Report sheds light on shrinking space for civil society in Turkey under state pressure


A report titled “Civil Society Organizations in Turkey: Freedom of Association and Right to Participation” sheds light on the ongoing restriction of the civil society space in Turkey and the increasing pressure that civil society organizations (CSOs) are facing from the state, Turkish Minute reported.

The report, funded by the European Union, documents the government’s increasing isolation of civil society and a series of threats ranging from verbal harassment to armed attacks on civilian institutions.

Numerous associations and foundations were closed down by the government following a failed coup on July 15, 2016 and the subsequent declaration of a state of emergency (OHAL).

After the abortive putsch Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ruled the country under a state of emergency that was in force until 2018 during which his government summarily shut down a total of 1,748 associations and foundations.

These closures were mainly carried out in two phases: directly under emergency decrees and by continuing these measures even after the end of the state of emergency.

During the state of emergency, which was extended seven times over a period of two years until July 2018, many nongovernmental organizations were closed by emergency decrees  as they were accused of having links to “terrorist organizations.”

These included in particular organizations working for human rights. Some of these organizations sought legal recourse through the administrative courts and in 2017, a commission set up by the Turkish government to look into complaints from individuals who were adversely affected by government decrees during the state of emergency.

The OHAL Commission, which had completed its work by January 22, 2023, made decisions on all applications, resulting in only 12 percent of closed NGOs being reopened, showing a clear bias against associations and foundations, especially those involved in human rights work, the report underlines.

The report analyzes the challenges faced by Turkish civil society organizations, from their establishment to the registration of their members, and highlights the endless legal hurdles resulting from existing legislation. About 20 percent of the organizations interviewed reported difficulties due to legal measures, additional bureaucratic requirements and politically motivated criteria during the registration phase.

One of the key findings of the report is the detrimental changes to the law regulating associations, particularly in relation to mandatory member disclosure, which have led to a drop in association memberships of almost 4 million.

The report compares the situation in Turkey to that in European countries and reveals a stark disparity in the number of civil society organizations, with Turkey lagging well behind countries such as Germany and France.

The study also sheds light on the financial weakness of Turkish civil society. About half of the organizations surveyed have a budget of less than 10,000 Turkish lira (~$311), underscoring their limited fundraising capabilities and dependence on membership fees and public donations.

Despite these challenges, the report highlights the resilience of rights-based civil society organizations and acknowledges their central role in maintaining the spirit of civil society in the midst of adversity.

These organizations, which make up about 15 percent of all civil society organizations, continue to forge international collaborations, engage in advocacy and strive to influence public policy, even when under significant scrutiny and pressure from government agencies.

In addition the study shows an increasing trend in government audits. In 2022 alone, over 29,987 associations were audited by the Ministry of Interior, resulting in legal and administrative actions against more than 10 percent of these organizations. Some civil society organizations face increased threats, including verbal and physical attacks. Armed attacks on community centers and derogatory campaigns against LGBT+ associations were highlighted as pressing issues.

In terms of participation in decision-making processes, the report notes that civil society engagement remains severely limited. Eighty percent of civil society organizations feel excluded from policy development and legislative discussions. This discrepancy is attributed to a multitude of regulations and participation mechanisms which, despite their number, lack effective coordination and leave a great deal of discretion to the administrative authorities.

The study concludes by calling for a more inclusive approach to civil society in Turkey and emphasizes the need for clearer and more transparent participation mechanisms that can accommodate the diverse spectrum of civil society organizations without bias or undue interference from the state.

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