January 27, 2016

Turkey declines in civil liberties, political rights, Freedom House says

Freedom House, a leading watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, has said in its latest report that Turkey continues to decline in the areas of political rights and civil liberties, with renewed violence and an intensified crackdown on critics and the media ongoing.

Turkey is among 72 countries around the world that have seen a net decline in freedoms and rights, in the form of intense harassment of those opposed to the government as well as media outlets, Freedom House said on Wednesday.

The report said the world was battered by crises that fueled xenophobic sentiment in democratic countries, undermined the economies of states dependent on the sale of natural resources and led authoritarian regimes to crack down harder on dissent. These developments, it said, contributed to the 10th consecutive year global freedom has declined.

"Turkey received a downward trend arrow due to renewed violence between the government and Kurdish militants, terrorist attacks by the Islamic State [in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL] group, and intense harassment of opposition members and media outlets by the government and its supporters ahead of November parliamentary elections," the report said in reference to 2015.

The report continued by saying that two parliamentary elections last year were held amid an exceptionally polarized and volatile political environment. The political and security situation surrounding the November elections was deeply affected by violence that rocked Turkey throughout the second half of last year.

A continued crackdown on the media added to the pressure on the electoral environment, according to the report. Throughout the year, Freedom House said, dozens of journalists were arrested and prosecuted for insulting the president and other government officials or for allegedly supporting terrorist organizations. Numerous websites were also blocked. A week before the November elections, the government seized the assets of a major conglomerate, including two daily newspapers, Millet and Bugün, and two television stations that had been critical of the ruling party.

Mentioning irregularities with respect to the electoral process, the report said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan campaigned for the ruling party in violation of the country's Constitution. Critics alleged media bias and censorship, while the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) suffered from terrorist attacks, arrests and mob violence.

The report highlighted corruption as a major problem. Leaked audiotapes pointed to possible corruption among senior politicians, including Erdoğan and his family, and investigations to substantiate the corruption allegations have been limited. The report cited a 2015 report by Transparency International that stressed Turkey's failure to strengthen safeguards against money laundering, bribery and collusion in the allocation of government contracts.

The intensified crackdown on media in recent years continued in 2015, with scores of journalists, as well as some high school students and a former Miss Turkey, being charged with insulting Erdoğan and other officials; some have also received prison sentences.

In September 2015 the offices of the Hürriyet daily were twice attacked by government supporters. Three foreign journalists who were covering the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) were also deported that month.

In October Bugün and Millet, two newspapers owned by the Koza-İpek Group, were placed under government trusteeship, the report said. Koza-İpek's TV stations, Kanaltürk and Bugün TV, were also shut down. Seventy-one journalists from these outlets were fired, and the newspapers resumed operation under new management, producing coverage that was more supportive of the government. In a separate incident, some television distributors moved to drop their contracts with stations that were critical of the government.

Just two days after the November elections, police raided the offices of the Nokta magazine and jailed two of its journalists for allegedly inciting violence. The report also mentioned threats to Internet freedom, with new legislation that expanded the state's power to temporarily block content and conduct surveillance without a court order.

Freedom House said academic freedom in Turkey is limited due to self-censorship, and a new draft law on the books would make it easier to close private universities.

The report said Turkish authorities have monitored and harassed some NGOs in recent years -- most notably those affiliated with the faith-based Gülen movement, also known as Hizmet. It noted that the government has been able to influence judges in the past through appointments, promotions and financing.

In the wake of corruption allegations against the government, thousands of police officers, judges, and prosecutors were reassigned during 2014, and the government passed laws to gain more control over the courts. Antiterrorism laws are widely employed to investigate and prosecute critics of the government, according to the report.

With respect to women's rights, the report said women's rights issues, including the problem of violence against women, have gained more visibility in Turkey, inspiring multiple demonstrations during 2015.

The government has declared combating domestic violence a priority, the report stated, but critics argue that it has not done enough, focusing more on family integrity than women's rights.

Published on Today's Zaman, 27 January 2016, Wednesday