Amnesty: Freedom of Expression in Turkey Deteriorates in 2015


Riot police break the main entrance of the İpek Media Group headquarters in İstanbul during the raid on Wednesday. (Photo: Today’s Zaman)

“Countless unfair criminal prosecutions, including under criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws, targeted political activists, journalists and others critical of public officials or government policy. Ordinary citizens were frequently brought before the courts for social media posts.”  That’s the grim portrait on freedom of expression in Turkey, as outlined by Amnesty International in its 2015 Annual Report.

Independent media in Turkey faced tremendous pressure in the past year.

[The government targeted] media companies and digital distribution networks, and singling out critical journalists, who were then threatened and physically attacked by often unidentified assailants. Mainstream journalists were fired after criticizing the government. News websites, including large swathes of the Kurdish press, were blocked on unclear grounds by administrative orders aided by a compliant judiciary. Journalists were harassed and assaulted by police while covering stories

Can Dundar, Erdem Gul

Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, right, and Erdem Gul, the paper’s Ankara representative, left, speak to the media outside a courthouse in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Vedat Arik, Cumhuriyet)

The report highlights a number of notable cases, including Taraf newspaper journalist
Mehmet Baransu who remains in pre-trial detention and Cumhuriyet newspaper journalist Canan Coşkun, “accused of insulting 10 state prosecutors when she alleged they obtained discounted property because of their status as prosecutors.” She faces more than 23 years in prison.  Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief Can Dündar and its Ankara representative, Erdem Gül, were “charged with espionage, revealing state secrets and assisting a terrorist organization after a story in the newspaper alleged that the intelligence services had transferred weapons to an armed group in Syria in 2014.” They remain in pre-trial detention and face life imprisonment if convicted.

Foreign journalists were also targeted in 2015.  Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink was acquitted of “making propaganda for the PKK” in April, but detained and deported in September.  Journalists from Vice News were charged with “assisting a terrorist organization” while covering unrest in south eastern Turkey.  British citizens Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury were released and deported, but Mohammed Rasool, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist, remained in pre-trial detention until January, 2016.


Fréderike Geerdink

The government engaged in a sustained campaign to silence media linked to what prosecutors have come to call the “Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization.”

In October, Digiturk, a private digital platform, removed seven channels from its service. Four days ahead of the 1 November election, police accompanied a court-appointed government trustee and forcibly entered the head offices of the Koza İpek conglomerate, cutting live broadcasts by two news channels, Bugün and Kanaltürk, and blocking the printing of the Millet and Bugün newspapers. The fiercely opposition news outlets were reopened as staunchly pro-government. In November, the state-owned Turkish Satellite Communications Company (Türksat) removed 13 television and radio channels owned by the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group. Hidayet Karaca, the head of the group, remained in pre-trial detention during the entire year.


Ordinary citizens were also frequently targeted:

In the six months to March, the Minister of Justice gave permission for 105 criminal prosecutions for insulting President Erdoğan under Article 299 of the Penal Code. Eight people were remanded in pre-trial detention. Prosecutions under the provision, which carries a sentence of up to four years’ imprisonment, continued throughout the year. In September, a 17-year-old student was convicted of “insult” for calling the President “the thieving owner of the illegal palace”. He received a suspended sentence of 11 months and 20 days by a children’s court in the central Anatolian city of Konya.


Human Rights defender Tahir Elçi was killed in Diyarbakir 28 November 2015

The most tragic of these attacks, however, was the killing of the head of the Diyarbakır
Bar Association and renowned human rights defender Tahir Elçi, shot dead making a press statement in November.

The perpetrator remained unidentified by the end of the year amid concerns over the impartiality and effectiveness of the investigation. He had faced death threats after being charged the previous month with “making propaganda for a terrorist organization”, for saying on live national television that the PKK was “not a terroristorganization but an armed political movement with considerable support”. He faced over seven years’ imprisonment. The news channel CNN Türk was also fined 700,000 liras (€230,000) for broadcasting the remarks.

It was, in other words, another ugly year in for freedom of expression in Turkey.  Tomorrow, I’ll outline Amnesty’s report on freedom of assembly.

Howard Eissenstat
St. Lawrence University

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