CIVICUS speaks with lawyer Eren Keskin, chair of the Human Rights Association (IHD), about the Turkish government’s attacks on critical media and the state of press freedoms in the context of Turkey’s current elections.
Founded in 1986, IHD is one of Turkey’s oldest and largest human rights civil society organisations. It documents human rights violations and campaigns for the protection of human rights and civic freedoms in Turkey.
What are the conditions for journalism in Turkey?
Problems in the area of freedom of expression have existed in Turkey since the foundation of the republic. From the very beginning there were issues that the republic’s official ideology of Turkish-Islamic synthesis prohibited speaking about. Issues such as the Kurdish conflict, the 1915 Armenian Genocide and, later on, Turkey’s military presence in Cyprus, have long been forbidden topics.
What’s changed under the present government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party is that the opposition’s freedom of expression has been severely restricted across the board. As a result, obstacles have mounted for opposition journalists to express their views.
The government does not tolerate opinions different from its own. It recklessly issues arrest warrants for articles, speeches and social media messages if they express diverging opinions. The state of Turkey recognises freedom of expression in its domestic legislation and is bound to respect it as a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights, but it continues to violate its own laws and the international conventions and covenants it has signed.
What tactics does the government use against independent media and how have you been affected?
Because it does not tolerate any kind of diverging opinion, the government is extremely aggressive towards independent media and the free press, the majority of which are Kurdish media outlets.
Dissident journalists are commonly charged with making propaganda for an illegal organisation. Particularly with news reports on the Kurdish war, most lawsuits are filed on charges of making propaganda for the Kurdish political movement or Kurdish armed forces. Apart from this, a large number of cases are filed on charges of insulting the president, insulting the forces of the state and inciting the public to hatred and enmity.
Many journalists are under arrest or subject to international travel bans merely for expressing their thoughts in writing. There is almost no journalist who is not being subjected to judicial control.
I was once the volunteer editor-in-chief of the daily Özgür Gündem, one of the newspapers that has faced the most repression, and have stood trial in 143 cases just because my name appeared on the newspaper as volunteer editor-in-chief.
I’ve been sentenced to a total of 26 years and nine months in prison for alleged crimes such as membership of an illegal organisation, making propaganda for an illegal organisation and insulting the president, even for articles I did not write. These sentences are pending a decision of the Court of Cassation. As soon as they are final, I may go to prison. I have also been unable to travel abroad for six years now because of an international travel ban.
Has the intensification of repression affected the popularity of the president in any way?
Considering that the ruling regime is the main culprit for all the rights violations currently taking place in Turkey, and that power is concentrated in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it must be admitted that the main perpetrator of rights violations is the president himself. The judiciary is completely dependent on the president. Judges and prosecutors render compliant decisions out of fear. Where judges and prosecutors are afraid, it is unthinkable for the judiciary to be independent.
The president’s attitude towards the press, especially the opposition press, and the language of hatred and violence he uses, does not detract from his popularity but is instead a major reason his followers support him. However, we think that a large part of society, hopefully a growing part, is also disturbed by his blatant violations of freedom of expression.
What do you make of the results of the 14 May general election?
The AKP had relative success in the presidential and parliamentary elections held on 14 May. The president did better than expected, considering the economic situation and the criticism he’s faced over the response to the earthquakes in February. His party has maintained control of parliament. But he didn’t win re-election outright: he received 49.5 per cent of the vote while his opposition challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) received almost 45 per cent. Now there’s going to be a runoff on 28 May.
None of this should come as a surprise. Society has become extremely polarised, especially as a result of Erdoğan’s rhetoric of fear, hatred and violence. We also witnessed many practices that violated the constitution and electoral laws, such as government ministers becoming parliamentary candidates without resigning and therefore using state resources for campaigning. The ruling party monopolises a large part of the media and used it exclusively on its own behalf. The elections were therefore held under extremely unequal conditions.
It’s hard to predict what the outcome of the runoff will be. The election may end in favour of Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu. Much will depend on the practices that develop during the election.
How will the situation of vulnerable minorities in Turkey be affected by the election results?
Erdoğan uses language that is completely against human rights and the AKP has retained its parliamentary majority by coalescing with an extremist party. The situation will become dangerous if Erdoğan wins once again, especially for women, LGBTQI+ people and Kurdish people.
Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence – has already affected the feminist movement a lot. Now Law No. 6,284 on violence against women is being questioned. This poses a great danger for women and LGBTQI+ people.
Similarly, if Erdoğan wins again, pro-security approaches to the Kurdish issue will continue to dominate, preventing progress towards peace.
As for Syrian asylum-seekers, the AKP presents itself as having provided a good environment for them, but it is not really the case. Asylum-seekers in Turkey do not qualify as refugees because of the state’s reservation to the 1951 Refugee Convention. They are subjected to racist attacks. They work as cheap labour in extremely difficult conditions. Women and girls live under permanent risk of violence. An AKP win will not give them a chance.
But it must be noted that the CHP’s proposal regarding refugees is not any more democratic or inclusive, and its discourse also has racist overtones. Therefore, first and foremost, the discriminatory, double-standard approach to the Refugee Convention should be questioned.
What kinds of domestic or international support do Turkish independent media and journalists currently receive, and what more would you need?
Journalists working in independent media in Turkey, and especially in Kurdistan, are clearly not receiving sufficient international support. The Republic of Turkey is a state party to many international conventions that guarantee freedoms of expression and the press. The state has committed to respecting them on paper, but it violates them in practice. All these conventions have monitoring mechanisms, but unfortunately, they are not being properly implemented for Turkey. In this sense, the European Union has left Turkey alone.
We believe that Turkey should be questioned more, especially by western media organisations and by Turkey’s co-signatory states of international rights conventions, to contribute to the lifting of repressive measures against the dissident press.
Civic space in Turkey is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
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