Unending restrictions on civic freedoms

Expression

In recent months, Turkey has continued to experience serious violations of freedom of expression. The government has mainly relied on the legal system to target anyone who expresses critical opinions, including journalists, teachers, academics and others. In one bizarre development, teacher Gökhan Açıkkollu, who was tortured to death in July 2016 while in police custody over alleged membership in the Gülen movement, was found innocent one-and-a-half years later. He was subsequently posthumously reinstated to his job by Turkish authorities.

On 30th January 2018, Turkish authorities arrested members of a Turkish medical association for criticising military operations. Turkish police detained eight people affiliated with the association after they denounced Turkish military operations against a Syrian Kurdish militia. The group also found themselves personally attacked by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who described them as "terrorist lovers". As of 12th February 2018, 474 people had been arrested over social media posts which criticised Turkish military interventions in northwestern Syria. 

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, online spaces for dissent have been under attack since Turkey's failed coup in July 2016. On 7th February 2018, five people in two different cities were detained for insulting the president when they opposed Turkey's military action in Afrin on social media. In March 2018 alone, more than 2,113 people were in police custody over their alleged ties to the Gulen movement in relation to the 2016 attempted coup, of which 623 remain in pretrial detention.

The government has continued to target journalists, even some living in exile. In February, five journalists were sentenced to life, including the Altan brothers and Nazli Ilicak who were initially arrested in September 2016 for allegedly giving “subliminal messages” about the coup on a TV debate show. The journalists were detained in a wave of arrests shortly after the unrest; and 18 months later, the Altan brothers and Ilicak were sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through the use of force and violence. Media rights groups have denounced the flimsy allegations as baseless and illustrative of Turkish authorities' unrelenting restrictions on independent media workers. 

On 20th March 2018, the European Court of Human Rights announced its first judgement on applications filed on behalf of journalists jailed in Turkey and ruled that the rights to personal liberty and security and freedom of expression of Mehmet Altan and Zaman journalist Şahin Alpay’s had been violated. The court called upon Turkey to immediately release the two journalists. In a statement the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) commented on the judgement: 

“The ruling of the European Court of Human Rights highlights the need for Turkey to revisit the court decisions made in the cases of journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan...[and to reverse the decisions that criminalise journalism, release the other remaining imprisoned journalists and dismiss charges against them".

On 8th March 2018, 25 journalists were sentenced to jail for alleged links to the Gulen movement, 23 of whom were convicted of membership in an armed terrorist organisation and were given prison terms of up to seven and a half years.

In a more positive development, an Istanbul court ordered the release of investigative journalist Ahmet Şık and editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu in the Cumhuriyet case, after they had spent more than 400 days in pre-trial detention. The German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel was also released from prison after being detained for a year under the allegation of spreading terrorist propaganda. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Yucel was originally arrested in August 2017 and was barred from receiving German consular assistance. However, according to the president of the Association of European Journalists, Yucel still faces the threat of up to 18 years in jail for “encouraging terrorism”.

Legal action has also been taken against media outlets, such as the Kurdish newspaper Özgürlükçü Demokrasi. The paper's office was raided by Turkish authorities on the 28th March 2018, in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. Nine people were reportedly arrested in the raid. Since the failed coup in July 2016, well over 100 news outlets have been forced to close by Turkish authorities. 

Authorities also took control over the Gun Printing House, which led to the cessation of the print edition of the only Kurdish daily newspaper Rojnameya Welat. Reports note that the outlet is using photocopying as a way to continue distributing its articles. In a statement, renowned lawyer and rights activist, Eren Keskin, remarked that:

“I don’t remember seeing any other period in the history in which freedom of speech was blocked that much and particularly Kurdish press was subjected to judicial pressure in Turkey”.

In a recent action to further tighten the government’s grip over Turkish media, Dogan Holding sold its media arm, including the independent top-selling Hurriyet daily and broadcaster CNN Turk, to a firm perceived as being close to President Erdogan and which owns two pro-government dailies.

Regarding laws and regulations, in March 2018, Parliament passed a bill, which would give new censorship powers to the state regulator. It would require online broadcasters, including YouTube and Netflix Turkey, to be licensed and regulated by the federal TV and radio watchdog RTÜK, but would also extend RTÜK's authority to personal social media accounts and online streaming outlets. Passing this law gives authorities broad scope to target any internet broadcasting content from critical news websites to entertainment platforms.

Peaceful Assembly

On 8th March 2018, International Women’s Day was commemorated with demonstrations in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. In the context of increased restrictions on peaceful assembly rights, Turkish authorities refused to grant permission for events in some cities across Turkey, citing security concerns. Despite a strong police presence, no unwarranted interventions were reported at the International Women's Day protest in Istanbul. In contrast, however, Turkish security forces in Ankara used excessive force to control crowds at a protest organised by the Ankara Women's Platform. Authorities fired tear gas to break up the march and detained 15 protesters to quell the mobilisation. 

The disrupted protest in Ankara coincided with another march in Istanbul, where around 1,500 people gathered to voice opposition to Turkey’s military campaign against Syrian Kurdish militia. Several other smaller demonstrations to demand greater women’s rights and denounce violence against women took place. For example, actresses protested in Istanbul; Erzurum women greeted President Erdoğan with domestic-violence makeup, as well as the February Valentine’s Day protest for equality.

Tens of thousands of people participated in peaceful Nevruz celebrations across Turkey on 21st March 2018. Nevruz is considered a national day for Kurds across the Middle East. More than 100 people were detained in Istanbul on suspicion of planning illegal demonstrations or plotting attacks during the celebrations. 

Protests related to the Turkish military’s operations in Afrin continued, and led to increased tensions among students at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University. While a group of students opened a stand handing out Turkish delights in memory of the fallen soldiers in the military operation in Syria, another group of students unfurled anti-war banners. The police raided anti-war protesters dormitories and detained six students. Although some of them were later released, Turkish President Erdoğan accused the anti-war protesters of behaving like “terrorists” for staging a protest opposing Turkey’s military campaign in Syria. Erdoğan's word have been widely condemned for legitimising the harassment of peaceful dissenters in Turkey.

Association

Courts have issued a decision to refuse to hear lawsuits from LGBTI organisations in Ankara against the Ankara Governorship’s decision to indefinitely ban LGBTI events. The lawsuit brought by two prominent LGBTI organisations, Kaos GL and Pink Life Association, was rejected by an Ankara court on the 22nd February 2018. The authorities placed a ban on the groups' events under the pretext of “public morality” and “social sensitivity and sensibilities” on 19th November 2017.

In a separate development, LGBTI activist Kıvılcım Arat joined trans woman Diren Coşkun, incarcerated since August 2017, in a hunger strike, as Coşkun has been denied basic demands. According to Arat, Coskun’s trans identity cast a shadow over her protest and rendered it invisible. Irmak Keskin, Istanbul Pride organiser, also joined the strike to raise awareness regarding all LGBTI+ inmates who are being treated inhumanely in prisons.