It was only in June that I wrote in these pages about Turkey’s repression of outspoken journalists and academics in response to the five-year prison sentences handed down to Can Dündar and Erdem Gül for publishing an article alleging that Turkey had tried to ship arms to Islamists in Syria.
Since the failed military coup on 15 July, the silencing of critical voices has reached epic proportions. A three-month state of emergency has been declared. More than eighteen thousand people have been detained and some seventy thousand have been suspended from their jobs, fired or placed under investigation. This number includes at least 59 journalists and writers and there have been reports of widespread ill-treatment in custody. Furthermore, 132 media organisations, including twenty-nine publishing houses, three news agencies, sixteen television channels, twenty-three radio stations, forty-five newspapers and fifteen magazines, have been shut down. As of 1 August, arrest warrants have been issued for forty-two journalists. This is in addition to the warrants issued for the arrest of forty-seven former employees of the opposition newspaper Zaman. The newspaper had close links with the Hizmet movement led by the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claims, helped to organise the coup. On 4 March, Zaman was taken over by government-appointed trustees and it is now pro-Erdoğan. On 17 August Aslı Erdoğan, a prominent novelist, columnist and human rights activist, was arrested together with twenty other journalists and employees from Ozgür Gündem newspaper, a pro-Kurdish opposition daily, also shut down as part of the state of emergency.
Erdoğan’s government takes a hardline approach to political opposition, public protest and critical media comment, and its repressive actions have undermined judicial independence and the rule of law. Pro-government organisations now dominate the media, while the intimidation of critical journalists and the denial of accreditation to foreign reporters hinder independent reporting. Restrictive laws are used to arrest and prosecute journalists, while media groups that criticise the government have been fined. PEN has long campaigned on behalf of dissident writers and journalists in Turkey, many of whom have been detained on charges under the country’s anti-terror legislation or penal code, which currently criminalises defamation. Some dissidents have spent months, even years, in detention without conviction. Even before the coup attempt, a renewed crackdown on freedom of expression and access to information was under way. According to the Turkish justice minister, almost two thousand people have been prosecuted for ‘insulting’ Erdoğan since the former prime minister became president in August 2014. One notable example is the case of writer Atalay Girgin. In February, an investigation was opened against Girgin for insulting the president in his book Lağımpaşalı, a fable about a group of rats.
For the past two years, Erdoğan has been tightening his grip on power by stifling online media. According to PEN’s recent report ‘Surveillance, Secrecy and Self-censorship: New Digital Freedom Challenges in Turkey’, since February 2014, three crucial laws have been amended, allowing the government to censor online material and opening the way for the national intelligence services and police to monitor the population without being accountable to the public. The report also paints a stark picture of the Kafkaesque nature of internet censorship. On 19 March 2014, Erdoğan, at the time prime minister, vowed publicly to ‘eradicate’ Twitter. The next day Twitter was blocked as a ‘protection measure’. The block was subsequently approved by the courts. On 27 March, following the publication of alleged recordings of senior officials plotting a ‘false flag’ operation in Syria, YouTube was blocked nationwide. On 2 April, access to Twitter was reinstated after a unanimous ruling by the Constitutional Court that the ban violated the rights of users and freedom of speech. On 29 May, the Constitutional Court reached the same conclusion regarding the YouTube ban and access was restored. Twitter claims that in the first six months of 2015, 70 per cent of takedown requests from national governments came from Turkey – the company received 408 court orders and another 310 requests from government authorities to remove content, ‘based on violations of personal rights and other local laws’.
Just as chilling is the still-unexplained deletion of the Facebook page of the British publisher Zed Books earlier this year. Zed Books is the publisher of Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy by Ece Temelkuran, a prominent Turkish journalist, whose book explores the current culture of repression and authoritarianism in the country. It has also published The PKK: Coming Down from the Mountains by Paul White, which examines the evolution of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Following a series of posts on both books, the page was deleted. Only after The Guardian highlighted the infraction did Facebook deny removing the page.
Readers might like to send appeals urging the Turkish authorities to refrain from using the state of emergency as an opportunity to crack down on peaceful dissent, civil society and education, and to stop the censorship of media comment criticising government policy; calling for the immediate release of all journalists and writers held solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression; and reminding the authorities that the prohibition on torture is absolute and cannot be overruled in states of emergency.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ
Milli Müdafaa Caddesi, 22 Bakanlıklar, 06659, Kızılay
Fax: +90 312 419 3370
Email: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
His Excellency Mr Abdurrahman Bilgiç
Turkish Embassy, 43 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PA
Fax: +44 20 7393 0066; +44 20 7393 9213