a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits, and the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech, for example, through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insult. The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
Many in media reported the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major independent newspapers and its jailing of scores of journalists during the preceding year hindered freedom of speech and that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
Hundreds of individuals, including journalists and minors, were indicted for insulting the president, prime minister, or state institutions. For example, on March 22, Ali Gul, an Istanbul law school student, was arrested and charged with insulting the president after he prepared a short video on social media regarding why Turks should vote “no” in the April constitutional referendum. He remained in jail for two months. In June the Ministry of Justice announced that in 2016 it had tried 3,658 persons on charges related to insulting the president. Comprehensive figures for the year were unavailable at year’s end.
Estimates of the number of journalists in jail varied. The Committee to Protect Journalists claimed that as of December 13, there were at least 81 journalists in prison. On December 6, the Journalists’ Union of Turkey claimed 149 journalists were in prison; Reporters without Borders reported that, as of October 24, there were more than 100 journalists in jail; the NGO Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) reported that, as of November 28, there were 153 journalists, editors, or media managers in jail, the vast majority for alleged ties to the PKK or the Gulen movement. As of May, an estimated additional 123 journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. Hundreds more remained out of work after the government closed media outlets allegedly affiliated with the PKK or the Gulen movement as part of the previous year’s government response to the attempted coup. On July 20, the Radio and Television Supreme Board revoked the licenses of five television stations for broadcasting inappropriate content. Another television station and 12 radio stations that previously had their licenses revoked under a July 2016 decree faced difficulty seeking redress and were unable to appeal to the Commission of Inquiry on Practices under the State of Emergency, which was established to review appeals by individuals and associations.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times many who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation.
In July parliament amended its by-laws to prohibit the use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by members of parliament on the floor of parliament, providing for the possible issuance of fines to violators. On December 13, parliament suspended HDP spokesperson and Sanliurfa member of parliament Osman Baydemir for two General Assembly sessions after he referred to himself as a “representative of Kurdistan” during a discussion in parliament.
Human rights groups reported intensifying government pressure that, in certain cases, resulted in enhanced caution in their public reporting. On November 1, leading philanthropist and widely respected civil society figure leader Osman Kavala was arrested and subsequently charged with terrorism-related crimes. Observers widely viewed his detention as politically motivated. On July 5, police detained eight leading human rights activists, including Amnesty International Turkey director Idil Eser as well as two foreign trainers, during a workshop in Buyukada, near Istanbul, on terrorism grounds. On June 6, police detained Taner Kilic, the founder and chair of Amnesty International Turkey, in Izmir along with 22 others for alleged Gulen ties and in part for allegedly using the ByLock mobile application, a claim rejected by Amnesty International (see section 5). Critics alleged Kilic’s detention stemmed from government displeasure with Amnesty reporting critical of the government. In October a court released the “Buyukada 10” pending the outcome of their trial, which continued at year’s end. Kilic and Kavala remained in pretrial detention, with judicial proceedings against them continuing at year’s end.
Press and Media Freedom: Print media were privately owned and active. Conglomerates or holding companies, many of which had interests before the government on a range of business matters, owned an increasing share of media outlets. Only a fraction of these companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate. Private newspapers were also published in numerous languages, including Armenian, Arabic, English, and Farsi, although most had low circulations. Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Government prosecution of independent journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. The pretrial detention since October 2016 of 20 prominent journalists, editors, and staffers of the country’s leading independent newspaper Cumhuriyet continued. Prosecutors alleged that material in the newspaper dating to 2014 aided a variety of terrorist organizations, including the PKK, the Gulen movement, and the leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party or Front, and sought prison sentences ranging from seven and a one-half to 43 years. As of December 14, four employees remained in pretrial detention, some for more than 400 days.
As of December 14, a total of 18 journalists and editors who had worked for the now-closed, Gulen-linked Zaman newspaper and who were arrested in 2016, remained in detention on terrorism and coup-related charges. On December 8, an Istanbul court ruled for the continued imprisonment of 19 journalists and the release of three advertising and sales department staff members of the Zaman media group. Travel bans remained in place for those released. The journalists’ trial was in progress at year’s end.
On May 19, government authorities raided the offices of the left-leaning daily newspaper Sozcu. Sozcu’s owner and three of its employees were detained, arrested, and charged with aiding the Gulen movement. Two were later released, while the other two remained jailed with judicial proceedings against all four continued at year’s end.
Other journalists said they were fired from their jobs or asked to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government. Some journalists working with foreign correspondents reported being pressured by their organization’s editors to avoid or stop working with those foreign journalists. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines.
The government restricted access to the internet and regularly blocked selected online content, including online newspapers and journals (see Internet Freedom).
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country. In August police confiscated the passport of Asli Erdogan, former board member and columnist for the closed pro-Kurdish daily Ozgur Gundem, as she was on her way to Germany to accept an award for her work. In September, after public pressure, authorities returned her passport. Some dual-national journalists entering the country were detained and many later deported. On February 14, German-Turkish national Deniz Yucel, a reporter for the German daily Die Welt, was detained; he remained in prison on terrorism-related charges as of year’s end.
On October 10, Wall Street Journal correspondent Ayla Albayrak was convicted of terrorist propaganda based on a story she wrote on government-PKK clashes, and was sentenced in absentia to two years and one month in prison. Her case remained under appeal at year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack. President Erdogan and AKP members sometimes verbally attacked journalists by name in response to critical reporting.
Human rights groups noted that filing terrorism-related charges was a common tool the government used to target journalists reporting on sensitive issues, particularly PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). According to center-left online news portal Bianet, between July 2016 and July, courts heard 301 cases against journalists. In these cases prosecutors requested aggravated life sentences 142 times and life sentences five times.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government due to fear of jeopardizing other business interests. For example, journalist and television presenter Irfan Degirmenci was allegedly dismissed from his job at Kanal D, owned by the Dogan Publishing Group, after he announced on social media that he would vote “no” in the April constitutional referendum on constitutional changes proposed by the ruling AKP.
Journalists affiliated or formerly with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure. Thirty-eight of the 56 individuals who worked as “solidarity” or “duty” editors of the Ozgur Gundem in 2016 faced prosecution for alleged “terror propaganda” at year’s end. On March 6, the acting editor of Ozgur Gundem, Nadire Mater, was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment and fined 15,000 lira ($3,900). Her sentence was suspended. The trials of other high-profile duty editors, including the president of the HRFT, Sebnem Korur Fincanci, and Reporters without Borders Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu, continued at year’s end.
Government officials withheld press accreditation and denied entry to the country of several journalists from France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Syria, the United Kingdom, and the United States. International journalists reported government interference in their ability to report within the country. On May 8, French photographer Mathias Depardon, while on assignment for National Geographic magazine, was arrested while working in Hasankeyf District in southeastern Batman Province on terrorism-related charges. On June 9, he was released following engagement by French authorities.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders occasionally resorted to direct censorship of news media. On January 6, a state of emergency decree authorized the government to interfere with or stop broadcasts in the event of a terror incident. Lack of compliance could result in the media outlet being closed. The government declared media blackouts on terror attacks or other sensitive issues, although many media outlets disregarded these blackouts, which were not always enforced.
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, publishing houses were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication.
The Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The TPA reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Publishers were also subject to book promotion restrictions. According to TPA’s Freedom to Publish Report for 2016-2017, the government closed 30 publishing houses. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulenist books to be credible evidence of membership in a banned organization.
Some writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, and insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. In January a court sentenced journalist Arzu Demir to six years in prison for spreading “terrorist organization propaganda” and “praising crime and criminality” for her two books, Women on the Mountains and Revolution in Rojava. Similarly, TPA reported that the government banned and confiscated Rojava: The Time for Kurds by Fehim Tastekin and History of Kurds by Aytekin Gezici.
On February 9, the government issued an emergency decree removing the Supreme Board of Election’s authority to fine or halt private radio and television broadcast outlets that violated the principle of equality, which required that broadcasters give equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that the move benefited the ruling AKP political party.
The Radio and Television Supreme Council continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.”
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media.
Authorities charged citizens, including children, with insulting Turkish leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” In January authorities forcibly returned from northern Cyprus to Turkey prominent fashion designer Barbaros Sansal following a controversial social media post he made that criticized Turkish society. As he left his plane in Istanbul, a mob, some of whom appeared to be airport staff, beat him. He was arrested the next day, charged with insulting the Turkish nation, and sentenced to six-plus months in prison. As of December 31, his appeal continued. In May historian Suleyman Yesilyurt was indicted for “insulting” Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, while appearing on a television program. On June 1, after expressing remorse and apologizing in court, he was released.
Lawmakers, mostly from the pro-Kurdish HDP, were also targeted in a significant number of insult-related cases. At year’s end nine HDP lawmakers were in prison for a variety of charges related to terrorism and political speech.
While leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, free speech advocates pointed out that the law was not applied equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted under it.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement. In December the HRA’s Adana branch reported that in 2016 and 2017, authorities opened approximately 100 criminal cases against 92 members of their association. The charges included violating meeting and demonstration laws, resisting government officers, spreading terrorist propaganda, insulting the state and praising crime and criminals. The HRA asserted the cases stemmed from an attempt to intimidate lawyers and undermine the organization’s operations.
In April a court in Sirnak Province banned the HDP’s constitutional referendum campaign song, resulting in a nationwide prohibition on the use of “Bejin ‘Na’” (“Say ‘No’”). A judge found the anthem’s lyrics to be a challenge to the indivisibility of the Turkish state. Prominent columnist Ahmet Altan and his brother, economist Mehmet Altan, both in prison on terror-related charges since September 2016 for allegedly sending coded messages to the 2016 coup plotters during a panel discussion on a television program, remained in detention at year’s end. Many observers viewed their prosecution as an effort to intimidate or silence prominent opposition voices.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used a variety of pressure tactics that limited freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. In the aftermath of curfews enacted in 2016 in response to PKK violence, some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces. In April PKK executive Cemil Bayik told media that if voters approved of AKP-proposed constitutional changes in the referendum that month, the PKK would attack Turkish security forces. PKK terrorists conducted or attempted targeted assassinations of a number of AKP and government officials in the southeast (see section 1.g.). In Van, an AKP provincial executive reported that her parents were threatened by the PKK because she worked for the AKP.
During the year internet freedom continued to worsen. The government restricted access to the internet and regularly blocked selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence that the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority.
The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2017: Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy highlighted increasing efforts by authorities to control use of virtual private networks and the use of government-employed “armies of ‘opinion shapers’” to spread progovernment views online.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including: insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; encouraging suicide, the sexual abuse of children, or the use of drugs and stimulants; providing substances dangerous to health; engaging in obscenity or prostitution; providing means for gambling; and threatening life or property. Sites may also be blocked to protect national security and public order.
The government-operated Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) is empowered to demand that internet service providers (ISPs) remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($13,500 to $135,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order.
The law also allows persons who believe a website has violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order the ISP to remove the offensive content. Government ministers may also order websites blocked, and the regulatory authority is legally compelled to comply within four hours, followed by a court order within 24 hours.
The state of emergency allowed the government expanded powers to restrict internet freedom with reduced parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that are responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The BTK is not obligated to inform content providers of ordered blocks or to explain why a block was imposed. Content providers, including Twitter and Facebook, were required to obtain an operating certificate for the country.
Government leaders, including the president, employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals accused of insulting them. According to the internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, as of October 1, the government blocked 16,089 websites during the year. Of those, 15,035 were blocked through a BTK decision and 722 by court order.
Internet access providers, including internet cafes, are required to use BTK-approved filtering tools. Additional internet restrictions operated in government and university buildings.
On April 29, the BTK banned Wikipedia from operating in the country due to two terrorism-related articles, pursuant to a law that allows filtering on national security grounds. The BTK also demanded the removal of “offensive content” and that Wikipedia open an office in the country. The organization appealed the decision, which the Supreme Court upheld on May 5. As of December, Wikipedia remained inaccessible in the country without the use of virtual private networks.
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, the company received 2,710 court orders and other legal requests from authorities to remove content in the first half of the year. According to digital news source The Daily Dot, on July 23 and again on July 25, Twitter blocked at least 12 journalists’ and three media outlets’ accounts. As of the end of September, Twitter had blocked 26 media-related accounts in the country at the government’s request.
In July authorities detained leading human rights activists and two foreign trainers during a digital security workshop for local human rights defenders. President Erdogan subsequently claimed the workshop was a “continuation” of the 2016 failed coup attempt.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
Hundreds of additional professors lost their jobs or faced charges due to political speech during the year. The Human Rights Joint Platform (HRJP) reported that, as of August 31, a total of 5,717 academics from 117 universities had been dismissed since the 2016 attempted coup under state of emergency decrees; 140 were reinstated. Those dismissed were prohibited from travelling abroad, as were spouses and children. As part of an emergency decree issued on April 29, rectors continued to require the permission of the chairman of the Higher Education Board to travel abroad. Other administrators and some professors were also required to seek permission from supervisors for foreign travel.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and that they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized legal and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies.
The state of emergency also affected arts and culture. On December 15, the Diyarbakir Governorate banned the ninth “Which Human Rights?” film festival in Diyarbakir, organized by the HRA and documentary filmmakers, without providing an explanation. On July 27, the Tunceli Governorate refused to allow the Munzur Culture and Nature Festival to take place, citing the state of emergency. In May the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality closed its arts and culture magazine, 1453 Istanbul Kultur ve Sanat, after printing a cover photo that read, “Erdo-GONE,” an apparent reference to President Erdogan. The municipality filed a criminal complaint for “disrespectful and provocative content” and canceled the contracts of editors, the editorial coordinator in charge of content, and the editor in chief. On May 16, authorities blocked the magazine’s website.