Even as the European Union (EU) finalised its refugee agreement with the Turkish government, freedom of expression and civil society space continue to shrink in the country. CIVICUS urges the EU not to compromise its core values in its cooperation with Turkey.
Part of the refugee plan includes speeding up Turkey’s accession process to the EU, but such steps are usually conditioned by positive human rights developments. On the contrary, democratic rights violations are currently becoming commonplace in Turkey, with security forces acting with impunity.
The media is facing an unprecedented crackdown in Turkey. Authorities have severely restricted the operations of newspapers perceived to be supportive of the political opposition by taking over their management, imposing heavy fines, and preventing their distribution. Several TV channels have been forced off the air.
Over the course of the last year, hundreds of journalists have been dismissed from their jobs under government pressure and scores have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and prosecution. The Turkish NGO Platform for Solidarity with Imprisoned Journalists has reported that at the end of March 2016, 31 journalists are imprisoned for alleged criminal offences and under anti-terrorism legislation.
Academic freedom is also under attack. In January 2016, 27 academics were briefly detained for “spreading terrorism propaganda” after they had issued a petition urging the Turkish Government to end all suppression of the Kurdish opposition and initiate peace talks. Dozens of academics have been dismissed from university posts for signing the petition and others continue to be harassed. On 10 March, three academics were arrested after they held a news conference in which they criticised pressure being put on the academic community. They remain in detention under stressful conditions, and there are reports of plans to target other academics.
This pressure on civil society comes at a time when comments by President Erdogan have fuelled the atmosphere of intolerance of dissent in the country. On 14 March 2016, he stated that there was no difference between “a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb or those who use their position or pen to serve the aims” of terrorists. He went on to say that such a person could be a journalist, a lawmaker or an activist.
A 2015 amendment to the internet law enables Turkish telecoms authorities to block access to internet content without a court order, severely restricting freedom of information in the country. It is reported that over 100,000 websites have been blocked in Turkey as of March 2016.
The Turkish state is indeed facing serious challenges from terrorist and extremist groups. However, its response should be conditioned by recourse to European values enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights which Turkey is party to.
CIVICUS urges the Turkish authorities to provide space for meaningful political participation and resolution of disputes. We also urge European leaders to substantively engage the Turkish government on these serious violations of fundamental freedoms and civil society rights by making them the cornerstone their negotiations and cooperation with Turkey.