The onslaught on freedom of expression shows no sign of abating


As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, freedom of expression has come under concerted attack in Turkey in recent years. In fact, Turkey is one the highest jailers of journalists in the world. According to the Free Journalists' Initiative (ÖGI), on 3rd December 2019, there were 139 journalists in prison as a result of their work. The high number of imprisoned media workers has prompted many to claim that there is almost no space left for independent dissent. 

On 12th November 2019, two Kurdish journalists, Ruken Demir and Melike Aydın were detained by police, along with ten other activists. The twelve were accused of aiding the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which is banned as a terrorist organisation. Four days later on the 16th November 2019, the two journalists were charged with "acting on behalf of a terrorist organisation". The journalists insisted that they had been reporting on ill prisoners by meeting with their families, feminicides and a gold mine project in the Ida (Kaz) Mountains. Court minutes revealed that these investigations were considered as a "scheme" and "order" for an insurgency. Both journalists were handed jail sentences. 

The wave of aggression against Kurdish media workers continued in December. On 11th December 2019, a Kurdish journalist was accused of being a "terrorist" by the Turkish Interior Ministry and detained by authorities. The arrest of Aziz Oruç prompted strong condemnation from media freedom watchdogs alongside a social media campaign calling for his release. The journalist had been forced to flee Turkey and live in Iraq due to the outstanding charges placed against him for his work as a journalist. After being detained in Armenia, Oruç was extradited back to Turkey to face charges. Despite the social media campaign to release him, he was sentenced to jail on 18th December 2019.

In a separate incident, the editor and founder of the T24 news website Doğan Akın faces possible 15 years in jail on terrorism-related charges for reporting on tweets published by an account accused of espousing terrorist sentiments between 2013 and 2016. Akın reported on 108 tweets from Fuat Avni, an account that is alleged by Turkish authorities to have links with the banned Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ). Despite no evidence of a connection between the journalist and FETÖ, he faces up to fifteen years in prison for his work as a journalist. His indictment read: 

"It is determined that Akın does not have hierarchical connection with the organisation and that he published numerous news reports and articles against the organisation," it is requested Akın be tried for "willingly and knowingly aiding the organisation despite not being a member of the organisation."

FETÖ is held responsible by Turkish authorities for a failed coup attempt in 2016. 

It is not only journalists who have felt the impact of closing spaces for dissent in Turkey. Citizens have also been prosecuted for expressing their opinions in public. In one such example, in late November 2019 a 63-year old woman in İstanbul was detained after she publicly criticised the government at a market in Çatalca. Furthermore, four students were detained after hanging a banner at Demirören Shopping Mall in İstanbul as a protest against the deaths caused by poverty and the attitude taken by the media. Because of this the students were charged with “terror propaganda” for their banner that said: “The system of the AKP kills, the media of the boss hides the truths”.

The arrests of both journalists and citizens comes at a time when concerns over freedom of expression are at an all-time high among the international community. On 18th November 2019, eight international press freedom CSOs released a report on the status of press freedom in Turkey, which highlighted that civic freedoms remain under severe threat. In particular, the report notes that the conflation of critical journalism with support for terrorist groups is a way to persecute critical media workers and outlets. In a press statement, the CSOs elaborated on the severity of their findings: 

"The report reveals an excess of egregious violations of fundamental rights, with dozens of journalists held on the most serious terrorism-related charges for months, sometimes years, based on the flimsiest of evidence in which critical journalism has been conflated with terrorist propaganda, all part of a campaign to silence opposition voices and close down free speech."

These arrests also reflect a widespread fear of state aggression which leads to a situation of self-censorship. According to a poll conducted by Amnesty International’s office in Turkey, more than 82% of Turkish citizens think that human rights and freedoms are being violated. Namely, 43.8% of the participants stated that they are afraid to express their ideas in public, while 43.4% said that they self-censor themselves on social media. In general, 52% of the participants state that they cannot express their opinions freely. This data supports previous research that showed that freedom of expression is especially restricted in Turkey.

Despite the bleak outlook, there were also some positive developments related to freedom of expression in Turkey, including the release of journalists such as İdris Sayılğan who spent 1,137 days in prison after being arrested in 2016, won his appeal and was released on 27th November 2019. Similarly, there was also a verdict calling for the release of Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak, and Emre İper, who was the last arrested defendant in the Cumhuriyet case, and an acquittal for prominent journalist Mehmet Altan.

Peaceful Assembly

During the past few months there have been several protests that have been unwarrantedly disrupted. Below are some emblematic examples: 

  • In relation to the growing numbers of femicides in Turkey, where 391 women were killed by men in 2019, ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, protests for women's rights were held in Istanbul and across Turkey. As protesters gathered with placards emblazoned with slogans like "Women are strong together" and "We are not mourning, we are revolting", women called on Turkish authorities to halt violence against women. In Beyoğlu the District Governor initially announced a ban on the march which was later amended to permit it in a designated 140-metre-long area, from the Tünel Square to the İstanbul Bar Association. After the police allowed the women to walk about 140 meters, they stopped the group near Asmalı Mescit Street where they gave a press statement, after which a small group tried to cross the police barricade, which led to violence. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters as they attempted to cross the barricade. Several days later Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu rebuffed accusations that the police used violence against the women, by claiming that “just a little gas was fired”.
  • Later in December, around 300 women gathered in the Kadıköy district of İstanbul for their version of the protest song first performed by the Chilean feminist group Las Tesis in protest against gender based violence. Seven demonstrators were detained by police on the grounds that they were “defying laws governing public demonstrations,” “insulting the president” and “insulting state institutions”.
  • The youth organisations criticised an incident at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Ankara University, where several students who tried to attend the Symposium on Turkey’s Modernisation Process were beaten by private security guards.