The rise of criminal cases involving freedom of expression in Turkey under a state of emergency declared in the aftermath of a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 has inevitably had direct consequences for writers and publishers in the country, said a report released by English PEN on Thursday.
The report, titled “Turkey: Freedom of expression in jeopardy: Violations of the rights of authors, publishers and academics under the State of Emergency,” was written for English PEN by academics Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altıparmak. It presents an overview of the current situation of freedom of expression in Turkey and engages in a critical evaluation of violations of rights against writers, publishers, academics and academic institutions.
The research conducted produced a list of 80 writers. Of the 80 authors listed in the report, only three are being tried for the books they have written. A large majority of the remaining 77 authors are being prosecuted for being a member of a terrorist organisation or for having affiliations or links with such organisations due to their newspaper articles or social media posts.
There has been an even more alarming increase in the number of academics being dismissed from several universities, the report said, and added that by the end of 2017, 5,822 academics had been dismissed from 118 public universities. Like writers, many academics have also been prosecuted under criminal law.
“In addition to the administrative proceedings initiated at universities, Chief Public Prosecutors in many provinces launched criminal investigations against Academics for Peace who signed a peace petition criticising the state violence in South East Turkey. Some academics were taken into police custody and questioned within the scope of these investigations for ‘disseminating terrorist propaganda’ or denigrating the Turkish nation, the Republic of Turkey, the institutions and bodies of the State’,” the report underlined.
Some passages from the report are as follows:
Prior to the controversial coup attempt in July 15, 2016, criminal investigations and prosecutions were frequently used to silence dissent along with other restrictive measures. While addressing the historical suppression of freedom of expression in Turkey, the report focuses on the effects of the State of Emergency (SoE) introduced in the wake of the coup bid and the silencing and chilling effect that this has had on many writers, publishers and academics in both their professional and private lives.
The state of freedom of expression in Turkey
Turkey has always been one of the most restrictive countries among Council of Europe member states in terms of media freedom and freedom of expression:
- Of 20,657 judgments issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) between 1959 and 2017, 3,386 judgments (16%) involve Turkey as a respondent State, ranking it first in the list of all member States.
- Turkey also ranks first in terms of the number of judgments in which a violation was found with a total of 2,988 judgments
- Of the total of 700 judgments in which the ECtHR has found a violation of freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Turkey easily ranks first with 281 judgments and is followed by Russia with 39, France with 37 and Austria with 35 as of the end of 2017.
Suppression of freedom of expression
Physical attacks and torture, rife in the 1980s and 1990s, have been replaced by a more subtle approach in recent times, one which has been described as ‘less brutal but more effective’.
These issues have been compounded in the wake of the attempted coup and recourse to anti-terrorism legislation in particular has become even more pervasive. The increase in the number of people accused following the coup attempt is startling.
- Between 2010 and 2017 a total of 94,396 cases were filed in connection with the Anti-Terror Law (TMK) on terror propaganda. Both the number of investigations and criminal cases have significantly increased following the declaration of State of Emergency.
- The nature of the indictments has also changed. New cases after state of emergency have been initiated under provisions relating to membership to terrorist organisation rather than the ones relating to terror propaganda.
- In 2016, 155,014 new investigations were launched under article 314 with regard to membership to a criminal organisation. This number is approximately the same (158,993) for the total of previous five years (2011-2015).
Judiciary in Turkey
The judiciary has become much more politicised, reducing the role and effectiveness of the legal system as a protector of freedom of expression. Although the independence of the judiciary has been in question for some time, and particularly following the Gezi Park protests of 2013, the situation has become more serious in the wake of the failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016.
A total of 4140 judges and prosecutors were dismissed from office including 333 judges and two prosecutors of the Court of Cassation, 276 members of the Council of State, two chief public prosecutors, 1280 public prosecutors, 2346 criminal and civil court judges and two members of the Constitutional Court. Of these, 2,200 were arrested, many of whom are still in prison.
After 2017, judiciary independence was further eroded by changes made to appointments to the new Council of Judges and Prosecutors which have meant that, in one way or another, all of its members are chosen by the government. As a result, the ability of judges to pass independent judgements is highly questionable.
The State of Emergency
The State of Emergency measures introduced in 2016 can be examined under two general categories:
- Emergency Decrees resulting in lasting effects for individuals: dismissal of public officials; closure of unions, federations, confederations, private health institutions, private educational institutions, universities; closure of private radio and television outlets, newspapers and magazines, news agencies, publishing houses and distributors; closure of associations and foundations.
- Legal amendments to various laws affecting rights safeguarded under the ECHR and the ICCPR, including but not limited to the Law on Criminal Procedure, Law on Municipalities, the Law on Elections, the Law on Higher Education, the Law on Civil Servants, the Law on Citizenship, and the Law on the Protection of Personal Information.
As a result of emergency decrees:
- 116,250 people were dismissed from public service. Their passports have been revoked, preventing them from leaving the country, and it has become impossible for them to find a job in the country through a series of de jure and de facto measures.
- 140 media organisations including television, radio and periodicals, and 30 publishing houses were shut down. 18 periodicals were also closed.
- Individuals working in such organisations have been labelled as employees of closed private institutions and therefore share a fate similar to those dismissed from public service. It is estimated that at least 2,500 media workers have become unemployed as a result of these measures. The number of people subject to long-term unemployment due to such measures is unknown.
Violations against writers and publishers
The rise of criminal cases involving freedom of expression inevitably has direct consequences for writers and publishers. The research conducted produced a list of 80 writers. Of the 80 authors listed in this report, only three are being tried for the books they have written. A large majority of the remaining 77 authors are being prosecuted for being a member of a terrorist organisation or for having affiliations or links with such organisations due to their newspaper articles or social media posts.
Violations against academics
There has been an even more alarming increase in the number of academics being dismissed from several universities.
- By the end of 2017, 5,822 academics had been dismissed from 118 public universities
- Like writers, many academics have also been prosecuted under criminal law. In addition to the administrative proceedings initiated at universities, Chief Public Prosecutors in many provinces launched criminal investigations against Academics for Peace who signed a peace petition criticising the state violence in South East Turkey. Some academics were taken into police custody and questioned within the scope of these investigations for ‘disseminating terrorist propaganda’ or denigrating the Turkish nation, the Republic of Turkey, the institutions and bodies of the State’.
Violations against writers and academics in light of constitutional safeguards
Both the Turkish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights incorporate safeguards for freedom of expression. The actions outlined in this report at therefore arguably in contravention of:
- Article 26 of the Constitution, the freedom to hold opinions and express them and impart and disseminate ideas and opinions
- Article 28 of the Constitution, the press should not be censored
- Article 29 the right to publish periodicals and non periodicals.
- Article 30 on the protection of printing facilities
- Article 27 on the freedom of science and the arts
- Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights
It has not been possible to find solutions to such structural problems through individual applications to the ECtHR. Of the tens of thousands of cases involving freedom of expression, as shown by the statistical data, a couple of dozen judgments on freedom of expression issued each year by the ECtHR have no effect on government practices.
For this reason, unless mechanisms are developed and used to address the lack of political will which is the main obstacle in effectively applying the standards of freedom of expression, it will not be possible to solve the structural problems and create a free legal system for writers in Turkey.