a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the 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 insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists during the preceding three years hindered freedom of speech and that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for a 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.
The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. According to a poll by Reuters conducted in 2018 as part of its Digital News Report: Turkey Supplementary Report, 65 percent of respondents in Turkey stated, “…concern that openly expressing their views online could get them into trouble with the authorities.”
Expression critical of the government was frequently met with criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups or terrorism. In October, during Operation Peace Spring, the government launched investigations against more than 800 individuals largely for social media posts deemed critical of government actions in northeast Syria. The Ministry of Interior reported in the same month it had detained 186 and arrested 24 individuals based on charges related to support for terror because of their social media posts.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. Based on HRA and HRFT statistics, during the first 11 months of the year, the government investigated more than 36,000 individuals and filed criminal cases against more than 6,000 people related to accusations they insulted the president or the state. In May a court sentenced construction worker Deniz Avci to two years’ imprisonment for insulting the president after he shared two cartoons depicting President Erdogan on social media. Avci’s lawyer noted the government had not opened any lawsuits against the cartoons’ creator or publisher.
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied. The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons who have been issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, or other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government often categorized imprisoned journalists from Kurdish-language outlets or alleged pro-Gulen publications as “terrorists,” alleging ties to the PKK and the Gulen movement. Information about and access to the imprisoned staff of some of these outlets was therefore limited, further contributing to disparities in tallies of jailed journalists.
Estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists ranged from at least 47 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to 136 according to the International Press Institute (IPI). The majority faced charges related to antistate reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
An unknown number of 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 more than 200 media companies allegedly affiliated with the PKK or Gulen movement, mostly in 2016-17, as part of its response to the 2016 coup attempt.
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 those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment.
On September 6, an Istanbul court sentenced Republican People’s Party (CHP) Istanbul chairperson Canan Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting the republic” and “insulting the president” for tweets she shared between 2012 and 2017. She remained free pending a legal appeal at years’ end.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits 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 2, the Diyarbakir public prosecutor requested charges be filed against former Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen and the former members of the bar’s executive board for violating Article 301 of the penal code, the article that criminalizes, among other things, openly provoking hatred and hostility and insulting parliament. The charges stemmed from a statement the Diyarbakir Bar Association released on April 24, 2017, saying, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in enhanced caution in their public reporting.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters Without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most-watched television stations and most-read national daily newspapers. Only a small fraction of the holding 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.
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. In April 2018, 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet, were convicted of aiding terrorist organizations, citing their reporting as part of the evidence against the accused, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years. The court placed the journalists on probation and banned them from traveling abroad until the appeals process concluded. In April six defendants returned to prison after an appeals court upheld their convictions. Following a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in September that dismissed most of the cases, only one former staff member remained jailed, but travel bans on the others remained in place. The original court set aside the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling and held a retrial for 13 of the original defendants in November, acquitting one and ruling against the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision for the other 12. The case continued at year’s end as the defendants appealed the decision.
Additional journalists whose detentions were considered politically motivated included four journalists and editors who had worked for the now-closed, Gulen-linked Zaman newspaper. Authorities arrested the four in 2016, and they remained in detention on terrorism and coup-related charges. International human rights organizations condemned the sentences of six other journalists sentenced to aggravated life prison sentences on February 16 for alleged links to the 2016 coup attempt. On July 6, courts convicted an additional six journalists associated with the closed Zaman newspaper of terrorism-related charges and sentenced them to between eight and more than 10 years’ imprisonment.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country. For example, after serving three months in prison for “membership in a terror organization” and being acquitted in December 2018 due to lack of evidence, Austrian journalist and student Max Zringast remained under judicial control and was barred from leaving the country.
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.
In a spate of violence during the spring, six journalists from various outlets across the country were attacked in the space of five weeks. In May six individuals attacked Yenicag newspaper columnist Yavuz Demirag, ostensibly because they disagreed with his reporting. All three were released after questioning by authorities. In another attack in May, three individuals who attacked journalist Selahattin Onkibar were released under judicial control. The Turkish Journalists Union criticized the lack of investigations and blamed the increase in attacks against journalists on a sense of impunity on the part of those responsible for attacks.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against an individual or publication in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public. In November reporters Ruken Demir (Mesopotamia Agency) and Melike Aydın (Jinnews) were placed in pretrial detention pending a hearing on charges of supporting a terrorist organization that reportedly stemmed from the content of their reporting.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of news media, online media, and books. The Ministry of Interior disclosed that, between January 1 and April 9, it examined 10,250 social media accounts and took legal action against more than 3,600 users whom it accused of propagandizing or promoting terror organizations, inciting persons to enmity and hostility, or insulting state institutions. Media professionals widely reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation and risks of criminal and civil charges.
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 the country’s largest bookstore chain, D&R, removed some books from its shelves and did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The 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. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases authorities directly banned books because of objectionable content. For example, in September a court in Kars banned two books related to Kurds or “Kurdistan” for promoting “a terrorist organization.”
In July an Ankara court ordered domestic internet service providers to block in-country access to 135 web addresses representing a wide variety of platforms, including the independent news site Ozgur Gelecek (see Internet Freedom).
The government’s efforts to control media continued. A July report by Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (a think tank with close ties to the ruling AKP) identified some foreign media outlets reporting from the country (e.g., BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Voice of America) as “antigovernment” and “proterrorism” for stories the organization deemed too critical of the Turkish government or promoting terrorist-related perspectives. In response the Turkish Journalists Union filed a complaint about the report, stating that it made the outlets and their correspondents “public targets.” Other critics and free speech advocates, including the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, asserted the publication laid the groundwork for greater suppression of foreign reporting and correspondents.
Some journalists reported their employers fired them or asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. Failure to comply typically resulted in a dismissal, with media groups occasionally citing “financial reasons” as a blanket cause for termination.
Some writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Media and Law Studies Association codirector and lawyer Veysel Ok and reporter Cihan Acar were sentenced to five months’ imprisonment on the charge of “degrading the judicial bodies of the state.” The lawsuit was based on an interview Ok gave to the newspaper Ozgur Dusunce in which he questioned the independence of the judiciary.
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that the media generally favored the ruling AKP political party, including during the March municipal elections (see section 3).
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” For example, RTUK sanctioned television channel TELE1 for broadcasting a speech made by HDP cochair Sezai Temelli in parliament. As of August RTUK’s authority extended to online broadcasters as well. Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. Civil society organizations reported concerns about the high cost of the license and requirement to obtain vetting certification from local police.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). According to press reports, convictions for insulting the president increased 13-fold between 2016 and the end of the year. 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 outlets.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” For example, in July a court of appeals sentenced famous local singer and actress Zuhal Olcay to 11 months and 20 days in prison for allegedly insulting the president in a song at a concert.
The government also targeted lawmakers, mostly from the pro-Kurdish HDP, with a significant number of insult-related cases. As of December at least 4,912 HDP lawmakers, executives, and party members had been arrested since July 2016 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 government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2018 the government launched 36,660 investigations against at least 6,320 individuals related to insulting the president, including 104 children between the ages of 12 and 15. Comprehensive government figures for 2019 were unavailable at year’s end.
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, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
In one example in July, two filmmakers were sentenced to four years, six months in prison for their 2015 documentary movie, Bakur, about the PKK. According to the court, the documentary was “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Many observers, however, viewed the prosecution as an example of the government using antiterror laws to limit freedom of expression.
Prominent columnist Ahmet Altan remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and received an aggravated life sentence in February 2018. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned his life imprisonment sentence in July and recommended he face the lesser charge of “aiding a terrorist organization.” In November the court convicted Altan on the lesser charge but ordered his release for time served. He was released on November 4 but rearrested on November 12 following the prosecutor’s objection to his release. Economist Mehmet Altan was previously convicted, along with his brother Ahmet, on terror-related charges for allegedly sending coded messages to the 2016 coup plotters during a panel discussion on a television program. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdict against Mehmet Altan due to a lack of sufficient and credible evidence, and he was acquitted in the retrial.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in June a criminal court in Istanbul accepted an indictment charging two Bloomberg News reporters for their coverage of the country’s economy, alleging that their reports had undermined the country’s economic stability. If convicted, they could face as many as five years in prison.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. 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.