English PEN and PEN International launch joint report on the restrictions on freedom of expression during and following last year’s Gezi Park protests in Turkey
When a small group of environmental campaigners began a sit-in in Gezi Park, Istanbul, last May, few could have predicted that their protest against the construction of a shopping mall would escalate into an unprecedented demonstration against the state. The authoritarian manner in which the ruling party enforced its plans for the park – from the lack of public consultation to the draconian tactics of the police – triggered a nationwide response. By the end of July, according to official government estimates, 3,545,000 people across 80 of Turkey’s 81 provinces had taken to the streets in solidarity with the Gezi Park protesters.
The protests encapsulated the tension between the conservative mainstream and a wide variety of disenfranchised groups in Turkey in the battle over public space, the struggle of minority groups to express their identities and the resistance to the growing authoritarianism of the democratically elected Justice and Development Party (AKP). The excessive use of police force, as well as widespread media censorship and reprisals against journalists and users of social media, starkly illustrated the shortcomings of Turkish democracy in its lack of pluralism and disregard for fundamental rights and freedoms.
In this report, PEN assesses the violations of the right to freedom of expression and to freedom of assembly during the Gezi Park protests. PEN has a long history of supporting writers at risk and campaigning for the protection of freedom of speech in Turkey. The intense and exceptional nature of the protests, the response of the authorities and the media, and the lack of an overarching official inquiry into police violence offer a unique opportunity to examine the threats to freedom of expression and the need for reform.
Our research identifies a number of areas that the government of Turkey must urgently address:
- A culture of intimidation against dissident writers, journalists and artists, including the practice of targeting individual journalists by senior government officials in speeches and on social media; the bringing of defamation cases against those engaging in legitimate political criticism; the judicial harassment of caricaturists and other artists engaging in social and political commentary through their art; the use of threats against investigative journalists by politicians unhappy with their reporting; and phone calls from government politicians to news outlets questioning them about the level and nature of the coverage being given to opposition parties.
- Self-censorship and lack of independence within the mainstream media, highlighted by the media blackout during the early days of the protests and the scores of journalists (85 according to the Journalists Union of Turkey) who lost their jobs throughout. The concentration of media ownership within the hands of a small number of holding companies vying for public tenders has played a part in this, exerting a detrimental influence on the editorial independence of many Turkish media outlets. The activities and perceived lack of independence of public bodies such as the Insurance Savings and Deposit Fund (TMSF) and Turkey’s broadcast regulator RTÜK are also in need of review.
- The narrowing scope for freedom of expression online, with particular emphasis on the regime of online censorship introduced as part of the new internet law under the guise of protecting the personality and privacy rights of Turkish citizens; the judicial harassment of social media users; and the chilling effect that these are intended to have on freedom of expression on the internet.
- Attacks on journalists reporting on protests in the field, denying them their journalistic right to report on fundamentally newsworthy events; 153 journalists were reportedly attacked during Gezi, with notable examples mentioned in the report.
- Violations of the right to freedom of assembly, often justified through the blanket application of time and location restrictions and the use of small groups of protesters engaging in unlawful activity as grounds for deeming entire protests unlawful. The indiscriminate and excessive use of tear gas and excessive force during the protests led to countless injuries and in several instances to loss of life.
At its best, the Gezi Park protests involved the peaceful coming together of myriad opposition groups in a creative public forum. A culture of protest and dissent has been established amongst a previously politically disenfranchised younger generation. The emergence of social media and its enormous impact as a vehicle of news and commentary has also done much to challenge the traditional print and broadcast media’s self-censorship, but is now threatened by a controversial internet law.
PEN calls on all political actors in Turkey to work towards a revised framework that respects the rights of protesters and journalists during peaceful demonstrations, including more robust protection for freedom of expression both in the law and in the regulation of the media. In light of this, PEN calls on the government of Turkey to:
- Initiate a comprehensive review of the use of excessive force by security forces during the protests;
- Revise law enforcement officials’ code of conduct so that journalists’ right to safely report during protests is fully respected in future;
- Bring an end to the judicial harassment of writers, journalists and artists engaging in legitimate criticism of senior government figures;
- Cease all investigations into individuals for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression online;
- Overturn the regime of online censorship and surveillance initiated by the new Internet Law;
- Take steps to end the culture of intimidation and self-censorship paralysing the mainstream media in Turkey;
- Make necessary reforms to public bodies like TMSF and RTÜK in order to safeguard the independence and health of the media sector.
The Gezi Park Protests: the impact on freedom of expression in Turkey is available here.
- Share the report with your networks, including on Facebook, Twitter (#PENGezi) and other social media.
- Write articles or opinion pieces on PEN’s concerns for your local or national media. Please send copies of any published articles to email@example.com
- Send appeals to the President and Prime Minister of Turkey, and the Turkish Embassy here in the UK demanding that the government:
- Investigate all violations of the right to freedom of expression and assembly committed by state officials and bring anyone responsible for abuses to justice
- Ensure that violations of the right to life are not met with impunity
- Carry out an independent inquiry into the failure of the police to protect journalists adequately
- Decriminalise defamation as a matter of urgency and dismiss cases brought against critics of the prime minister
- Overturn the regime of online censorship and surveillance initiated by the new internet law
Send appeals to:
President Abdullah Gül
T.C. Cumhurbaşkanlığı Genel Sekreterliği
Fax: +90 312 470 24 33
Twitter: @cbabdullahgul (Use the hashtag #PENGezi)
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Başbakanlık Merkez Bina
Fax: +90 312 417 0476
Twitter: @RT_Erdogan (Use the hashtag #PENGezi)
His Excellency Mr Ünal Çeviköz
43 Belgrave Square
Fax: 020 7393 9213
Email: c/o firstname.lastname@example.org
Or you could use the form below. A sample letter is provided but it is always better if you put the appeal in your own words.
[ecampaign ‘email@example.com‘ subject=”The Gezi Park Protests: the impact on freedom of expression in Turkey”]
I am writing to you as a supporter of English PEN, the founding centre of the international association of writers, to draw your attention to a joint report published by English PEN and PEN International The Gezi Park Protests: the impact on freedom of expression in Turkey: http://www.englishpen.org/the-gezi-park-protests-the-impact-on-freedom-of-expression-in-turkey/
PEN has a long history of supporting writers at risk and campaigning for the protection of freedom of speech in Turkey. The intense and exceptional nature of last year’s protests, the response of the media and the authorities and the lack of an official investigation into unlawful police violence offered a unique opportunity to examine the threats to freedom of expression and the need for reform.
In addition to documenting individual allegations of human rights violations, the report examines Turkish legislation concerning freedom of expression, assembly, and the press in light of Turkey’s obligations under international human rights treaties to which Turkey is a state party. PEN’s research identifies not only the necessity for addressing the violations of human rights that took place during the protests, but for both legislative and media reform.
The report concludes with the following recommendations to the Turkish authorities:
– Investigate all violations of the right to freedom of expression and assembly committed by state officials and bring anyone responsible for abuses to justice
– Ensure that violations of the right to life are not met with impunity
– Carry out an independent inquiry into the failure of the police to protect journalists adequately
– Decriminalise defamation as a matter of urgency and dismiss cases brought against critics of the prime minister
– Overturn the regime of online censorship and surveillance initiated by the new internet law
I join PEN in calling on the Turkish authorities to investigate the violations of freedom of expression and assembly that took place during last year’s protests, and sincerely hope that the above recommendations and others included in PEN’s report will be taken into account.
I would welcome your comments on my appeal.