CIVICUS speaks to Huseyin Hurmali, President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation about the difficult environment for journalists in Turkey. Worldwide, Turkey has the highest number of imprisoned journalists. He also speaks about the future of democracy in Turkey after the President’s move to consolidate power following a tightly-contested referendum.
1. How would you describe the situation in Turkey for journalists and writers?
Depressing: More than half the journalists who are in prison around the world are in Turkey. Turkey currently has the highest number of journalists in jail worldwide. Concrete information, confirmed by the international press and human rights organisations, indicates that Turkey is not a free country in terms of freedom of the press.
According to a report released by the Journalists Association of Turkey, 839 journalists appeared in court simply for reporting news in 2016. These numbers are a clear indication that the problematic situation of freedom of the press in Turkey is far worse than many people think. It should be noted that this number may rise at any moment due to ongoing police raids and detentions. After the 15 July 2016 coup, 85% of the journalists and media workers were taken into custody and arrested. The journalists are charged with various charges among them “espionage”, “membership of a terrorist organisation”, “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “attempting to overthrow the current government”. As is mentioned in the report of the Stockholm Center for Freedom, the practices of silencing journalists through the abuse of the criminal justice system and expanding the scope of the definition of terrorism to use it against defendants are among the human rights violations frequently cited in human rights reports as well as in documents from the European Union, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In addition to the jailed journalists and writers, there is a significant number of those for whom detention warrants were issued or were forced to flee the country due to the fear of unfair trial. These journalists and writers have to live in exile enduring financial hardships, intimidation of their families back in Turkey, denial of consular services at Turkish embassies and consulates, uncertain legal status in their respective countries, and having to hide their identities in their countries of asylum due to continuous death threats on social media from supporters of President Recep Erdogan.
There are a few remaining independent and critical media organisations in Turkey, and their staff are working under constant threat of arrest, violence, hate speech, discrimination, profiling, censorship and even death. The court is now the most frequent place of visitation for critical journalists who face criminal cases against them, if they have not been jailed yet. The seizure and closure of 189 media organisations by the government indicates that not only the freedom of media is lost, but also a huge number of employees in this sector including the editorial, administrative and technical staff who have to face unemployment. More than 30% of journalists alone in the media sector have lost their jobs and were denied the right of carrying out their profession in any other institution, due to being blacklisted by the government. Furthermore, some of the journalists and writers who are in jail or in exile have lost all their assets by seizure orders from non-independent courts. Thereby, the victimisation of journalists and writers in Turkey reaches out to their close and extended families, inside and outside of the country.
2. Please elaborate on some of the persecution tactics being used by the Turkish state against those who don’t agree with what’s going in the country at present.
President Erdogan and the Turkish government are waging a war against dissent under the disguise of a war on terror, using the coup attempt on July 15, 2016 as a tool. The Turkish state’s persecution of dissenters was already taking place at a gradual speed since the mass protests in June 2013. The violent crushing down of the peaceful protests became a routine after that, until a point where people are afraid to exercise their right of peaceful gathering and mass protests. The government’s use of the police force to suppress dissent became more explicit when a corruption probe was revealed in December 2013, which included the close circle of Erdogan as prime suspects. Erdogan turned this case into a test of loyalty to himself within the security and the judiciary branch, jailing, discharging, or displacing the police officers and the judiciary members who were involved in the corruption probe against his government members (and himself). He became increasingly interventionist on the judiciary system by declaring his opponents as terrorists and criminals without any evidence.
The redesigning of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors in 2014 gave way to the total instrumentalisation of legal system for the intimidation and persecution of dissenters. They reinterpreted the trusteeship concept in property law which was meant to prevent a private enterprise from bankruptcy, and appointed trustees as a way of seizing the private media, business, and educational institutions that were owned by the targeted individuals or groups. The ending of the peace process with the Kurdish movement in June 2015 was followed by a collective punishment of the Kurds by a military attack that tore down the Kurdish-majority cities in the southeast of Turkey. Legal actions were taken against peaceful supporters of the Kurdish case in order to silence opposition, as seen in the case of more than 1,000 academics who signed a petition for peace, and had to suffer administrative and legal investigation for criticising the state. People who belonged to the Gulen-inspired Hizmet movement, which became Erdogan’s number one target after the corruption probe in 2013, began to be detained and arrested for being a member of an “armed terror organisation” which was a term that was coined for the movement, in addition to “the parallel state structure” without any trial or a court decision. Critics from all sections were subjected to arbitrary legal harassment, by facing charges such as “insulting the President” “defaming state institutions” or “aiding a terror organisation” when they stood against the wrongful acts of the state; therefore people were forced to exert self-censorship in their social media posts and public conversations. Legal actions were taken against absurdly small incidents, such as liking an anti-Erdogan cartoon on Facebook, as a way of demonstrating the power of authority and the extent of its reach.
The State of Emergency declared in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016 gave total impunity to the state’s ongoing persecution tactics as well as enabling it to launch a total crackdown against civil society and civil servants. The coup attempt gave the government the pretext to declare the Hizmet movement as an “armed terror organization” by blaming Gulen and his followers for the putsch, and to round up anyone who is even remotely connected to the network as a “coup supporter” and “member of an armed terror organisation.” It is a serious offense in Turkish criminal law, and entails harsh imprisonment conditions. The state of emergency decrees are immune to parliamentary or judicial control, allowing the dismissal of over 138,000 civil servants without any right to appeal, the closure of 149 media outlets, 2 099 schools, dormitories and universities. Under the state of emergency over 50 000 have been arrested (including 13 MPs from pro-Kurdish HDP) and 102 000 detained. Again, the Kurdish opposition and the Hizmet movement became the main target of the executive decrees, while the state is careful to include all sorts of dissidents to create fear among loyalists and opponents alike. The state also uses its embassies and consulates around the world to harass opponents by denying them of regular services, canceling their passports, and threatening to revoke their citizenship status if they are charged with a crime in Turkey and reject to return to the country after three months of notice.
Turkey’s persecution of dissidents through illegal means has also reached beyond its national borders. Tactics employed include threats, denial of consular services, profiling and abductions. The recent abductions of Turkish nationals from Malaysia in total violation of international law is a case in point. Since October 2016, five Turkish nationals have been illegally detained by Malaysian operatives and handed over to Turkish authorities. These individuals are currently jailed in Turkey, raising serious fear of torture and inhuman treatment. The systematic nature of their abduction leaves little doubt about cooperation between the Turkish and Malaysian governments. There is growing concern that such a pattern could be repeated in other parts of the world where corrupt regimes or clandestine structures would be willing to cooperate with Turkey in order to kidnap Hizmet Movement sympathisers.
3. Please elaborate on how your organisation was deprived of its status at the UN following pressure from the Turkish government.
As an international civil society organization dedicated to a culture of peace, human rights and sustainable development, the Journalists and Writers Foundation (JWF) promotes diversity and inclusion by creating forums for intellectual and social engagement, generates and shares knowledge with stakeholders, builds partnerships worldwide and develops policy recommendations for positive social change.
JWF received ECOSOC general consultative status in 2012, becoming the first and only NGO from Turkey to hold this status. Having this important status made the United Nations’ Global Agenda 2030 a priority area for JWF, particularly in terms of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Following the numerous violations of the freedom of speech in Turkey and as a result of the groundless claim of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the UN – namely, that JWF no longer exists, despite the fact that JWF is an NGO registered in New York State – JWF‘s general consultative status with ECOSOC was revoked on 19 April 2017 during the UN ECOSOC meeting. The Turkish government´s dictation for the withdrawal of JWF’s consultative status with ECOSOC was based on the fact that JWF’s operations were ended in Turkey by a post-coup emergency decree on 22 July 2016, which was issued due to its alleged associations with a fictitious terror organisation. We must point out that JWF is a 501(c) non-governmental organisation registered in New York State and has had its headquarters in New York since 2014.
The Turkish government exploited procedural flaws in the rules and misused its membership status at the relevant UN bodies to extend its massive crackdown on civil society in Turkey to the United Nations platform. The ensuing decision to revoke JWF’s consultative status clearly contradicts the UN’s promotion of active civil society participation in the 2030 Agenda. Apart from Turkey’s increasing tendency towards dictatorship, there is also a growing concern about the intimidation of and reprisals against individuals and organisations that cooperate with the UN system. The withdrawal of JWF’s status clearly violates Article 56 of Resolution 1996/31, which indicates that the NGO concerned “shall be given written reasons for that decision and shall have an opportunity to present its response for appropriate consideration by the Committee”. JWF was neither informed in writing about this arbitrary action, nor was it given a platform to defend its twenty-three years of dedication to peace and the protection of human rights. JWF’s dedication to peace, human rights and sustainable development has been proven by the many activities and projects that have been implemented ever since JWF received general consultative status with ECOSOC in July 2012. JWF’s quadrennial report submitted to the Committee on NGOs in June 2016 is more than enough to indicate that this decision is not fair, given JWF’s activities and performance. The decision is clearly politically driven and secured by the privileged position of member states against NGOs in the ECOSOC system.
4. Given the total clampdown on freedom of expression in the country how is democratic dissent being expressed? Are any creative methods being used?
The “No” campaign during the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum can be seen as a very creative expression of democratic dissent. Especially, young people’s creative political activism against the referendum shows that free expression will be hard to stamp out in the country.
Without a doubt, speaking out against Erdogan comes with risks: “No” campaigners have faced alleged government-backed coercion and suppression. In March 2017, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) unveiled a 78-point report regarding irregularities and suppression of 'No' campaigners.
But still, protesters have plastered photos of jailed artists and politicians who oppose the measure at select transport hubs. Videos of police questioning women who spoke out against the referendum on a ferry have gone viral in social media. Officials have banned a Kurdish song encouraging a “no” vote. (The subtitle to this song reads, "Playing this song in Turkey will land you in jail.") Young women in colorful masks shouting “No!” and university students beating drums and singing songs about freedom were among the thousands who marched on Istiklal Street, a popular thoroughfare in Istanbul, to campaign against boosting President Erdogan’s powers in a constitutional referendum. Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent is nothing new, but the creativity of the young people especially is still giving hope.
5. What can international civil society do to support freedom of expression in Turkey?
As the civil society and free and independent media in Turkey have been greatly impaired by the ongoing purge, international delegations of civil society and media organisations visiting Turkey must show solidarity with all victims of state oppression and be their voice indiscriminately. The wide range of civil servants, professionals, in addition many journalists and intellectuals who had to flee Turkey after the coup must be supported in their struggle to find safety and legal protection. The exiled journalists who launched initiatives to report on human rights abuses in Turkey need the help of international civil society in carrying out this high-risk, and mostly high-cost task. The remaining voices of dissent, which have most recently surfaced itself with the 49% (and possibly more) of the referendum voters in Turkey can only be kept alive as long as they feel the support of the international civil society through social media campaigns, as the social media is the major platform where alternative voices can be heard. Where Turkish citizens are silenced with fear, the international community must speak for them.
6. How do you see the future of democracy in Turkey.
The constitutional referendum last month unfortunately nailed the coffin of democracy and separation of powers in Turkey, allowing President Erdogan to combine the executive, legislative and judiciary powers. While this has already been the de facto system in Turkey for the last couple of years as Erdogan captured more and more elements of the state, the proposed Constitution will make it permanent as the de jure system. Yet there is still hope, as we have seen that even in an unfair and possibly rigged election, half of the voters stood against this proposal, and denied Erdogan a decisive victory. First and foremost of all, the State of Emergency rule must end as soon as possible, and the Turkish government has to stop the repression of its people and establish the fundamental rights of individuals.
• Turkey is rated as “repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor.