One year on from the environmental sit-in in Gezi Park that sparked demonstrations across 80 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, English PEN and PEN International are continuing to call on the Turkish authorities to address the human rights violations that took place.
PEN welcomes a number of the legislative changes that were included in the recent Fifth Judicial Reform package, in particular the removal of Special Authority Courts. We also warmly welcome the recent releases of numerous writers and journalists who were detained in violation of their right to freedom of expression, in particular that of human rights lawyer and writer Muharrem Erbey who was finally released from prison pending trial on 12 April having spent four and a half years in pre-trial detention.
Nevertheless, far from having improved, the overall human rights situation in Turkey has continued to deteriorate over the last 12 months.
Turkish author Elif Shafak said:
“A full year has passed since the Gezi protests broke out and yet Turkey has not made any considerable progress to improve its record on human rights, women’s rights, freedom of press and online freedom. What the country urgently needs is a series of steps towards a true, pluralistic democracy, including a new, liberal, democratic constitution.
“Instead, ‘majoritarianism’ is holding sway, increasing the ongoing polarization and making half of the population who have not voted for the AKP feel like ‘the unwanted Others’. Neither the AKP supporters nor its critics should feel homeless in their homeland. It is this culture of coexistence that the government seems to have forgotten.”
PEN remains seriously concerned about the increasingly poor state of freedom of expression in the country, in particular the government’s attempts to clamp down on legitimate online activity.
In February 2014, the Turkish parliament passed a new internet law, giving Turkey’s telecommunications authority almost unlimited power in tightening its control over the internet. The following month, in the wake of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vow to ‘wipe out Twitter’, the Turkish authorities announced a blanket ban of the social media platform to Turkey’s estimated 12 million users. This was swiftly followed by the blocking of the online video-sharing platform YouTube, just days ahead of the local elections on 30 March.
On 28 March, leading Turkish authors Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak and international writers including Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie joined PEN in calling for access to be restored immediately. Within a week, Turkish courts ruled that the blocks were in breach of freedom of expression laws, but while access to Twitter was reinstated, the block on YouTube remains in place pending further legal challenges.
PEN is also seriously concerned that the Prime Minister continues to try to bring criminal defamation cases against high profile writers in Turkey. Earlier this month it emerged that Erdoğan had lodged a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office alleging that journalist Can Dündar, who was featured as a case study in PEN’s report on the Gezi Park protests, had defamed him in an article he wrote for the national newspaper Cumhuriyet in April 2014. The public prosecutor is yet to decide whether to press criminal defamation charges against Dündar.
PEN opposes the criminalisation of defamation in all cases, and strongly urges the prime minister to refrain from bringing defamation cases against writers and journalists engaging in legitimate political criticism. We also respectfully remind the Turkish authorities of their obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Turkey is a state party.
Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said:
“The lessons of the 2013 protests have largely gone unheeded by the Turkish authorities. Freedom of expression, the right to protest, press freedom and digital freedom are under even greater strain than before.
“A plurality of voices is fundamental to the health of a vibrant democracy. Turkey must live up to its international human rights obligations so that its citizens may enjoy the kind of democracy that they have been promised.”
Finally, PEN is concerned about the continuing impunity for law enforcement officials who committed human rights violations during last summer’s protests. PEN marked 3 May World Press Freedom Day by highlighting the case of journalist Gökhan Biçici, whose attack at the hands of the police in June 2013 was captured on video by observers overlooking his arrest. Gökhan Biçici gave a detailed account to PEN of the ill-treatment he was subjected to under police custody, which was published in a recent PEN report on the Gezi Park protests.
Biçici submitted a number of official complaints to the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office in June and August 2013 regarding his treatment at the hands of the police. No progress has been recorded in these investigations. This conforms to a pattern of impunity in cases involving police attacks on journalists during last summer’s protests. Other prominent journalists who were also victims of attack, such as PEN main case and UNESCO 2014 World Press Freedom Prize winner Ahmet Şık, have also had their complaints ignored. According to statistics gathered by Bianet, 153 journalists were attacked by security forces during the 2013 protests.
Maureen Freely, President of English PEN
“Over the past year, we have seen Turkey’s ruling party taking extreme measures to censor the social and mainstream media, intimidate dissenters, and impede democratic debate, while also using both new and old media to convince its supporters that all those who criticise or challenge its policies are sponsored by international lobbies aiming to destroy the Turkish state.
“The government’s almost total control over the use of the internet is matched by its ability to keep dissenters under electronic surveillance. Its favoured media channels continue to run hate campaigns against those who speak out. Across the media sector, as well as in education and the public sector, those who criticise the government can quickly find themselves dismissed, while doctors known to have treated dissenters run the risk of being struck off.”
For further information about the human rights violations that took place during last year’s protests and PEN’s recommendations concerning freedom of expression, assembly, and the press, see The Gezi Park Protests: the Impact on Freedom of Expression in Turkey.