Upcoming referendum could further curtail civic freedoms

Since the failed coup attempt in 2016, President Erdoğan has brazenly clamped down on independent voices and any form of dissent. The government has repeatedly used emergency legislation to repress political dissidents, independent CSOs and news outlets critical of the regime. The situation for civil society and independent media is even more precarious, as Turkish citizens head to the polls next month for a referendum on constitutional amendments that would grant President Erdoğan even greater power. 

Association 

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Turkish authorities have executed a systematic crackdown against civil society groups in the wake of the 2016 failed coup. On 4th January 2017, emergency powers were expanded, allowing President Erdoğan to continue his unrelenting opposition to any form of criticism and dissent. To illustrate the far-reaching impact of the regime's repression, over 5,000 cases have been filed against the Turkish authorities at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In fact, the number of cases filed with the ECHR after the failed July coup has increased by 276 percent compared to last year.

Another example of the closing space for civil society occurred on 7th March 2017, when Turkish authorities revoked Mercy Corps' registration to operate in Turkey. The U.S.-based humanitarian organisation ran relief operations for Syrian refugees on Turkey's border. The organisation was forced to close all sites in Turkey and withdraw immediately.  

Expression

Under the guise of preventing terrorist "propaganda", Turkish authorities have continued their assault on freedom of expression in the country. As of 28th January 2017, 191 journalists have been imprisoned and fears of persecution have contributed to a culture of self-censorship.

The government has ordered police raids of offices, as well as arrests, detentionsimprisonment and dismissals of editors, journalists, reporters, photographers, and videographers. On 23rd January 2017, Turkish authorities dismissed 367 officials and closed two TV channels, Kanal On4 and Kanal 12 in retaliation for their reported activities "against national security". In addition, freedom of expression on the internet has been curtailed. The regime has thus far blocked access to YouTube channels and the website of the German daily newspaper, BILD

On 14th March 2017, the 23rd Court for Serious Crimes refused to release İnan Kızılkaya & Kemal Sancılı until the conclusion of their trial on terrorism charges. The two journalists worked for the pro-Kurdish news outlet Özgür Gündem, which was closed by authorities in August 2016, and have been imprisoned for seven months. Turkish authorities also refused to lift travel bans on the news outlet's board members who also spent time in prison. In such a repressive environment even foreign journalists face persecution. On 14th February 2017, German-Turkish reporter Deniz Yucel, a correspondent for the daily German newspaper Die Welt was arrested after reporting on emails connected to Turkey's Minister of Energy. Yucel is the first German journalist to be imprisoned and has reportedly been denied access to consular assistance from the Germany Embassy. 

As further evidence of regime's crackdown, a recent interview with Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk was pulled from being aired on T24 after the novelist spoke candidly about his opposition to the constitutional amendments in the upcoming referendum. The unwillingness to publish the interview speaks to the growing fear that any form of political opposition could lead to reprisals from Turkish authorities.

On 1st February 2017, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) introduced new measures to limit broadcasting of terror attacks. The measures prohibit Turkish news outlets from broadcasting footage or information directly after a terror attack. Channels are now unable to use the headline "breaking news" to describe a terror attack and are only permitted to broadcast statements from government officials. In addition, no independent video footage, photographs or scenes that depict fear or panic in the aftermath of an attack can be published or broadcast. The new measures also impose restrictions on broadcasting information about terror attacks in Istanbul, İzmir & Antalya. Freedom of speech advocates view the regulations as more evidence of the shrinking space for independent news outlets to operate in Turkey. 

Peaceful Assembly

While Turkey has a strong culture and history of protest, Turkish security forces have an equally well-known reputation for their use of excessive force to quell demonstrations. Before International Women's Day on 8th March 2017, 23 people were arrested during a rally in the southeastern city of Sanliufra after security forces clashed with activists. 

In a separate incident, on the 10th February 2017, at least 12 protesters were detained during a demonstration outside Ankara University. The protesters mobilised to protest recent dismissals of staff at the academic institution, a trend which has become more prevalent in post-coup Turkey. Security forces clashed with over a thousand protesters as they attempted to enter the university, using rubber bullets and tear gas to prevent people from entering the premises. A journalist was assaulted and detained during the protest and was hospitalised for his injuries. The video below captures scenes from the protest. 

A number of other protests have also taken place over the last few months in Turkey. 

  • Environmentalists protested against the planned construction of a tramway line through Istanbul’s Belgrade Forest;
  • 600 taxi drivers at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport protested against new changes to the minimum fares taxis can charge; 
  • Pro-government female activists protested in support of a "Yes" vote in the upcoming April referendum on whether to boost Turkish President powers, while other groups of women took to the streets to protest against the constitutional change; and
  • Women across Turkey marched to commemorate International Women’s day.