February 27, 2016

Human rights in Turkey continue to nosedive

Amanda Paul

On Friday Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar and the paper's Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, were released from prison, following Turkey's Constitutional Court ruling that their rights to personal liberty and security had been violated along with their freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

This was wonderful news and, as Dündar stated on his release, “this verdict has cleared the way not only for us but for all of our colleagues and freedom of the press and expression." Hence hopefully the absurd charges pressed against other journalists will be dropped and they will be quickly freed. Fortunately the Constitutional Court is just about the last remaining institution with independence in the country. One can only hope it will remain that way, although given Turkey's increasingly authoritarian trend and the growing intolerance of the government toward critics, this should not be taken for granted.

Yet, while we can celebrate this development, the bigger picture regarding human rights continues to be very worrying. This was clearly articulated in Amnesty International's recent report on Turkey. The findings do not make a nice reading but accurately reflect the situation in the country, with the report stating that 2015 was not a progressive year but indeed rather the opposite, with a dramatic decline in human rights taking place.

Press freedom is given a strong focus, with the report stating that "freedom of the press in 2015 in Turkey has fallen victim to pressures in a way that it has never before … the government exerted immense pressure on the media, targeting media companies and digital distribution networks, and singling out critical journalists, who were then threatened and physically attacked by often unidentified assailants. Mainstream journalists were fired after criticizing the government. News websites, including large swathes of the Kurdish press, were blocked on unclear grounds by administrative orders aided by a compliant judiciary." Indeed, hundreds of people, including journalists, academics and even teenagers, are facing charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. People are even being prosecuted for critical messages they have posted on social media platforms. During the first seven months of Erdoğan's presidency (August 2014 to April 2015), 236 people were investigated and 105 indicted for insulting the president. Erdoğan has used Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which carries a prison term of more than four years and dates back to 1926, more than any of his predecessors in the job. Furthermore, the increased application of the provisions of the Counterterrorism Law (TMK) and the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK), before and during the election period in 2015, led to a large number of journalists, social media users and media outlets being investigated for defamation and supporting terrorism. Today the level of control being exerted by the authorities is suffocating freedom of speech and expression.

Amnesty also raised concerns over the deteriorating situation of the Turkish judiciary, which is criticized for its lack of independence, underlining the "politically motivated appointments and transfers of judges and prosecutors continued throughout the year, wreaking havoc on a judiciary already lacking independence and impartiality. Criminal Courts of Peace -- with jurisdiction over the conduct of criminal investigations, such as pre-charge detention and pre-trial detention decisions, seizure of property and appeals against these decisions -- came under increasing government control." Then there are the government's actions toward its one-time good friend, the Hizmet/Fethullah Gülen movement, which Amnesty cites as one of the most targeted groups. The Turkish authorities have more or less carried out a social cleansing of anyone they consider to be supporting or linked to the Gülen movement in Turkey at every conceivable level, from judges and police officers to academics, businessmen, journalists, writers and hospitals. The list goes on and on. One of the hardest hit groups has been businessmen. While many have fled abroad and are now starting new lives, others have not been so lucky. Some businesses have been seized, while others have reportedly been threatened to either sell up or face tax evasion charges or even jail.

The report also looks at many other issues, including the ongoing conflict between the authorities and the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has taken a heavy toll on the lives of ordinary residents, along with the Syrian refugee crisis. All in all, 2015 was a terrible year for human rights in Turkey and there is very little reason to believe that 2016 will be any better.

Published on Today's Zaman, 27 February 2016, Saturday