CoE calls on Turkey to change the ‘hostile environment’ for freedom of expression

Council of Europe, Strasbourg

The Council of Europe (CoE) commissioner for human rights appealed to Turkish authorities to change the restrictive framework for freedom of expression and media freedom in a detailed memorandum published on Tuesday, Turkish Minute reported.

The CoE launched an infringement proceeding against Turkey over its treatment of of jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala in 2022 that could see the country expelled from the human rights organization.

“Freedom of expression is in peril in Türkiye, with journalists, human rights defenders and civil society operating in a critically hostile environment, marked by systematic pressure and legal action against them,” said Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović, releasing a “Memorandum on freedom of expression and of the media, and the situation of human rights defenders and civil society in Türkiye.”

The memorandum emphasizes the fundamental role of freedom of expression in a democratic society and points out that restrictions directly threaten democracy.

It reports on decades of concern about the shrinking space for democratic debate in Turkey and highlights the judicial harassment of journalists, academics and citizens, as well as government actions leading to reduced pluralism and widespread self-censorship.
In particular, the memorandum criticizes the extensive use of the Turkish Penal Code and the Anti-Terror Law to suppress freedom of expression and points to legal provisions that criminalize insulting the president and degrading the Turkish nation or its institutions.

“The judicial actions targeting journalists, civil society, human rights defenders and lawyers remain the most worrying manifestation of continuous and concerted pressure exerted in a deliberate attempt to silence critical voices and to prevent them from reporting on ongoing human rights violations in Türkiye,” Mijatović said in a press release on the memorandum. “The authorities should remedy this highly detrimental situation and create an enabling environment for the exercise of freedom of expression and of the media and freedom of association.”

Internet censorship and media control

There is great concern about the pattern of internet censorship, with the commissioner referring to the routine blocking of internet content. Recent legislation giving the Information and Communication Technologies Authority wide-ranging powers to regulate and control social media is criticized as further restricting freedom of expression. This includes a provision criminalizing “false or misleading information,” which has been used to suppress legitimate criticism, particularly in relation to the government’s response to the 2023 earthquake.

The memorandum also addresses the role of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) in suppressing critical reporting through fines and sanctions.

Human rights defenders and civil society

Mijatović reports a deteriorating situation for civil society and human rights defenders, exacerbated by restrictive laws and the consequences of the state of emergency imposed in July 2016 after a failed coup.

Following the abortive putsch the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began a sweeping crackdown on civil society. More than a hundred media outlets and private schools were shut down, over 100,000 people were dismissed from the civil service and tens of thousands were detained and arrested across the country.

The focus of the memorandum is on the legal and operational challenges faced by NGOs, including a law that suppresses dissent and government control over civil society fundraising.

Judicial action against human rights defenders for their legitimate activities is widespread, with persecution and imprisonment on false charges a particular problem, according to the document.

Judicial independence

The memorandum raises serious concerns about the independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary, pointing to systemic problems that undermine the legal protection of human rights. It discusses the negative impact of the executive’s influence on the judiciary, including the selection and appointment of judges and prosecutors. The commissioner emphasizes the need for urgent reforms to ensure the independence of the judiciary and to combat the abuse of legislation against critics of the government.

The comprehensive document examines the current conditions for journalists, human rights defenders and civil society in Turkey and highlights a persistent pattern of judicial harassment, internet censorship and systematic pressure on dissenting voices.

“To bring about meaningful change, it is essential for the Turkish authorities to engage constructively with civil society, review and revise restrictive laws, free human rights defenders, journalists, activists, and others who are imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression, respect and implement the judgments of the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights and ensure impartiality and independence of the judiciary,” Mijatović concluded.

Turkey has been experiencing a judicial crisis sparked by the imprisonment of an opposition lawmaker who was kept behind bars despite two decisions from the Constitutional Court in his favor.

The Supreme Court of Appeals, which upheld an 18-year sentence for lawmaker Can Atalay in a politically motivated trial, refused to act in line with the Constitutional Court’s decisions and filed criminal complaints against the members of the top court due to their ruling, a first in the judicial history of Turkey.

Atalay was stripped of his parliamentary status in January in defiance of successive rulings by the Constitutional Court.

According to Human Rights Watch, in 2023, the human rights situation in Turkey has deteriorated under the government of President Erdoğan.

This was characterized by the suppression of the media, the manipulation of the judiciary and the targeted persecution of the political opposition.

Erdoğan’s re-election and the AKP’s victory in parliament strengthened an authoritarian regime amid economic turmoil and criticism of disaster relief after devastating earthquakes that killed more than 53,000 people in 2023.

Human Rights Watch highlighted the punitive measures against critics, one-sided control of the media and restrictions on freedom of expression.

Erdoğan government’s crackdown on civil society included journalists, Kurdish figures and suspected members of the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.

The group is deemed a terrorist organization by Ankara and accused of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup. The movement denies any involvement in the coup or terrorist activities.

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