Turkish Interior Ministry sends circulars to governor’s offices requesting closer monitoring of student activities

İstanbul University's main gate in İstanbul's Beyazit Square.

The Turkish Interior Ministry has sent circulars to governor’s offices in Turkey requesting that universities closely monitor student activities, raising concerns that government pressure on students is increasing, Deutsche Welle Turkish service reported.

According to a circular titled “Safety and Accommodation Precautions at Universities,” universities are requested to crack down on drug use and prevent terrorist organizations from recruiting on their campuses. Moreover, universities were requested to closely monitor the activities of student clubs and platforms.

The circular has raised eyebrows among students, academics and legal experts, who argue that the government is aiming to crack down on student freedoms and free speech.

“There is already a large number of undercover police officers on campus, but they can’t openly intervene in anything at the present time,” said Middle Eastern Technical University (METU) student Tunahan Gözlügöl. “However, an increasing number of students have been subject to investigations by university administrations. Even students who are not very political have been subject to these investigations.”

Gözlügöl added that most student clubs at METU were very political and that the circular aimed to stop the activities of such clubs. He said he had received a suspended sentence of eight months, 22 days for insulting Rector Verşan Kök, on social media. Gözlügöl was also briefly suspended from the university last year. He said there were rumors the university administration had a team to monitor students’ social media activities.

Dr. Erol Köseoğlu, an academic at Boğaziçi University, said universities were operating like police departments and that the circular meant students who did anything contrary to the government and university administration would face certain consequences. “Basically they are telling students to behave in line with the government, or they will be accused of terrorism,” he added.

Lawyer Baran Kaya said universities were independent institutions and that the Interior Ministry had no authority over activities on campus. However, the ministry had been using circulars to make demands on independent institutions in recent years and especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kaya said the biggest problem with the circular was that the ministry had violated students’ freedom by framing their political activities as a “security threat.” He explained that legal organizations could be regarded as illegal if they were seen as a security threat.

“Moreover, there is ambiguity concerning how universities are expected to monitor student activities. Will there be police officers on campus? Or will there be a special unit doing the monitoring? How can the university monitor any student without a court order? I don’t understand the ministry’s reasoning,” Kaya said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government have been increasing pressure on students and academics in recent years. Students have been detained for attending events such as the Pride March and housing shortage protests.

Many other students have been arrested for alleged links to the faith-based Gülen movement, which the government accuses of masterminding a coup attempt on July, 15 2016 and labels as a “terrorist organization,” although the movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

Furthermore, hundreds of students protesting the appointment of pro-government rectors to Boğaziçi University have been detained since early 2021.

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