Further attempts to curtail freedom of expression during COVID-19

Association

On 26th March 2020, amendments to the Law on Associations of the Republic of Turkey were published in the Official Gazette. The amendments require associations to notify the local administrative authority of any changes in their membership within thirty days or become liable to a penalty. The Expert Council on NGO Law of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe published an opinion that examines the compatibility of the enacted amendments with European standards. The opinion concludes that the amendments are problematic on both procedural and substantive grounds. There was no ex-ante impact assessment or proper public consultation before their adoption. The sweeping membership notification requirement runs counter to the right to respect for private life and to freedom of association. In addition, the penalty that can be imposed fails to meet the legality and proportionality requirements under Article 11 of the European Court of Human Rights.

Peaceful Assembly

Several protests took place during the reporting period:

  • Ahead of International Women’s Day (IWD), the Prisons Commission of the Human Rights Association (İHD) İstanbul Branch held its 415th sit-in protest in order to raise concern over the 110 ill women who are in prison with worrying health conditions and the violations of their right of access to healthcare.
  • On 8th March 2020, several thousand women gathered in İstanbul at Taksim Square to celebrate International Women’s Day. However, this is the second year in a row that the governor’s office refused permission for organisers to hold the annual rally in the Taksim area. Groups of women were blocked by hundreds of riot police who used pepper spray and pellets containing tear gas to disperse the crowd. Dozens of women were also detained.
  • Helin Bolek, a member of the music group Group Yorum, tragically died on the 288th day of a hunger strike, which protested against the government’s treatment of the band. Group Yorum is known for its protest songs and their performances have been banned since 2016, while some band members have even been jailed.
Positive ruling by Constitutional Court

In a positive development, the Constitutional Court has issued its decision regarding the case of Eda Ayşegül Kılıç, who faced police violence in Ankara during the 2013 Gezi resistance. During the incident, police attacked Kılıç with tear gas, punched, kicked and hit him with batons. The court ruled that “prohibition of torture (regulated in Article 17/3) was violated in terms of material and procedural dimensions and that the right to assembly and demonstration (regulated in Article 24) was violated”. Kılıç is to be paid 37,500 Turkish Lira (~6,120 USD) for non-pecuniary damages.

Ban on assembly and restrictions on CSOs work

In reaction to a press conference held by prominent Turks and Hurds on 28th February 2020 which called for the government to stop the war in Syria, the İstanbul Governor’s Office issued a temporary ban on “meetings, marches, press conferences, petitions, brochure distribution and the hanging of posters” that are anti-war, claiming that such activities could trigger a violent backlash from the public.

Later, as part of the coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency measures, the government enacted strong general restrictions on assembly that especially relate to the work of CSOs, including a Decree that bans all in-person workshops and trainings, and another that bans online general assemblies of all legal entities, while allowing only regular online work meetings to take place.

With a total ban on public gatherings, citizens have turned to online spaces for creative means of protest. For example:

  • As part of an online protest Haberin Var Mı (“Have you heard?”), journalists recorded videos from their homes calling for freedom for their jailed colleagues. They stated: "We will not remain silent even if we have to stay at home". They once again called for the release of journalists who are imprisoned for their work, and who are furthermore exposed to the coronavirus while in prison.

Expression

This period was once again marked by limitations on freedom of expression and pressure on journalists and media outlets. The following cases of censorship were documented:

  • The JIN NEWS website with its slogan “On the trail of the truth with the pen of women” was blocked for the ninth time by the Information Technologies and Communication Authority (BTK) and was not available from Turkey.
  • Furthermore, the Raperina Gel website, which broadcasts with the slogan “Organised Individual, Organised Society”, was censored and shut down for the 16th time by the Turkish government.
  • On a positive note, the Constitutional Court has concluded that the access block imposed on the Sendika.org news website by the Telecommunications Communication Presidency (TİB) in 2015 violated freedom of expression.
Repression against journalists continues

According to the Dicle Fırat Gazeteciler Derneği (Dicle-Firat Association of Journalists- DFG) monthly report, repression against journalists continued in February 2020. Twelve journalists were arrested and may face jail time because of their work. Over a hundred journalists are currently in prison. In its report for March 2020, the association drew attention to the difficult working conditions of media workers as many are still in prison despite the pandemic. Eight media workers were arrested in March 2020.

In response to the detention of 28 journalists within a 15-day period in February and March 2020, the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) protested in front of Çağlayan Courthouse. Journalists held a banner with "Journalism is not a crime" and chanted that "free press cannot be silenced".

"The purpose of journalism is not about protecting the interests of the rulers or a part of them, but to protect the interests of the society. What is being hidden from society in Turkey? What is it that makes journalists a target?"- TGS Istanbul Branch President Banu Tuna.

Foreign journalists have also faced attack. Employees of the Russian news agency Sputnik in Ankara were attacked after a protest regarding the situation in Syria’s Idlib. Organised groups of people tried to break into the homes of Sputnik employees, shouting nationalist chants, insults and threats. While the attackers managed to flee before the police arrived, Sputnik employees in Ankara and Istanbul were detained and the Sputnik office in Istanbul was searched by the police without disclosing reasons. Sputnik has appealed to the United Nations, OSCE and UNESCO in connection with the attack. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media condemned the attack and urged the Turkish authorities to ensure the safety of foreign journalists.

“This represents a significant encroachment on freedom of expression and media freedom in the country. It is paramount that the authorities ensure the safety of foreign correspondents at all times, including during conflicts,”- Harlem Désir.
Attacks on free speech during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in an increase in journalists being jailed on charges of “causing people to panic and publishing reports on coronavirus outside the knowledge of authorities”. The following cases were recorded:

  • Two Haberimizvar.net journalists, executive editör İdris Özyol and editor-in-chief Ebru Küçükaydın, were taken into custody over a COVID-19 report. Both journalists were released after they gave statements. Following this, the report titled “Coronavirus case in Demre’ was taken down from the online platform.
  • A veteran journalist, Hakan Aygün, was arrested due to a tweet which mocked the government’s national pandemic relief campaign. The journalist was accused of “insulting Muslim values” and provoking hatred and enmity.
  • Kurdish journalist Oktay Candemir was interrogated because he posted “unfounded and provocative news articles on coronavirus" on social media.
  • On 18th March 2020 owner of Pusula newspaper Mustafa Ahmet Oktay and the editor, Eren Sarıkaya, were arrested for reporting that a doctor had contracted COVID-19.
  • Ismet Çiğit, the news director of the news website Kocaeli Ses was also arrested on 21st March 2020 after publishing an article “Two coronavirus-linked deaths in Derince hospital.”
  • On 26th March 2020 Tugay Can, a reporter for the Iz Gazete website, was summoned by the local security directorate’s cyber-crime section after reporting that two medical professionals had contracted the virus.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) condemned the targeting of journalists who report on COVID-19:

“The local media are among the leading collateral victims of the coronavirus in Turkey. The authorities were already harassing outspoken media outlets. Now local journalists, the leading witnesses of the public health crisis in the field, are also being undermined, at a time when the public’s right to information is crucial,”- RSF Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu.

Moreover, the Turkish government has discriminated against journalists through its widely criticised “Corona Amnesty Law”, as it makes provision for the release of approximately 90,000 prisoners in order to relieve overcrowded prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic, but excludes journalists, human rights defenders and all political prisoners. In a statement, Amnesty International and several other human rights organisations called for the release of political prisoners, journalists and HRDs.

“Those convicted in unfair trials under Turkey’s overly broad anti-terrorism laws are also now condemned to face the prospect of infection from this deadly disease. Turkey’s government must do the right thing and immediately release those who are imprisoned solely for expressing their peaceful views” - Milena Buyum, Amnesty International.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also issued a statement calling for the immediate release of journalists.

It is unacceptable that Turkey aims to release about a third of its overcrowded prison population but leave journalists behind bars during a global pandemic. Turkish authorities must swiftly redraft their amnesty bill and ensure that journalists, who are held as political prisoners on false ‘terrorism’ charges, will be released,”- Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme coordinator.

Social media platforms have also been under increased scrutiny due to the pandemic, leading to several detentions classified under ‘unfounded and provocative’ posts that ‘cause worry among the public, incite them to fear, panic and target persons and institutions’. Namely, as of 6th April 2020, Turkey’s Ministry of Interior announced that 3,557 social media accounts which shared alleged provocative information and news about the coronavirus have been examined by the Anti-Cybercrime team. Of these, 229 people out of 616 suspects were arrested and the judicial process is under way for the rest.

In addition, a draft law initially proposed by the Turkish government required foreign social media companies to appoint a representative in the country who would address concerns raised by the government over social media content on these platforms. If the platforms failed to do so, they would face restrictions on bandwidth. However, the articles which restrict social media were later removed from the bill.

The right to privacy has also been affected by COVID-19 emergency decrees. Namely, authorities have decided to monitor the mobile phones of people who are diagnosed with coronavirus in order to ensure they abide by quarantine measures. Within the “Pandemic Isolation Tracking Project” of the Turkish Health Ministry, downloading the Hayat Eve Sığar mobile app is mandatory for all confirmed coronavirus patients and those who are found leaving their homes will receive automated warning text messages and calls and face further penalties. Under Turkish law, the processing of personal data is allowed without consent for “exceptional aims”. Concerns have been raised that the app may be used to further curtail freedom of expression and violate the privacy of citizens.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an increase in hate and xenophobic speech targeting minorities and vulnerable social groups. For example, Ali Erbaş, the Director of the Directorate of Religious Affairs in Turkey stated during a sermon on the first Friday of Ramadan that “all evil and epidemic diseases stem from homosexuality”, implying that LGBTI people are to blame for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this, complaints of hate speech have been submitted by Turkey's Human Rights Association and the Ankara Bar Association.