In Turkey, freedom of expression early casualty of “anti-terror” campaign

Turkey has suffered from a series of horrendous attacks in recent months.  The security challenges it faces are very real.  Unfortunately, the rhetoric coming out of Ankara suggests that, under the umbrella of fighting terrorism, the most basic civil liberties are to be targeted.  


President Tayyip Erdogan has called for expanding Turkey‘s already overbroad anti-terror statutes.  “Their titles as an MP, an academic, an author, a journalist do not change the fact that they are actually terrorists,” Erdogan said “It’s not only the person who pulls the trigger, but those who made that possible who should also be defined as terrorists….There was no difference between a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their position and pen to serve the aims.”  Freedom of expression, already besieged in Turkey, seems likely to be facing a new series of attacks.

The continued harassment and prosecution of academics who signed a “peace petition” is one obvious example of Turkey’s campaign against dissent.  Amnesty condemned these prosecutions in January, saying it represented “a new assault on the imperiled right to freedom of expression.”

Placing the arrests in the context of on-going operations in south eastern Turkey, Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher, noted “The military operations taking place under round-the-clock curfews are generating huge suffering and widespread human rights violations. The Turkish authorities should be listening to those that are speaking out, not arresting them.”

Gardner continued:

The detention and harassment of these academics is an ominous marker of the precarious state of human rights in Turkey. They have as much right as anyone else to exercise their right to freedom of expression, without being branded as terrorists and menaced with arrest.

These detentions, coupled with President Erdoğan’s remarks, suggest that the crackdown in the Kurdish south-east is being extended to anyone who dares criticise government operations.

We urge the Turkish authorities to stop rounding up academics who speak their mind, drop the investigations against them and ensure their safety. Their treatment is a stain on Turkey’s conscience.



Andrew Gardner

Unfortunately, the crackdown has only continued in the intervening months.  On March 10, three academics, Esra Mungan, Muzaffer Kaya and Kivanc Ersoy, were detained after a news conference in which they criticized pressure being put on petition signatories and, particularly, the dozens who have been dismissed from university posts.  The three have been since been arrested and are being held in pretrial detention.  The most recent news on social media and in the press suggests that all three are being held in solitary confinement.


Esra Mungan, Kıvanç Ersoym and Muzaffer Kaya. Photograph @BarisAkademik

Speaking to Gardner last week, he outlined Amnesty’s continuing concern. “Nothing in their petition could be called criminal – there is no incitement to violence,” he said,  “Nonetheless, they have faced a shocking and orchestrated campaign against them led by President Erdogan.” Moreover, he underlined that prosecution and pre-trial detention are not the only threats they face; signatories of the petition have also been subject to “administrative investigation, unfair dismissal, and violent threats.”

Placing these prosecutions in a wider context, Gardner notes that “pre-trial detention orders [in these cases] would have been unthinkable even two years ago.”  That they have been imposed now is “a testament to how much standards of free expression and the judiciary in Turkey have regressed.”  Gardner concluded by saying that “the prosecution of [petition signatories], let alone detention can’t be justified in law. The fact that it comes days after President Erdogan called for broadening of the definition on terrorism suggests the court was following political directives not law.

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)

As I write this, a hearing has concluded in the on-going trial against journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül.  Although a ruling from the Constitutional Court released them from pretrial detention, the two journalists still face charges that might result in life imprisonment.  Erdogan responded by saying that he had “no respect” for the Constitutional Courts ruling.  “I don’t concur with the decision and I have no respect for it,” Erdogan said.  “This issue is not remotely linked freedom of expression. It’s a spying case.”

Gardner highlights that the case is “overtly political,” with “the president providing commentary on every aspect and intervening in the trial itself as an injured party.”  Gardner notes that the journalists are on trial for doing their jobs.  The court’s decision today to close the trial to the public adds to “obvious fears that it will not be a fair trial.”

Turkish scholars, journalists, and activists have long suffered under the country’s over-broad terror statutes and politically compliant judiciary.  Nonetheless, it is clear that conditions have become precipitously worse.  The rhetoric coming out of Ankara and the court cases we are seeing move forward suggest that we haven’t seen the darkest days yet.

Howard Eissenstat
St. Lawrence University


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