In a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Professor Dina Rizk Khoury, president of the US-based Middle East Studies Association (MESA), urged that all charges against Professor Bülent Şık, a food engineer working on public health and food safety, be dropped and that the “government’s campaign of harassment against professional and academic organizations” be ceased.
In the letter, co-signed by Chair of the MESA Committee on Academic Freedom Laurie Brand, the scholars said the persecution of Professor Şık is symptomatic of the Erdoğan government’s disregard for both academic freedom and public health.
Professor Şık was first targeted for publishing his findings on the contamination of soil, food, air and water by carcinogenic industrial chemicals in the southern city of Antalya, the Ergene district of the western city of Tekirdağ and the industry-dense Dilovası district of the western city of Kocaeli.
Between 2011 and 2016 he took part in a study launched by Turkey’s Ministry of Health which yielded disturbing findings that the ministry suppressed and hid from the public. After several years of waiting for the ministry to address the findings, Professor Şık decided to unilaterally disclose those that concerned the cancer risks posed by toxic pollution in western Turkey.
The Ministry of Health filed a lawsuit against Şık alleging that he had disseminated “classified information” and that the disclosure was unauthorized, in violation of his duties of confidentiality. On 26 September 2019, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for “disclosing classified information.” He was acquitted on the count of “obtaining classified information” without due authorization. Professor Şık is appealing the sentence.
According to the MESA scholars, the dramatic increase in cancer diagnoses in the affected regions in fact attests to the importance of Professor Şık’s findings. The letter said the prosecution of Professor Şık under these circumstances “is not only a violation of his academic freedom, but also indicative of [the Erdoğan] government’s worrisome indifference to public health.”
Beyond Şık’s prosecution, professors Khoury and Brand also underlined the broader pattern of persecuting academics perceived to be critics of the Turkish government “whether based on their advocacy of Kurdish rights or criticisms of industrial policies that advance the interests of corporate sectors supportive of the [Erdoğan’s] government.” Referring to their past letters on similar issues, the scholars said the Turkish government used “emergency decrees and prosecutions to silence academics whose research or views have been deemed unsupportive of your government’s policies, and to manipulate anti-terror laws as a means to repress critical scholarship and stifle dissent.”
In the aftermath of a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency “to be able to remove swiftly all the elements of the terrorist organization involved in the coup attempt.” But the emergency powers were used to remove those who were deemed critical of the Erdoğan government and to make government positions available to loyalists.
As a result 5,705 academics were summarily dismissed from their positions together with over 150,000 public servants. Those who were purged are not allowed to work in the public sector. Moreover, due to notices put into the social security database, they are not even able to formally work in the private sector. In some cases, even commercial banks refuse to serve “purged” customers. These and similar policies have sparked criticism that “the purged” have been subjected to social death.
The letter also reminded the Turkish president of the international obligations of Turkey to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression. “As a member state of the Council of Europe and a signatory of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Turkey is required to protect academic freedom, which is grounded in the freedom of thought, expression and assembly. Turkey is also a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), all of which protect the rights to freedom of expression and association, which are at the heart of academic freedom. Lastly, Turkey is a signatory of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which includes obligations to both protect Turkish citizens’ rights to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and to “respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research.” (Article 15(3)).”