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Urgent measures are needed to restore freedom of expression in Turkey

“The space for democratic debate in Turkey has shrunk alarmingly following increased judicial harassment of large strata of society, including journalists, members of parliament, academics and ordinary citizens, and government action which has reduced pluralism and led to self-censorship. This deterioration came about in a very difficult context, but neither the attempted coup, nor other terrorist threats faced by Turkey can justify measures that infringe media freedom and disavow the rule of law to such an extent. The authorities should urgently change course by overhauling criminal legislation and practice, re-develop judicial independence and reaffirm their commitment to protect free speech” said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, while publishing a Memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey based on the findings of two visits to the country that he conducted in April and September 2016.

The Commissioner regrets that tangible progress concerning media freedom and freedom of expression which was painstakingly achieved by Turkey in co-operation with the Council of Europe, was halted and reversed in recent years, leading to an already alarming situation at the time of the Commissioner’s visit in April 2016. “In particular, the overly wide application of the concepts of terrorist propaganda and support for a terrorist organisation, including to statements and persons that clearly do not incite violence, and its combination with an overuse of defamation, has put Turkey on a very dangerous path. Legitimate dissent and criticism of government policy is vilified and repressed, thus shrinking the scope of democratic public debate and polarising society.” This situation has significantly worsened under the on-going state of emergency which confers almost limitless discretionary powers to the Turkish executive to apply sweeping measures, including against the media and NGOs, without any evidentiary requirement, in the absence of judicial decisions and on the basis of vague criteria of alleged “connection” to a terrorist organization.

Media pluralism and independence, in particular, have been casualties of these developments characterised notably by the use of state resources to favour pro-governmental media, pervasive internet censorship, arbitrary exclusion of media and journalists, takeover or closure of media outlets critical to the authorities, violence and reprisals against media workers and the incarceration of over 150 journalists.

The Commissioner also underscores that this deterioration goes hand-in-hand with the erosion of the independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary. “While this problem affects the whole judiciary, it is in particular the role of the criminal judges of peace that is the most concerning, because these formations have transformed into an instrument of judicial harassment to stifle opposition and legitimate criticism and are now at the origin of some of the most obvious violations of the right to freedom of expression.”

The Commissioner urges the Turkish political leaders in the strongest possible terms to change course and to display the responsibility and tolerance expected in a democratic society. They must redevelop the political will necessary to tackle the very long-standing systemic issues suppressing freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and finally execute the numerous judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, some of which date decades back.

“A first step is to lift the current state of emergency and reverse the numerous unacceptable infringements of freedom of expression, and in particular media freedom and academic freedom, that it engendered. In addition, the Turkish authorities must completely overhaul the Criminal Code and the Anti-Terrorism Law so as to align law and practice with the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. Beyond these deficiencies, it is crucial to change a judicial culture where judges and prosecutors interpret and apply laws in a way that consistently undermines freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey.”

Strasbourg 15/02/2017
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