The condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries, including Turkey, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, said a report by the US-based human rights watchdog Freedom House.
According to the report, which focuses on the impact of the pandemic on the global struggle for freedom, the pandemic was used as an excuse for oppressive governments to engage in abuses of power, silencing their critics and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public health.
The report is based on Freedom House research on the impact of COVID-19 on democracy and human rights, produced in partnership with the survey firm GQR. It included the responses of participants from Turkey on how the government tightened its grip on daily freedoms by using the pandemic as a pretext. It found that overall, media restrictions, restrictions on protests, detentions, arrests, and police violence had increased in Turkey.
One respondent said they were not able to mobilize and conduct physical meetings, which has affected their advocacy and outreach work.
This has become especially problematic since the Turkish government closely monitors communications and social media activities and prosecutes individuals who spread content critical of the government.
Turkey’s Interior Ministry announced in August that Turkish police had investigated 14,186 social media accounts in the first seven months of 2020, taking legal action against 6,743 of their users on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda, inciting the public to hatred and enmity, instilling fear in and causing panic among the public or containing provocative content.
The ministry also stated that the cybercrimes department of the Turkish National Police and its branches across the country have been monitoring the Internet 24/7.
The report also mentions the worsening condition of minorities during the pandemic. A respondent claimed that “police violence under the cover of COVID-19 audits and checks disproportionately targets minorities.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also brought sexual minorities under government scrutiny, said the report. Respondents from Turkey said they were offended by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which stated that “LGBTI+ individuals are responsible for spreading the virus around the world as the damned group by God.”
LGBTI+ rights have been a longstanding problem in Turkey and in 2019 the country was ranked as the second-worst country in Europe for these individuals.
The pandemic has become an opportunity to dehumanize minorities and vulnerable social groups for some loyalists of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Minorities have not only been subject to police abuse but have projected as the reason for the pandemic.
Hate and xenophobic speech have increased in the predominantly pro-government Turkish media, which accuses the usually targeted groups and countries including Jews, the Gülen movement and the West of being the source of COVID-19 and spreading the virus among Turkish society.
The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, of masterminding a coup attempt in July 2016 and labels it a terrorist organization. Gülen and the movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.
The pandemic is portrayed by the country’s pro-government “experts” as a tool of biological warfare, a selective or smart virus developed by Zionists, Westerners/dominant powers, people affiliated with the Gülen movement or the Rockefeller family in order to “subjugate intransigent countries to their will,” “redesign the world,” “launch chaos in the country,” “create ‘Lego’ religions” or “occupy minds.”