Websites blocked, journalists arrested and protests dispersed using excessive force


As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, Erdogan’s government has continued to repress freedom of expression for scholars, researchers and students in Turkey. In an example of the scale of prosecution, more than 450 signatories have been persecuted on counter-terrorism charges after signing the "Academics for Peace Petition". The petition called on the Turkish government to halt military operations in the predominantly Kurdish south-eastern region of the country in 2016. The government has prosecuted individuals using clauses which criminalise 'propagandising for a terrorist organisation” or “knowingly and willingly aiding a terrorist organisation as a non-member”. 

In another blatant example of crackdown on freedom of expression and access to information, 29th April 2019 marked two years since the Turkish government blocked access to Wikipedia in Turkey. Despite numerous appeals by civil society groups and Wikipedia itself, the website remains blocked. In 2018 alone, Turkish authorities blocked nearly 3,000 online websites. As well as censoring many critical news sites, the authorities have also sporadically blocked entire online platforms such as Blogspot and SoundCloud.

In February 2019, an appeals court upheld the sentences handed to 14 Cumhuriyet journalists in 2018, on charges of lending support to terrorist organisations. For 8 of the journalists, their sentences are under 5 years jail time which will be served. This includes internationally acclaimed cartoonist Musa Kart, who was sent back to prison on 25th April 2019. Kart’s incarceration represents the culmination of 15 years of harassment and persecution by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who twice tried and twice failed to use court action to silence the cartoonist in 2005 and 2014. The cartoonist was finally prosecuted after booking a holiday through an operator with alleged links to the Gülenist movement. His final interview before beginning his jail term can be seen below. 

Turkey's highest court has rejected appeals from two other prominent journalists, Nazli Ilicak and Ahmet Altan who were also jailed for links to the failed coup in 2016. Three other journalists, Ali Bulac, Kadri Gursel and Murat Aksoy had their charges quashed after the court ruled that their rights were violated in the crackdown post 2016. 

The situation in Turkey for journalistic freedom is further underscored by the country's ranking in international assessments of freedom of expression. Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2018 World Press Freedom Index placed Turkey at 157th out of 180 countries in light of the continued witch-hunt against journalists. In a further indication of the severity of the situation, as of 3rd May 2019, at least 146 journalists and media workers were currently either in pre-trial detention or serving a prison sentence.

Peaceful Assembly

Several protests took place in the aftermath of the local elections on 31st March 2019. In some areas such as the provinces of Van and Muş, the governorship ordered blanket bans on meetings, demonstrations and statements to the press for a period of 10-15 days after the elections. In cities where protests did take place, Turkish authorities used excessive force to disperse gatherings. For example, on 14th April 2019 in the Baglar district of Diyarbakir around 100 people gathered to demonstrate against the ban by electoral authorities on the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) which prevented candidates from taking their place after winning the election. After HDP officials began to address the crowd, Turkish police intervened using water cannons to break up the gathering. In the clashes, pro-Kurdish lawmaker Remziye Tosun was injured when she was struck by the water cannon and hit her head on a concrete slab. After losing consciousness, she was later hospitalised for injuries sustained in the incident. Footage of the chaotic scenes can be seen below.

Time and place restrictions on peaceful assembly were imposed on other occasions too, such as the World Theater Day march in Kadıköy, İstanbul. The District Governorship stated that the gathering should be relocated as "it could cause security problems ahead of local elections". Despite the restrictions the gathering took place and saw artists chanting the slogan “Stages are ours, streets are ours.” No violence was reported during this mobilisation. 

In a positive development, the ban on the LGBTI events in the capital Ankara was removed by the 12th Administrative Trial Court of the Ankara Regional Administrative Court. The Governor of Ankara in November 2017 imposed an indefinite ban on the events on the basis of the Law on the State of Emergency. On 19th April 2019, the court overturned the blanket ban on LGBTI events and claimed that the state actions were an "unconditional, excessive and vague" restriction on peaceful assembly. The court stated: 

"Although the administration suggests that LGBTI events may disturb some parts of the society and may cause provocation, attacks or rebuff, public order can be preserved by not imposing a ban but by the police taking the necessary measures."

The ruling has sparked hope among Turkey's LGBTI community in the hope of holding peaceful LGBTI Pride parades in 2019. 

In a separate event, on 22nd April 2019, several rights groups were dispersed by police after gathering in Ankara. The group had gathered for a press statement on the hunger strike in Turkish prisons, which saw over three thousand inmates abstain from eating. The confrontation started after police tried to stop the protest, a move which was resisted by participants. In response, the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. Five people were detained in the clashes. The mass hunger strike started in November 2018, to demand that the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party's (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan be released from an isolation cell. By December 2018, inmates in over 50 prisons across Turkey had begun participating in hunger strikes. 

Finally, 137 people were detained in Istanbul for trying to hold illegal demonstrations across the city to celebrate May Day, the international workers' holiday. Turkish police detained May Day demonstrators trying to march toward Istanbul’s Taksim square, which was declared off-limits by authorities, citing security concerns. Despite the bans, small groups chanting“May Day is Taksim and it cannot be banned,” and attempted to break the police blockade at Taksim Square, leading to arrests. The Interior Ministry said some 303,000 people had participated in 138 legal May Day events around Turkey.