A new bill presented to parliament by the Turkish government that requires security screening and vetting for job applicants for certain government agencies has sparked a backlash, with many dissidents and opposition parties seeing the scheme as a means of keeping government critics and their relatives out of public service.
The bill, which envisages a procedure called “security screening and records check,” authorizes the government to access the personal files of applicants for certain government positions and collect their private data including a background check during the recruitment process.
The practice had in fact been in effect for the recruitment of personnel in the security agencies until it was expanded by the ruling party on October 3, 2016 following a failed coup attempt to apply to the recruitment of all public employees. Although put in force with a decree-law issued during a state of emergency, the decree-law was later passed into law by parliament on February 1, 2018 after the termination of the state of emergency, thus making the interim regulation permanent.
Yet the legislation was found unconstitutional and declared null by the Constitutional Court on July 24, 2019 because, according to the high court, it violated rights. Claiming that the annulment created a vacuum in the civil service recruitment process, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently presented the new bill that caused the fresh controversy.
The bill requires security screening and vetting for “senior public administrators” and for “people who will work in projects, units and facilities of strategic importance in terms of national security.”
According to the bill, people who will work in sectors requiring advanced technology such as R&D, information technologies and the defense industry even if they are not part of the public sector will also undergo the security screening and vetting. The screening will be carried out by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), the General Directorate of Security and local civilian authorities. Public authorities who carry out security screening and vetting will be authorized to access information and documents limited to the security screening request transmitted to them.
The opposition finds the bill to be not significantly different from the regulation introduced with the decree-law. According to Muharrem Erkek, deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the security screening is the latest move of the ruling party to seize the state. “Unfortunately, as we move away from the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms disappear. … The Republic of Turkey has been transformed into a dynastic state. It is becoming more and more authoritarian. The government, unfortunately, does not see those who disagree with it or who do not side with it as citizens,” he adds.
Stating that merit has disappeared from public administration and that security screening is used a means of facilitating the appointment of friends and relatives, Erkek argues: “Merit must be the main criterion in public service and in recruiting civil servants. Nepotism should not be used to find people for public jobs. But this has disappeared. … At this stage, the security checks have turned into a tool of elimination.”
Commenting on the bill Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a deputy from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a prominent human rights defender, argues that the security screening was institutionalized with the state of emergency and that even the private sector is engaging in security screening during recruitment.
Gergerlioğlu adds: “During AKP rule, security screening expanded to the entire public sector but did not remain limited to it. It is now used for hiring in the private sector. Even private schools resort to it. … There is a mentality that desperately tries to keep the whole society in its grasp. Those who fail the security screening apply to the administrative courts. Court documents reveal that people are denied government posts because their mothers, fathers, spouses or other family members are members of a [dissenting] trade union. If this proposal is passed into law, not just dissidents but also their children and grandchildren will not be recruited for public service and in some cases for the private sector.”
According to a recent report published by HAK İnisiyatifi, an Ankara-based human rights platform, the security screening and vetting process leaves an extremely wide margin of discretion to the authorities and therefore violates the principles of equality and legality.
The report found that “this practice violates, transparency, legal predictability, the right to join public office, the presumption of innocence, the right not to be profiled and the principle of individual criminal responsibility.”
The report emphasized that almost half the information used in the past in security screening and records checks is not directly related to the person concerned but is instead based on information about his or her relatives.
The report cites a court ruling under which a complainant was refused admission to government service because the applicant’s mother was registered for insurance with a pro-FETO company.
FETO is a derogatory term used by Turkish authorities to refer to the faith-based Gülen movement, a critic of the AKP government. The movement, led by a US-based cleric, was declared a terrorist organization and has long been persecuted by the government.
In a similar case cited by the report, a job rejection was justified on the grounds that the father of the applicant had in 2015 deposited money in Bank Asya, a financial institution seized by the government over its alleged Gülenist links.
In another case, it appears that the rejection was based on participation in a demonstration organized by the youth branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent Kurdish militant group designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU.
The report further claims that people who were denied employment in government agencies upon the negative outcome of security screening can learn the grounds of the rejection only if they file an administrative lawsuit.
“The cases reviewed reveal that in the security screening process intelligence on the persons concerned or their relatives that has no connection to a judicial process is being used. The reasons presented are devoid of concrete grounds, and the reports refer to acts and actions that were not illegal when they occurred,” the report states.
Turkey has been experiencing a backslide in human rights in recent years that has further deteriorated since the failed coup on July 15, 2016. After the coup attempt, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed with emergency decree-laws some 150,000 civil servants over their assumed links to terrorist organizations, including 4,000 judges and prosecutors. The judiciary and other government ranks thus vacated were filled with neophytes and ruling party partisans.