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2014 was difficult, 2015 will be even more

Report on Freedom of Press and Expression in Turkey
Saturday 21 February 2015

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Violations of Freedom of Press and Expression

March - December 2014


Issues regarding the freedom of thought, expression and the press in Turkey increased after the Gezi Park protests beginning in May 2013. The unrest began when the Taksim Gezi Park, allocated to the Istanbul Metro-politan Municipality on condition that all would benefit, was planned for development with the construction of a replica of the historical Artillery Barracks despite court orders. After harsh police intervention to the protests against the trees being cut down, the events escalated into anti-government demonstrations in a number of cities and abroad. After the Prime Minister announced that the protests were being manipulated from abroad, police violence increased, leading to the deaths of eight people (Abdullah Cömert, Ethem Sarısülük, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Mustafa Sarı, İrfan Tuna, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Ahmet Atakan, Berkin Elvan), mainly due to the disproportionate use of force.

While the Gezi events remained fresh, on the 17 December 2013, the custody and search orders issued by the Republican Prosecutor and various courts upon a number of complaints were widely discussed. In an opera-tion organized by the Istanbul Police Department, Organized Crime and Financial Crime Bureau, businessmen, bureaucrats, a bank manager, public officials at various levels and four ministers of the cabinet as well as three children of ministers were implicated, while claims were widely covered in the press. Of the four ministers implicated, three of their children, various businessmen and one bank manager were taken into custody. These people were charged with “bribery, abuse of authority, unlawful tendering and smug-gling.”

This event was evaluated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an attempted coup d’état against the government and the liquidation of the “parallel” structure, the Fethullah Gülen/Service Movement was initi-ated. Simultaneously, telephone recordings, some being legal through court order while others were being ille-gally bugged, regarding the family of the Prime Minister and Ministers, children and friends of Ministers, bu-reaucrats and journalists appeared on social media. The government reassigned a number of security personnel implementing the search orders and terminated others. 166 judges and prosecutors, including the prosecutor in charge of the investigation and the Istanbul Republican Head Prosecutor authorizing the operation, were reas-signed by the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK).

These developments had an effect on later developments, such as the local elections, presidential elections and the Soma mining disaster. The opposition focused on the corruption and the Kurdish reconciliation effort, while the prime minister sought the effect of the “parallel structure“, continuing his heavy criticism of the opposition. Pressure placed upon the press and journalists reporting on the development increased; practices assessed as censorship and the policing of social media continued.

Two developments regarding freedoms are significant: The Radio and Television Supreme Council con-tinuously punished anti-government broadcasts. It is apparent that during election times, the mandate on behalf of the Supreme Electoral Council to monitor broadcasts was taken as authority to punish only dissident broad-casting organizations. The bias in public broadcasting companies such as Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) was only noticed after the end of the elections. The second is that courts fell into a habit of provide rights to controvert and rebut against publication organizations criticizing the government very easily. It can be seen that courts have frequently accepted rebuttal publication requests against articles criticizing the government without researching if the article in question contains erroneous information on not, leading to a censorship effect. One of the most significant events of the period was the local election. Even though the elections con-cluded with the victory of the government, many areas experienced power cuts during the ballot count, leading to criticism. The Minister of Energy and Natural Resources explained the following day that the power cuts were caused by “cats that entered the power transformers.”

After the local elections, the prime minister continued to criticize the “parallel structure“. The govern-ment responded harshly to criticism regarding decisions and implementation. One of the affected parties was the president of the Constitutional Court. On the anniversary of the establishment of the court, TBMM Speaker of the House Cemil Çiçek said that the judiciary was faced with a “serious and strong accusation” regarding the “parallel structure” or “gang” and that the judiciary would not be able to shake this accusation off, adding that the style of rhetoric used was not “becoming of the judiciary.” Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ said that the “judiciary was plagued with political polemics.” The Constitutional Court was also criticized for reversing the verdict for the ban of websites as the decision was made without considering “the application routes that should have been used.”

President of the Turkish Union of Bar Associations Metin Feyzioğlu angered the prime minister at the anniversary of the Council of State with his statement on the container town established after the Van earthquake; the prime minister said that Feyzioğlu was engaged in politics, in a “disrespectful” and “impertinent” way. Shrugging off President Abdullah Gül’s attempts to make him sit down, Erdoğan said, “Everyone should know their place. After this I will not take part in any event where these people will be speaking” . Erdoğan made hand gestures to President Gül, Chief of Staff General Necdet Özel and ministers, making them leave the ceremonial hall. Erdoğan’s attitude continued after being elected as president. After failing to prevent the president of the Union of Bar Associations president’s speech at the opening of the judicial year, the president did not take part in the ceremony at the Supreme Court. The president of the Supreme Court then complained about interventions into the judiciary, revealing the unrest between the high courts and the government.

The death of 301 miners in a mining disaster in Soma caused tensions to run high. Some relatives of the miners blamed the government and the government-employer relations for the disaster, angering the government. The events were branded with the prime minister’s speech in Soma assessing the disaster as a regular accident, claims that he punched a person protesting him and his words to another “if you protest the prime minister of Turkey you will get slapped” . The attack of a prime ministry advisor on a protestor increased criticism of the government.

The press was negatively affected by these developments. Journalists were prevented from duty and were often subject to violence. They were prevented from participating in meetings and even from approaching the scene of events. The Prime Minister and President’s serious criticism towards the press led to mistreatment by public officials, including local administrators. The accreditation practice spread to all public organizations and the rights of part of the media to reach news and inform readers were violated. The media blackouts easily passed down by courts was a serious obstacle in front of the freedom of information. Many journalists lost their jobs, while government pressure and increasing auto-censorship limited reporting and commentary. While journalists were subject to pressure, some media outlets were affected by claims of relations with the “parallel structure“. Although some lost their jobs and claimed that their rights were violated in custody, the fact that they had supported similar practices by the government in the past and openly applauded the arrest of journalists in the Ergenekon case created debate and controversy in the media.

Apart from the printed and visual press, the government made serious efforts to police the social media, widely used from the Gezi Park protests onwards. Methods were developed to rapidly implement restrictive de-cisions on the Internet, regarding the use of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. While the Constitutional Court blocked the first attempt, the government was not discouraged and continued to search for alternatives. Using social media became an issue. Fazıl Say, announcing his views on Twitter, former AKP Elazığ MP Fevzi İşbaşaran and journalist and presenter Sedef Kabaş were investigated, taken into custody or convicted.

The many responses from Turkey and abroad to the restrictions on freedom did nothing to sway the gov-ernment’s determination. The fact that Turkey receded further in global press freedom indexes was not taken seriously by the administration.

Conditions and developments experienced in Turkey gave the impression that different circles were being treated differently. While protests against the unitary nature of the Turkish state were met with a blind eye for the good of the “reconciliation” policy and anti-secularist demonstrations were ignored, even the smallest request for rights or protest against the government was met with unreasonable violence from the police. More seriously, the prime minister met positively the death of a mourner at funeral in the courtyard of at a cemevi in Istanbul who was hit by a police bullet at the police intervened in a protest. The way to ease this double standard is not to intervene with violent force in all demonstrations, but to approach requests for rights or protests with tolerance, within the borders of respect for freedom of expression.

The government passed a new law package through parliament under the title “Eradication of Terror and Strengthening of Social Cohesion,” consisting of 6 articles and abolishing any punishment for public officials who enter into negotiations with the PKK. The National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was issued extraordi-nary authority within the country as well.

The disproportionate implementation of legislation was felt in other areas too. While unlicensed buildings were knocked down, the prime ministry service building construction continued in a natural reserve in Ankara, the Atatürk Forest Farm, despite a number of court orders to the contrary. Prime Minister Erdoğan and Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek both ignored the court orders, attracting attention.

Although the TBMM voted in a closed session to initiate an investigation against the four resigned ministers implicated in the corruption claims, Zafer Çağlayan, Egemen Bağış, Muammer Güler and General, the investigation was intentionally slowed down and made news as documents were hidden from commission mem-bers. Evaluating the events as framing by the “parallel structure“, the government saw fit to slow down the pro-ceedings, leading to criticism. The most important development was the decision of the Istanbul Republican Head Prosecutor for no further action to be taken against the suspects of the bribery and corruption investigation.

The Constitutional Court’s decision regarding the Sledgehammer case, that the witness testimony and digital evidence had violated rights was a significant development in the hearings, claimed to be anti-government. The Supreme Court had previously ignored the application of the defendants and approved the court’s verdict. With the decision of the Constitutional Court, 128 soldiers, including 115 officers and 13 generals and admirals gained the right to return to duty with the Turkish Armed Forces. Within the scope of the same case, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) MP and retired Lieutenant General Engin Alan, who was imprisoned before the general elections, benefitted from the “violation of rights” decision of the Constitutional Court and was released from prison. Alan was sworn in at the TBMM three years late and started his career as an MP. Apart from Engin Alan, 5 BDP MP’s were released from prison in the early part of 2014 by Constitutional Court verdict and started duty.

One of the most significant developments of the period was the presidential election. Of the three candi-dates, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won. Continuing to act as prime minister during the election period and refusing to resign until the result was published in the Official Gazette, Erdoğan ignored the principle of impartiality, while it was claimed that Erdoğan was not acting according to the constitution, but to the promise he had made to voters that he would be “a different president.”

After President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan started duty, he continued to take a close interest in the party and the government and it was observed that he had planned and carried out the election of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as prime minister. His priorities did not change either: Combating the “parallel structure“, eradicating the extensions reported to exist in the bureaucracy, police and judiciary and media, maintaining the “reconciliation” policy, suppressing all opposition to these priorities through the police, judiciary, Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) and Presidency of Telecommunication and Communication (TİB) and when precautions were insufficient, to seek new legislation. The omnibus law including ambiguous terminology such as “reasonable suspicion” and regulations regarding internal security came to light in this regard. The National Security Council defined the “parallel structure” as a threat.

The government was observed to implement these policies in a determined fashion. The pressure on the judiciary became constant. The announcement of the President of the Constitutional Court in response to HaberTürk columnist Muharrem Sarıkaya’s question regarding the abolishment of the 10% election threshold, stating that applications were to be discussed by the Individual Application General Board to determine validi-ty was condemned harshly by ruling party lawyers; statements that if the ruling was reversed, “this would not be accepted” were perceived as an attempt to suppress the decision. The intervention to the judiciary prompted a comment by the Supreme Court of Cassation President Ali Alkan, asking how much more the government was going to meddle with the higher courts. It is apparent, however, that the government is determined to bring whatever legislation necessary to break the power of the “parallel structure.”

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