Focus on Turkey: Arbitrary Arrests and Abuse of the Legal System

Focus on Turkey: Arbitrary Arrests and Abuse of the Legal System

The precarious state of press freedom in Turkey, entwined with a deteriorating democratic environment, poses significant challenges to journalists. Increasingly they face arbitrary arrests, legal threats, and increasing violence in their pursuit of reporting truth.

In response to these threats, the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), our partner, actively defends press freedom and human rights through legal defence, advocating for journalists’ rights, and setting crucial legal precedents for a more democratic future.

We spoke with, journalist, and co-founder and co-director of MLSA, Barış Altıntaş, about her experience, MLSA’s crucial work and the situation for journalists in Turkey.

Hello, Barış. Thank you for speaking with us today. How do you see the current situation for press freedom in Turkey?

The situation for press freedom in Turkey is tied with the general situation of democracy in the country. Democracy has been spiralling fast since 2013. This has been exacerbated by the rule by emergency law following the 2016 coup attempt, and a transition to a presidential system which eradicated separation of powers. As I answer this question, the Turkish Parliament unlawfully abnegated the parliamentary membership status of an elected deputy in prison despite a Constitutional Court ruling twice for his release and his immediate return to Parliament.

With the judiciary under the full control of an increasingly autocratic president, journalists have been the first and most targeted under these conditions. Currently 37 journalists are in prison for their reporting, 315 journalists appeared before courts over the past 12 months in relation to their critical reporting – particularly on alleged corruption involving the president and his family and the ruling AKP party elite. The government-controlled TV and radio watchdog RTÜK has dealt fines amounting to hundreds of thousands of lira to critical news stations – a few of which remain. Hundreds of outlets were shut down after the coup attempt, and the few that remain struggle with government pressure and finances.

Journalists, particularly those reporting from Kurdish outlets, are routinely arrested as part of intimidation operations at every critical political turn, such as elections. Censorship of online news has become rather institutionalised through changes to internet regulation laws. Yet, despite all these conditions we still have a lot of journalists everywhere investigating and reporting on government illegalities and crimes. This is an important source of hope and should Turkey make better decisions in the future, there is still a very good foundation for resilience and returning to a more democratic press environment.

What trends are you seeing in relation to the threats journalists are facing in the country?

Arbitrary arrests for questioning the official narrative

In terms of legal threats, we are seeing an increased tendency to punish journalists for questioning the official narrative. For example, the law on “intentionally spreading false information”, was used extensively to this end. At least 40 journalists were either investigated, or faced charges over these and there were three arrests.

The first arrest was that of Sinan Aygül, a local Bitlis journalist who reported on an alleged sexual assault of a minor by a powerful person in the area; the second came during the earthquake, when two local journalists from the quake-stricken town of Osmaniye exposed hundreds of tents in the municipality’s warehouse not being distributed to disaster victims. And lastly, veteran court journalist Tolga Şardan was detained for a couple of days for writing on corruption inside the judiciary, where judges were proven to accept bribes in return for acquittals.

Using anti-terror laws to silence government critics

Another trend we see is the usage of Turkey’s anti-terror laws – particularly the 1st paragraph of Article 6, which criminalises exposing information about a government official involved in counterterrorism efforts. This has been used extensively over the past few years for journalists naming prosecutors or judges – who are not counterterrorism officials in any shape or form – in their reports. This past year, a Kurdish journalist in Ankara was jailed for 100 days for reporting on the appointment of a judge and prosecutor – a married couple – who were unlawfully assigned to the same case. The report and all the information came from the Official Gazette, an open source and very much a public document. Another journalist, also a court reporter, was held for over a week for publishing courtroom minutes – again an entirely public document – in his report.

Increased abuse of the legal system to intimidate journalists

These are just a few examples, but we can say that at this time the “grave accusations” that we saw in the few years after the coup attempt are now being replaced by “lesser” accusations, but the courts are using them in worse ways. For example, nobody had ever been jailed under the above “counterterrorism official targeting” law until 2023. The Counterterrorism Law was adopted in 1991! And certainly, the abuse of “membership” laws and laws that punish “aiding a terror group without its membership” continue, despite a Constitutional Court ruling that canceled one of the two articles for aiding without membership.

Outside the legal sphere, we are also concerned about increasing violence. For example, the local Bitlis journalist mentioned above was beaten harshly this year by a local mayor’s bodyguards for his reporting. The attackers were let go after a week or so in prison. Later, they sued the journalist for “insult”, and the journalist — who still hasn’t fully recovered physically — was given a fine for insult.

What actions do you believe are needed to improve the situation?

Prioritising human rights

At this point, we need more advocacy with the European Union and the US and pressure on them to change their priorities regarding Turkey. We need a new understanding that prioritizes human rights and people over profits or short-terms geo-strategic goals. Working with the existing institutions outside the European Union, such as available UN or Council of Europe mechanisms is also still effective. The departure of Russia from the Council has proven that for Turkey-based activists, it can still be seen as a silver lining.

Overcoming polarisation

Secondly, civil society in Turkey should continue their work on defending journalists, and excellent legal support remains crucial, despite all that is going on. We also encourage more solidarity and a common stance against divide-and-conquer-minded autocrats. Journalists and press groups should be able to leave aside ideological differences and come together; this is the only weapon against polarisation – which is fodder for governments like ours.

In connection with the second point, human rights lawyers and jurists should perhaps be reminded that human rights struggle is a long-term fight. One concerning point is the fatigue and discouragement we see in some colleagues in Turkey, which is understandable but there seems to be a need to increase programs where decades-long fights for justice are reminded or taught, either from the legal sphere or other activism sphere. Fighting evil is not easy, and sometimes amidst the thick of it, one might forget this seemingly obvious fact.

Working collectively across borders

Thirdly, we strongly believe in international solutions and coming together with jurists, activists and others from problem countries – whether they are in exile or on the ground. Working together has proven very good on different levels.

Could you tell me about a case or that MLSA has been working on to resist these worrying trends in the decline of press freedom?

There are plenty of cases we have conducted that can be counted as push-back cases. We can say that all our legal unit’s activities from representation (we have 173 clients, 83 percent of whom are journalists) to strategic cases, work to this purpose. Just last month, we represented 10 journalists in court, many of whom were acquitted.

Setting important precedents

In a most recent example, last week two news websites – one that is of Podcast Kurdi, a Kurdish language podcast and news outlets and – a local news website broadcasting from Van – were removed. Both outlets and their journalists are MLSA clients, and the ban was lifted after a Constitutional Court decision for their removal.

Many of our journalists, Such as Deniz Yücel and Cemil Uğur, have been vindicated by the Constitutional Court which found rights violations, also leading to a number of good decisions which will be very valuable, should Turkey choose to return to democracy in future.

Preventing the ban of photographing protests

In the previous years, MLSA’s legal unit has fought administrative battles that led to the cancellation of a directive which would have banned journalists from taking pictures during protests and demonstrations. In another case, one stay of execution appeal we filed against a Presidential Decree did not really conclude in our favor but perhaps more importantly, the Council of State ruling found that the “presidential decree had no legal meaning”. It was a rejection that was actually vindicating, strangely enough.

Challenging internet shutdowns and the mass data leak

Sometimes not getting results is an act of a push back. MLSA was the only organisation that took to justice an internet shutdown that lasted for 9 hours on the second day of the massive earthquakes of February 2022. We were also the only organization to take to court a massive data leak that had more than 100 million people’s data – all of Turkey’s citizens and foreigners registered in the state. Every initiative adds to the bigger commitment to the fight for a democracy and a life of dignity, and a reminder that we will not give up.

Keeping freedom of expression cases on the political agenda

Lastly, we regularly contribute to a mechanism (called Rule 9.2) whereby we inform Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers about the situation of the justice system in Turkey and we have convinced – using data from our Trial Monitoring programs and our Legal Unit’s work – the Committee of Ministers to keep problematic legal practices regarding freedom of expression cases on the agenda, despite the government insisting that all of the concerns raised by the European Court of Human Rights have been resolved.

If you are a journalist facing legal threats because of your work, apply for our support here.

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