The Turkish government mobilized its entire diplomatic corps in both New York and Geneva to prevent a human rights debate from taking place during the 40th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council, prompting an outcry from human rights defenders.
With a series of unfounded allegations directed at the participants, Turkish Foreign Ministry officials had unsuccessfully lobbied to cancel the side event, titled “Turkey: Adverse Effects on Human Rights While Countering Terrorism,” which was organized by a UN-accredited nongovernmental organization.
“The side-event took place at the Palais des Nations on March, 5 with the support of the Global Alliance MGF and the PEC. The Permanent Mission of Turkey in Geneva exerted pressure to remove civil society from the work of the Human Rights Council. The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) denounces it firmly. The UN Director-General and the Office of the High Commissioner said that there was nothing against the speakers justifying an action against them.” PEC said in a statement.
The panel discussion was moderated by Eric Sottas, former secretary-general of the World Organization Against Torture, and attended by participants Abdullah Bozkurt, director of the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network, and Levent Kenez, secretary-general of the Stockholm Center for Freedom, which monitors rights violations in Turkey. Fionnuala D. Ni Aolain, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, who was scheduled to take part in the discussion, had to cancel her participation over what her office said were scheduling conflicts.
Both Bozkurt and Kenez, veteran journalists who have been forced to live in exile in Sweden since the launch of a massive crackdown on journalists in Turkey, where 212 journalists were jailed as of Feb. 27, 2019, were labeled by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as “terrorists” for their critical views and writings. Bozkurt was the founder and publisher of the Reporters’ News Agency (Muhabir) in the Turkish capital of Ankara before the government shut it down in July 2016. Kenez was editor-in-chief of the Meydan national daily newspaper and was detained by the police over critical headlines.
During the panel discussion Kenez presented cases of reporters who have been jailed in Turkey over published articles, tweets and commentaries on TV debate programs. He said the work of journalists was incorporated in their indictments as if evidence of criminal or terrorist activity. Many journalists were kept behind bars for months and in some cases years before they were allowed to see the so-called criminal evidence presented against them by the prosecutors, Kenez said. He added that the Erdoğan government had criminalized critical editorial lines, dissenting views and challenging narratives that were based on facts and truth.
The targeting of the journalists by the government was not random at all, explained Bozkurt, saying the Turkish government went after journalists who reported on pervasive corruption in the government or Erdoğan’s links to armed jihadist groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and other countries. The goal is to silence voices that speak out in the public interest with revelations of wrongdoing in the government. The remaining journalists in Turkey fell in line and were cowed into silence, he added. “Now the government wants to shut down critical voices abroad, even at the UN, where I worked as a reporter and covered many issues in the past,” Bozkurt said.
Independent journalists were replaced by political operatives in most media outlets in Turkey, and a false narrative was fed to the Turkish audience with fake news, half-truths and deceit, Bozkurt remarked. Bayram Altuğ, a reporter who works at the UN Geneva office for Turkish state news agency Anadolu, had even made remarks threatening Bozkurt and said he would kidnap him and drive him to Turkey after Bozkurt attended an event in Geneva in November 2018, highlighting the unprecedented threat to human rights in Turkey. The event was organized by the International Observatory of Human Rights (IOHR) at the Geneva Press Club with the participation of British, Swiss and Dutch parliamentarians.
Anadolu operatives in various countries including in the United States were identified as harassing, tracking and threatening critical journalists who are forced to live in exile. According to the SCF’s report, as of Feb. 27, 2019 there are at least 168 Turkish journalists living abroad and wanted for arrest by the Erdoğan government.
Nordic Monitor published an extensive story in January detailing how Swiss counter-espionage investigators caught agents of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in the act as they were planning to abduct a Swiss-Turkish businessman who was critical of the government of Turkey’s President Erdoğan.
According to the plan, two Turkish diplomats identified as Hacı Mehmet Gani, working under cover as press attaché, a position that is currently attached to Erdoğan’s Communications Office, and Hakan Kamil Yerge, second secretary at the Turkish Embassy in Bern, plotted to drug and kidnap the businessman.
MİT planned the abduction in the summer of 2016 during which time the Turkish government launched a major witch hunt against critics and dissidents, with the Gülen movement bearing the brunt of the persecution. The victim, who has been living in Switzerland for nearly 30 years, was seen as close to the movement, led by US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, a vocal critic of the Erdoğan regime.
Swiss prosecutors issued arrest warrants for the two Turkish diplomats, and the case is still pending, with the diplomats having fled to Turkey.
Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) opened its 40th Regular Session with an address by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who stressed that the UNHRC was the “epicenter for international dialogue and cooperation” on the protection of all human rights. Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, condemned Turkey’s prolonged crackdown on dissent following a failed coup attempt in 2016.
The 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council will continue until March 22.
Turkey’s pro-government media outlets labelled the UN event attended by critical journalists as “terrorist propaganda.” Half a million innocent people have faced terrorism charges in the last three years in Turkey, while the government investigated some 8 million including spouses, children and parents of critics, opponents and dissidents in 2017 alone. Overnight, the Turkish government branded one-third of all its diplomats and one-third of all judges and prosecutors as “terrorists” under executive decisions without any effective administrative probe and certainly no judicial review, in 2016. They were dismissed and/or jailed in the unprecedented crackdown on critics in Turkey