Turkey's Civic Space Bulletin


April - May 

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Turkey's state of Emergency declared in 2016, has severely constricted civic freedoms. Although the State of Emergency was expected to end on 19th April 2018, the Parliament approved a further three month extension. It was the seventh time the State of Emergency had been extended since July 2016. During April and May, the government carried out mass arrests of human rights defenders, civil servants, academics, journalists, opposition figures relating to Turkey's 2016 coup attempt.

As previously covered in the  CIVICUS Monitor, a sustained and escalating crackdown has curtailed the vital work of human rights defenders in Turkey. This chilling effect has left swathes of society in a state of constant fear according to a new report from Amnesty International. More than 1,300 NGOs have been permanently closed down under the state of emergency for vague links to “terrorist” organisations. In a statement, Amnesty said: 

“Under the cloak of the state of emergency, Turkish authorities have deliberately and methodically set about dismantling civil society, locking up human rights defenders, shutting down organisations and creating a suffocating climate of fear.”

Those affected include human rights groups as well as NGOs working on a variety of issues. Despite this, a few NGOs have, after enquiry, had their registrations reinstated. In May 2018, the Commission of Inquiry for State of Emergency Practices gave a preliminary decision that six NGOs may reopen as no links to terrorist associations could be found.

President Erdogan took domestic politics to the international arena as in April 2018 the Turkish government demanded for a veto over civil society organisations’ participation at the annual Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in September 2018. For many CSOs, the event is the only opportunity to address government representatives. CSOs deemed to have links to terrorist organisations will be barred from participation.

May - July

Freedom of House's 2018 "Freedom in the World Index" evidences a declining situation in Turkey. The country's freedom rating fell from "partly free" to "not-free." This downgrade reflects the downward spiral in civic freedoms as documented by the CIVICUS Monitor. Mass closures of NGOs and media outlets, restrictions on freedom of assembly and association and the arrest of tens of thousands of people has left Turkish civil and political rights in tatters.

On 24th June 2018, Turkey held its presidential and parliamentary elections. An OSCE interim report cited a number of concerns regarding the democratic process, including restrictions on freedom of assembly, association and expression. Erdoğan was re-elected and began his new term in office with sweeping executive powers under a presidential system. The new system scraps the post of prime minister and the president will be able to select a cabinet, regulate ministries and remove civil servants, all without parliamentary approval.

On 19th July 2018, two years after a coup attempt nearly toppled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey lifted the state of emergency. Yet, the government has been accused of introducing new restrictive rules justified under the guise of national security. This takes the form of a new anti-terrorism law. While the government promised to align the law to uphold human rights, the European Union warned the legal changes remain far too restrictive. According to Human Rights Watch, the powers to dismiss any judge, to ban any assembly by restricting peoples’ movement, and to arrest people over and over again for the same offence are evidence that the state of emergency continues in all but name. In a statement, Human Rights Watch said: 

“The end of Turkey’s state of emergency should have been a good sign for human rights, but the draft law makes clear that the government’s plan is to end it in name only.”

The new anti-terror law will be in force until 2021.

July - September 

Over 40 international organisations called on Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to repeal the anti terrorism law which effectively prolongs the state of emergency. According to the statement, the adoption of law not only makes a mockery of the government’s claim to have ended the state of emergency, but enshrines the permanence of restrictions in law. The statement said: 

“These provisions harm and restrict the rights of individuals who are not genuine security threats to Turkey’s government or citizens, but who are critical of government policies or defending human rights- at a time when reconciliation would help to restore prosperity.”

Regarding the OSCE meeting in September 2018, Turkey was the only country to boycott this year’s Human Dimensions Implementation Meeting, as it insisted on vetoing CSOs' participation. A Turkish official stated on 12th September 2018, that while Turkey supports NGO participation at such international platforms, it could not accept the presence of "terror organisations that target the lives of our citizens under the guise of civil society organisations."

Peaceful Assembly

April - May 

The state of emergency placed restrictions on peaceful assembly in Turkey, for example, protesters still need the authorisation of administrative authorities. Despite this, many protests still took place. From the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) gatherings in May, or weeks-long protest of Istanbul University students and academics, to earlier International Women’s Day marches attended by tens of thousands of people. Neither public assemblies nor anti-government protests have been suspended in Turkey.

To that end, in late April 2018, supporters of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) organised sit-in protests in all of Turkey's 81 provinces against the extension of the state of emergency. In Istanbul, hundreds of CHP supporters staged a protest on a street near Taksim Square after police blocked their access to the city's main square. CHP supporters have accused the government of misusing emergency powers to bypass parliament, erode democracy and go after government critics.

May - July

During the pre-election period Turkish authorities imposed bans on assembly, public gatherings and press conferences in five provinces. After the elections and the cessation of the national state of emergency, Turkey's new anti-terror law was adopted. This new legislation requires that protests and marches in the open air must end before sunset while indoor gatherings are permitted until midnight.

Turkey’s LGBTI community has continued to experience widespread hostility. Despite the four-year ban of the LGBTI Pride March due to “public order” concerns, as well as heavy police presence blocking the street where the march was supposed to take place, activists  gathered on 1st July 2018 in Istanbul. Participants gathered to celebrate their visibility and to fight against the violence and discrimination fuelled by bans on Pride March. After protesters read a press statement, police told the crowd to disperse and fired tear gas on protesters. At least 41 people, including both LGBT activists and members of the ultraconservative groups, were detained, according to the event's organisers. According to the state-run media outlet, Anadolu Agency at least 20 were detained.

The LGBTI pride parade scheduled to take place a week later in the southern province of Adana was also banned over “possible incitement of hatred and hostility”. In another move, the Ankara Governor’s Office banned the movie screening event of a communist LGBT group that was to be held in the capital city on 28th June 2018.

July - September

On 25th August 2018, the landmark 700th Saturday Mothers gathering was to take place. For decades, this group of Kurdish women have organised silent sit-ins and communal vigils to protest against the forced disappearances and political murders in Turkey during the 80s and 90s. Since 2009, police have maintained a watchful presence at the protests but this was the first time in recent years the protest has been disrupted. This time, Turkish police has launched a brutal crackdown, using tear gas and plastic pellets. One hundred people were arrested, including an 82 year-old woman who was among the first to protest in 1995. Saturday Mothers/People and Human Rights Association (İHD) filed a criminal complaint against authorities, to İstanbul Courthouse on the ground that they were ill-treated and that their right to assembly was unduly violated.

The Saturday Mothers gathering is one the world’s longest running civil disobedience demonstrations. The women used to peacefully protest every Saturday in central Istanbul for half an hour, holding photographs of their lost loved ones. The Saturday Mothers had been one of the few remaining public protests near Istanbul’s Taksim square. As such, its crackdown has been described by the opposition as a sign of intensification of authoritarianism. While Turkish authorities prohibited the Saturday Mothers vigils to take place in İstanbul, protesters met again in front of the Human Rights Association office despite police telling the women to “Stop with the show.”

Workers at the construction site of the third airport in Turkey’s İstanbul started strike action. Having protested several times, the workers have suffered from malnutrition, inhumane working and living conditions. Their poor treatment came amid pressure to open the airport on 29th October 2018. Some resources report that around 400 workers have been killed at the site since the beginning of the airport project. Nearly all deaths occurred through work related accidents. A hashtag in support of the workers, "we are not slaves" (#köledegiliz) trended in Turkey. The police used blockades, severe force, and tear gas at the construction site to break up the protests by the workers, and some 600 people were arrested during the protests.

A group of locals in İzmir gathered on 29 August 2018 to protest the killing of a transgender individual in front of her house. The group shouted slogans like “Our identities cannot be extenuating circumstances,” “Transgender women are women,” “Do not stay silent” and “Stop violence against transgender people.” Human rights activists accuse Turkey’s police and justice system of turning a blind eye to aggression against transgender sex workers.


April - May

The Turkish Government has relied on the legal system to target anyone who expresses critical opinion, including journalists, teachers and academics. In a worrying example, on 16th April 2018, teacher Ayşe Çelik was sentenced to one year and three months in prison, over allegedly “praising terrorism and a terrorist organisation” for saying "Don't let children die" during a TV show broadcast in 2016. Fortunately, after spending a couple of weeks in custody, separated from her six-month-old baby, the teacher was released on judicial probation. Under the state of emergency measures, the government has also criminalised ordinary expressive works. One example is the documentary about three members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party entitled ‘Bakur’, where it's directors face up to five years in prison. More than 40 human rights, film and cultural organisations gathered in defence of the imprisoned filmmakers Cayan Demirel and Ertugrul Mavioglu.

The Government has continued to target journalists, prompting international condemnation of the country’s deteriorating press freedoms. On 25th April 2018, thirteen journalists working for the critical newspaper Cumhuriyet, were handed lengthy prison sentences on terrorism charges because of their supposed affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front. While editors, reporters and executives keep fighting, Turkish authorities have hardened their position of supporting pro-government newspapers and persecuting independent new outlets and journalists. An indictment drafted by Turkish prosecutors sought a ten and a half years for two journalists after posts on social media about Turkish military operations in Syria’s Afrin region. A number of national and international organisations signed a joint statement calling on the Council of Europe to remind Turkey of its international obligation to respect human rights. The statement said: 

"In light of the apparent breakdown of the rule of law and the fact that Turkish courts are evidently unable to deliver justice, we also call on the ECtHR to fulfill its role as the ultimate guardian of human rights in Europe, and to rule swiftly on the free expression cases currently pending before it and provide an effective remedy for the severe human rights violations taking place in Turkey."

Turkey has also continued efforts of blocking freedom of expression on social media. According to a transparency report by Twitter, 466 of 513 total requests made to the online news and social networking site for content removal and takedowns between June and December 2017 came from Turkey, making Turkey the country a world leader in Twitter censorship.

May - July

Freedom of expression has been steadily eroding in Turkey through arbitrary and restrictive interpretation of legislation, pressure, dismissals and frequent court cases against activists, journalists, academics and social media users. The most recent figures documented by Stockholm Center for Freedom show that 242 journalists and media workers were in jail as of 3rd June 2018 with most in pretrial detention. 182 were awaiting trial while only 60 journalists have been convicted of criminal offences. 

Detention warrants are outstanding for 142 journalists living in exile or remain at large in Turkey. On a more positive note, Turkish journalist, Mehmet Altan, was released after 21 months of detention for allegedly urging people to overthrow the government during a direct TV broadcast on the eve of the attempted coup. 

The authorities have used emergency powers to silence independent media in Turkey. This has involved forcing the closure of media outlets, including television channels, by decree. According to the OSCE interim report, ahead of the elections in Turkey, the media landscape has been dominated by outlets whose owners are considered affiliated with the government or depend on public contracts. A month after the elections, Turkey’s public broadcaster, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), was subordinated to the President’s office, according to a new decree. During election campaign periods, TRT was heavily criticised for discriminating against opposition parties while giving extensive coverage to the current president and his ruling party. With the same decree, the previously independent Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) has been tied to the Culture and Tourism Ministry.

On 20th July 2018, the İstanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office began issuing detention warrants in a massive investigation into social media accounts run by activists posting on subjects deemed controversial, such as the Turkish military offensive in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region or protests over the planned destruction of Gezi Park in 2013 and workers demonstrations. According to the Hürriyet Daily News, the Turkish National Police’s cybercrime department is monitoring some 45 million social media users in the country for what authorities consider online criminal activity.

July - September

Turkey, the most notorious country in terms of jailing journalists, has also come after foreign reporters in an ever-escalating crackdown on freedom of the press. A new report by the Stockholm Center for Freedom titled “The Clampdown on Foreign Journalists in Turkey” explains in detail how reporters from other countries face serious obstacles in Turkey. In fact the report points to a deliberate, systematic and calibrated policy by the government to obstruct foreign journalists. In such an example, on 12th September 2018, Austrian journalist Max Zirngast was arrested on terrorism-related charges. The International Press Institute condemned this detention and accused the Turkish government for “[abusing] the anti-terror law to silence journalists who report critically on the government or who cover sensitive issues." In the case of the Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, who works for the German Die Welt newspaper and was jailed for a year in Turkey on terror charges, a TL1 million (around $155,000) lawsuit was filed against Turkey on the grounds that he was unjustly imprisoned. Despite this action, Yücel's request for compensation was later rejected. 

Journalists in Turkey have also been harassed by the police when doing their jobs. In one example, on 25th August 2018, Turkish police violently attacked several reporters covering the Saturday Mothers silent protest in Istanbul. A reporter from a pro-government news agency was hit by gas pellets fired from a police gun. The police also assaulted other reporters and independent journalists and prevented them from doing their jobs. The Turkish Interior Minister claimed that the activists were being "exploited by terrorist organisations," and did not address the matter of reporters being attacked and shot at.

In a more positive development, on 15th August 2018, a Turkish court granted release of local Amnesty International chair Taner Kılıç, after spending more than 14 months in prison. In a statement, the head of Amnesty International, Kumi Naidoo commented on Kılıç's release:

"Beneath the smiles of joy and relief there is a steely determination to continue our fight for human rights in Turkey and for the release of all those human rights defenders, journalists and others who have been unjustly jailed in the vicious crackdown."

Kılıç was detained in June 2017, and still faces charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation. 

Freedom of expression online has also been restricted. According to Twitter's ‘country withheld content’ (CWC), the Turkish government has effectively censored content on Twitter, by pressurising the social media giant to censor critical content. In the second half of 2017, more Twitter accounts were withheld and Facebook content restricted in Turkey than any other country. 

Furthermore, the Turkish government has attempted to criminalise social criticism in the form of satire, after students of Ankara University showed the satirical cartoon ‘World of Tayyips’, depicting president Erdoğan in the form of various animals. In response, the Chief Prosecutor's Office launched an investigation and charged the students who carried the banner with "insulting the president", arresting four of them on 11th July 2018. IFEX, a global network of independent NGOs that promotes freedom of expression, has launched a campaign encouraging people to share the satirical cartoon as a gesture of solidarity with those under judicial threat.