesting against the arrest of Sebnem Korur Fincanci, president of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), over allegations of “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation” and “insulting the Turkish nation, the state of the Republic of Turkey, state institutions and organs.” This comes after her comments about claims of the military’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Kurdish militants in Iraq (more info below). Turkish doctors and local branches of the TTB organised several protests across Turkey.
- On 8th November 2022, 121 people were briefly detained during a demonstration in İstanbul against the Turkish armed forces’ alleged use of chemical weapons on Kurdish fighters in military operations in northern Iraq. Police attempted to prevent the demonstration, which was attended by deputies from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), leftist organisations and activists, from taking place. Despite the police blockade, the groups, which demanded an investigation by an independent organisation into the military use of chemical weapons, wanted to continue the demonstration.
- On 2nd November 2022, Turkish teachers organised a nationwide strike for the cancellation of a new law regulating the teaching profession and for their labour rights. Teachers in almost all cities took to the streets in Turkey but police in some places tried to stop them from marching. On 9th November 2022, representatives of two teachers' unions who organised a sit-in protest named "Occupation Watch” outside the Constitutional Court for the repeal of the new occupational law, were raided by the police and detained.
Freedom of expression cases
On 26th August 2022, an Istanbul court ordered the arrest of Turkish pop star Gulsen for “inciting people to hatred and animosity” after she made a comment during her concert in April when she called a religious high school graduate a pervert. The popstar was remanded in detention pending trial. She has rejected the accusations in her testimony to the prosecutor, stating that it had been a “joke between colleagues”. Following widespread criticism of her arrest, Gulsen was released under house arrest. The pop star has long been criticised by conservative circles and pro-government media due to her stage costumes, music videos and public support for the LGBTQI+ community.
Separately, on 1st September 2022, during a press conference, Istanbul-based Asylum Seekers Platform said that xenophobia, hate speech and hate crimes against Syrian refugees have been increasing in Turkey as the country prepares for upcoming elections. According to the platform, anti-migrant sentiment is being expressed, especially on social media and often by political parties. In one case, Syrian journalist Hussam Hammoud, a refugee in Türkiye, has received numerous online death threats.
On 26th October, Turkish police arrested the head of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), Sebnem Korur Fincanci, for allegedly “spreading terrorist group propaganda.” The state-owned Anadolu news agency said an investigation was launched over statements Fincanci made on alleged chemical weapons used by the Turkish armed forces in the Kurdistan regional federation of Iraq. The TTB described her arrest as a “political lynching” and said it was the final stage of pressure exerted by authorities on the medical group and its leaders. Politicians, rights groups, bar associations and medical associations around the globe condemned the arbitrary arrest and called for her immediate release. According to Amnesty International, the jailing of the leading human rights expert on ‘terror’ charges is an “appalling abuse of power” and is “sending a chilling message to others.”
Disinformation bill passed
On 13th October, the government passed the bill on disinformation and fake news, named “the censorship law”, amid fierce criticism from both civil society and freedom of expression groups, including international organisations. Amnesty International stated that the passing of the bill marked a “dark day for online free expression.”
While states do have a role in regulating online expression in line with international law, this legislation opens yet new avenues for the authorities to extend their draconian crackdown on freedom of expression and increase the chilling effect that fear of criminal prosecution brings. - Amnesty International
The new law criminalises the dissemination of “false information about the internal and external security, public order and general wellbeing of the country in order to create anxiety, fear or panic among the public”, which may be punished with a prison sentence of between one and three years. Journalists face even harsher sentences if they have published anonymously.
The bill, which was first submitted to parliament on 27th May 2022, was resubmitted to the General Assembly by the governing alliance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) without any amendments, despite national criticism and the reactions of international press freedom groups. The Turkish parliament was also widely criticised for banning a journalist and press union leader from entering the legislature during debates on the government's controversial proposed disinformation law.
Press freedom groups state that the bill provides a “ framework for extensive censorship of online information and the criminalisation of journalism, which will enable the government to further subdue and control public debate in the lead-up to Turkey’s general elections in 2023.”
However, the government has argued that such a measure is necessary to protect society from “rising digital fascism and fake news”, but critics warn that it will only further restrict the freedom of expression. Strongly condemning the passage of the law, an international delegation of media freedom, journalism and human rights organisations visited Turkey from 12th to 14th October 2022 and met with a range of key actors, urging political parties to commit to comprehensive media freedom reforms ahead of the elections. In its opinion, the Venice Commission pointed out that the proposed amendment interferes with the right to freedom of expression and stressed that it was concerned about the increase in self-censorship.
Additionally, Internet freedoms in Turkey have declined in 2022, according to Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Net 2022” report. Turkey was downgraded by two points in comparison to last year, scoring only 32 points out of 100. The country remains in the “not free” category, with the lowest score regarding violations of user rights.
Calls for new law on public advertising
At the beginning of August 2022, Turkish journalists urged parliament to immediately prepare a new law after the Constitutional Court annulled the current law on the distribution of public advertising revenues, ruling that the state agency violated the freedom of the press. In addition, the Court ruled that the fines imposed on the press by the Press Advertising Agency, BIK, violated press freedom. Only a couple of weeks later, on 22nd August 2022, BIK banned the Turkish independent newspaper Evrensel from publishing advertisements from state and public authorities. State advertising revenues are vital for the survival of many small and independent media in Turkey. The outlet’s managing editor described the decision as a politically motivated one, aimed at targeting one of the few remaining independent media outlets in the country, and as an attempt to stifle free speech.
Incidents against journalists
Impunity for attacks against journalists was once again in the spotlight during this period. A Turkish court dropped the murder case of Kurdish journalist and writer Musa Anter, who was killed in 1992, due to the statute of limitations. In the previous hearing on 15th September 2022, the case was adjourned one day after the expiry date of the statute of limitations. Reporters Without Borders stated that justice had not been served and that the perpetrator was "rewarded with impunity.” Earlier, as the trial into the murder of journalist Güngör Arslan was opened, RSF called on the Turkish judiciary to shed light on the horrific crime and ensure all perpetrators are held to account. Two journalists were killed within just 12 months in Turkey and RSF called on authorities to take immediate steps to end impunity.
On 5th September 2022, the Mezopotamya news agency (MA) revealed that the General Directorate of Security (EGM) had blacklisted 20 journalists after they wrote for the Journalist Post, an online magazine run by journalists in exile, which Turkish authorities classify as being run by the so-called Fethullah Gülen community. Two journalists, Turkish Cypriot journalist Aysu Basri Akter and Greek journalist Evangelos Areteos, were denied entry to Turkey. There was widespread condemnation of Ankara's decision to expel veteran Greek journalist Evangelos Areteos, who has been covering Turkey for more than two decades, on security grounds.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on several occasions condemned the intimidation attempts and threats towards journalists and the media by politicians and criminal groups. In light of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey, outspoken journalists and media critical of the government have been a target of ultra-nationalist politicians.
We fear that the threats from ultra-nationalist circles will open the way to another spiral of violence against outspoken journalists, as it did in the 2019 local elections, when the ruling party and its ultra-nationalist ally lost for the first time in the metropolitan areas. Violence and the frequent use of threats have no place in a democratic electoral process. - Erol Onderoglu, RSF representative in Turkey
On 20th October 2022, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council, RTUK, the state agency that monitors and sanctions radio and television broadcasts, fined independent TV Channel TELE1 due to an opposition politician’s claims that the Turkish Religious Authority, Diyanet, is a political tool. Experts, unions and opposition parties say the Erdogan government is ramping up its efforts to silence critical media voices ahead of the 2023 elections. The TV channel risks closure due to fines.
Between 16th and 23rd September, four women journalists were sentenced to prison on terrorism charges. Later on 25th October, police seized computers and notebooks as they raided the homes and offices of Kurdish news agency reporters in six cities, detaining eleven journalists, including seven women, for unknown reasons. “As part of an investigation initiated by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, raids on houses were carried out in many cities,” Jin News Agency reported. The news agency said that doors were broken open and journalists taken away handcuffed behind their backs. Mezopotamya News Agency said that its journalists were treated brutally by the police, physically and verbally. Speaking to the Coaltion for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ), journalist and Dicle Fırat Journalists Association Co-chairman Dicle Müftüoğlu stated that journalists were detained under torture.
This morning, many journalists were detained in nine different cities in Turkey. As far as we know, unfortunately, 11 journalists were detained under torture. Especially in the house raids in Ankara, guns were put on their heads and they were kept in reverse handcuffs for a long time. Again, in the footage served by the police, we saw that our friends were forcibly lowering their heads. - Dicle Fırat Journalists Association Co-chairman Dicle Müftüoğlu