Academics arrested, journalists silenced and blanket bans on LGBTI protests


The trend of encroaching on freedom of expression through the detention of activists, journalists, academics and other citizens on flimsy accusations of terrorism or insulting the president have continued. In one case, a citizen was given a 28-month prison sentence for a critical post published on Facebook which stated, "forget about the gasoline, we have the most expensive President of the world”. The individual was charged under Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code which grants broad remit to imprison individuals for up to four years for "insulting the president". The clause has been used repeatedly to silence critics of the government. 

Other associations have also faced arrest and harassment on counter-terrorism charges. For example, Academics for Peace, an organisation that brings together 2000 individuals supporting peace in south-east Turkey, have been targeted for speaking out in defence of peace and democracy. The Turkish academics signed a petition calling on the Turkish government to halt military operations in the predominantly Kurdish south-eastern region of the country in 2016. As of 18th June 2019, 631 academics had been tried since December 2017 and all 200 academics whose cases were concluded were given prison sentences. Many others have been fired from their positions or have been banned from travelling overseas. During May and June 2019, several academics were arrested on charges of 'propagandising for a terrorist organisation” or “knowingly and willingly aiding a terrorist organisation as a non-member” for signing the declaration "We will not be a party to this crime" in 2016. 

Journalists were also handed prison sentences. Among them, journalist Hasan Cemal was sentenced to 1 year, 6 months and 22 days in prison and a fine of 3,060 Turkish liras for "propagandising for a terrorist organisation" in his article "From Silvan: They made us so accustomed to pain and death". Speaking about his ordeal, Cemal commented:

"I would like to emphasise this: Throughout my professional life, I have never been a 'propaganda writer'. And I have always defended peace. I wrote four books, thousands of articles about the Kurdish problem. There is peace in every one of them."

Another female journalist, Cansu Pişkin was also sentenced to 10 months in prison for her article entitled “Special Prosecutor for Boğaziçi University Students" published in 2018. The article cited the name of the prosecutor who was involved in charging students at Boğaziçi University who protested against Turkey's military operations in Syria. The journalist's prison sentence was deferred, to deter her from continuing her work. 

In the case of the closed Özgür Gündem newspaper, seven columnists and executives have been sentenced to prison terms, while eight people were acquitted and a further seven will face a separate trial. Turkey has also sought a jail sentence for two Bloomberg reporters and 36 other people after the country’s banking watchdog (BDDK) filed a complaint about the reporters, in regard to a Bloomberg story published in August 2018. Bloomberg reporters Kerim Karakaya and Fercan Yalinkilic are accused of trying to undermine Turkey’s economic stability, charges that carry a jail sentence of between two and five years.

In their latest report, Mesopotamia Women Journalists Platform (MKGP) stated that as of May 2019, 14 women journalists were being held behind bars. According to their reporting on female journalists, while five women journalists were released, a further 30 female journalists stood trial before judges for their work, with two of these women being later acquitted. Most worryingly, two women journalists were attacked. Reflecting on the situation for journalists in Turkey, the group said: 

"In the face of the reality of press which has assumed a single voice and a single colour, black, we, as women journalists, will purely and simply write the truth, show it to the whole world and will not lose our courage by containing all colours of Turkey within ourselves."

Attacks on journalists have continued unabated, jeopardising the already restricted space for independent media in Turkey. In a recent incident, on 20th May 2019 Ergin Çevik, the Editor-in-Chief of the Güney Haberci news website, was attacked by three people in Antalya after reporting on an incident related to corruption. Çevik was reportedly assaulted because of his recent investigation into unearned income in the municipality of Aksu. In the article, Çevik called on the mayor of Aksu, Halil Şahin, who was re-elected on 31 March 2019, to address the allegations. 

On 10th May 2019, TV producer and columnist Yavuz Selim Demirağ was attacked in front of his house, and the attackers were released a day after being taken into custody. The attack followed a controversial article called, "I am not afraid" on which was published on 14th May 2019. Demirağ was set upon by unknown assailants wielding sticks who beat him outside his house. For both attacks on Çevik and Demirağ, while suspects were detained, they were later released. 

Later that month on 24th May 2019, an unidentified gunman shot Turkish journalist Hakan Denizli in the leg, according to reports. Denizli, founder of the local daily Egemen, was taken to a hospital for injuries sustained in the attack. The shooting took place outside the journalist's home in the city of Adana. In response to the spate of attacks, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said: 

"This brutal attack against Hakan Denizli - the fourth assault on a journalist in two weeks - appears to signal an alarming cycle of violence against critical voices in Turkey. We call on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to strongly condemn the attacks and to instruct his law enforcement to bring those responsible to justice and to ensure the safety of journalists."

While attacks continued, some journalists were also released after being imprisoned following decisions from the Constitutional Court. Teacher Ayşe Çelik, who was imprisoned for "terrorist propaganda" for having said "Don't let children die" on TV, was released from prison upon the Court’s verdict of 'Right Violation'. In addition, the Constitutional Court concluded that the one-year arrest on charges of "propagandising for a terrorist organisation" and "inciting the public to enmity and hatred" has violated the rights of the journalist Deniz Yücel. Journalists Kadri Gürsel, Ayşe Düzkan, Semina Şahin and Pınar Gayıp, who all faced the same charge, were also released from prison.

Peaceful Assembly

A number of human rights activists, academic representatives and individuals were detained on charges of "organising illegal protest demonstrations". For example, teachers Nursel Tanrıverdi and Selvi Polat were arrested and released five times before being charged and detained for protests staged in Bakırköy, İstanbul. The activists have also filed a criminal complaint against Turkish security forces on charges of torture. In response to increasing allegations of torture, the Human Rights Association (İHD) and Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV) made a statement that cases of mistreatment and torture increased rapidly after the State of Emergency was declared, and many of these cases have not been investigated accordingly.

LGBTI groups have continued to face restrictions on organising public events across Turkey. All events pertaining to LGBTI rights in Ankara were banned through the Governorship’s decision. In defiance of this ban, approximately 25 LGBTI activists attempted to stage a protest on 10th March 2019, which was violently disrupted by Turkish security forces. Held at the Middle East Technical University (METU), the Turkish authorities swiftly swooped in to disperse the protest using rubber bullets and tear gas. Footage of the clashes can be seen below.  

After the police attack on Ankara's LGBTI Pride parade, students boycotted their classes to protest the interference. Several students were detained after participating in protests, and later had their scholarships and education loans revoked. In June 2019, both Izmir and Antalya LGBTI groups planned Pride Week events, but were banned by their Governorships, with the aim of "ensuring public safety, maintaining national security and public order and protecting general health and morals." The LGBTI activists in Izmir denounced the ban: 

"No matter how hard you try to make LGBTIs ashamed of their identities by subjecting them to discrimination and ill treatment, this shame belongs to the government that bans the activities and parades we organise to cry out for our freedom and demand our rights".

Similarly, justified under the premise of 'protecting public health and morality', the Governorship of Mersin has imposed a 20-day ban on LGBTI events and the Governorship of Antep also banned Pride Week events in the province, explaining that it is “a plot from America”. The Governorship of İstanbul, for the fifth time, banned the Pride parade from taking place in Taksim square, and later in Bakırköy district, and placed anti-riot water cannon vehicles and police teams around the area where the Parade was planned to be held. After the İstanbul LGBTI Pride Parade statement was read out in a nearby street, police intervened with shields and pepper spray to disperse the protesters. Five people were taken into custody during the day.

A ranking by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has put Turkey in the second lowest place in Europe in terms of LGBTI rights. While homosexuality is not banned in Turkey, homophobia and transphobia are widespread and members of the LGBTI community face scores of legal restrictions and hostility from society.