November 14, 2015

EC progress report: Turkey makes no progress on media freedom and judicial independence

A delayed European Commission progress report, which was released on Nov. 10, on EU candidate Turkey's current performance and progress toward accession, expressed great concern over media freedom, freedom of expression and judicial independence, in which the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government made no positive headway.

“Between 2007 and 2013, Turkey's judicial system had achieved significant improvements, related to its independence and respect for human and fundamental rights, including abiding by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). However, there has been no progress since early 2014 as the independence of the judiciary and respect of the principle of separation of powers have been undermined and judges and prosecutors have been under strong political pressure,” the report emphasized.

The report, which was delayed until after the Nov.1 snap election to avoid antagonizing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the EU desperately seeks Turkey's help in dealing with the refugee crisis, cites significant setbacks concerning the rule of law and judicial independence.

According to the report, the AK Party government made efforts to reinvigorate the EU accession process. However, this repeated commitment was offset by the adoption of key legislation in the area of the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of media and freedom of assembly that ran against European standards and continues to divide the political landscape in Turkey.

Severely criticizing Turkey for a series of flaws in its respect for human rights and democratic standards, the EU report suggested the Turkish government create a political and legal environment that allows the judiciary to perform its duties in an independent and impartial manner. It further suggested the executive branch and legislature fully respect the separation of powers. The report also said that the role of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which is highly influenced by the executive power, must be limited.

Suggesting the independence of the HSYK from the executive branch following the legislative changes in 2014, the EC report noted that no official record of votes of the HSYK's decisions on investigations against judges and prosecutor is made public.

The HSYK launched several cases against prosecutors and judges dealing with high-profile cases, including allegations of corruption in December 2013 which implicated figures from the inner circles of the AK Party and Erdoğan and alleged transfer of weapons to radical Syrian groups by the Turkish intelligence agency. These cases led to the suspension or dismissal, as well as to several detentions and arrests, of judges and prosecutors overseeing the investigations.

A ‘decline' in judicial reforms seen in report draft, ‘no progress' seen in final version

According to a story in the Hürriyet daily on Nov. 8, the draft report stated that there has been a decline in judicial reforms, independence and impartiality since early 2014, unlike the improvements seen from 2007 to 2013. The word “decline” in the draft report was changed to “no progress” in the final report released on Nov. 10.

“There has been a decline since early 2014 as the independence of the judiciary and respect of the principle of separation of powers have been undermined and judges and prosecutors have been under strong political pressure,” Hürriyet quoted from the draft report.

The EC report also underlined that judges and prosecutors in Turkey have been under strong political pressure, especially in the fight against corruption, where the number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions have decreased since early 2014, contrary to the period between 2007 and 2013. “Corruption remains prevalent in many areas and continues to be a serious cause of concern,” the report said.

EU concerned about censorship on media and freedom of expression in Turkey

Urging the Turkish government to respect media freedom, freedom of expression and human rights, the EC report expressed said that the EU is particularly concerned with an increase in arrests, hearings, detentions, judicial prosecutions, censorship cases and layoffs of journalists as the authorities maintained their pressure on the media and free speech.

The report calls for counter measures against the intimidation of journalists and for investigations into threats and attacks against journalists. It also says a law about defamation should be used as a source of intimidation against critics and opponents.

Emphasizing that high-level politicians continue to strongly condemn journalists for their critical reporting, the report said such activity has a negative impact on freedom of expression and helps create a climate of self-censorship among members of the media and outlets.

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the number of journalists in prison in Turkey exceeds 20, many of whom face or were convicted of charges under the anti-terror law.

Crackdown on Zaman and Samanyolu, seizure of İpek Media raise serious concern

The EC report also expressed serious concern over the legality and proportionality of the government-backed operations against the Zaman Media Group, Samanyolu Broadcasting Group and İpek Media Group as part of the AK Party government's fight against faith-based Gülen movement, following corruption scandal revelations in December 2013.

Former Zaman daily Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı and Samanyolu Broadcasting Group CEO Hidayet Karaca were detained after police raided the buildings of media outlets on Dec. 14, 2014. While Dumanlı was released by the court on Dec. 19, Karaca was detained pending trial and remains in jail.

The Bugün and Kanaltürk TV channels under the İpek Media Group, critical of the government, were shut down by the police and the printing of two dailies was stopped before they were seized by a government-orchestrated court order on Oct. 25 over alleged charges of their support for the Gülen movement.

“The legality and proportionality of this operation raise serious concern” the report stated.

The AK Party and Erdoğan describe the December 2013 corruption investigation as a "coup" attempt and accuse the Gülen movement of masterminding the probe. Erdoğan claimed that the movement's sympathizers in the judiciary and the police force had established a "parallel state" within the state bureaucracy and had plotted against his government. Although the Gülen movement strongly denies these allegations, Erdoğan and the AK Party government have since been fighting an all-out war against all the individuals and organizations that are thought to have any ties with the movement.

Published on Today's Zaman, 14 November 2015, Saturday