TOHAV & The Fight for Freedom of Expression in Turkey – by Esma Yasar

TOHAV & The Fight for Freedom of Expression in Turkey – by Esma Yasar

This article was written by Esma Yasar, a Kurdish lawyer working for Media Defence’s partner organisation TOHAV. Esma Yasar took part in Media Defence’s fellowship programme, which hosts human rights lawyers from our funded partner organisations all over the world.

Freedom of Expression and Press Freedom in Turkey

Turkey is one of the most restrictive countries for media freedom amongst the Council of Europe member states. Two pressures are primarly tightening the possibility for press freedom. Firstly, too often, journalists in Turkey are prosecuted and punished for their journalistic activities. Secondly, numerous court decisions have blocked the public from accessing online news platforms. This blocking has occurred alongside social media restrictions and newspaper bans. Justifications for such restrictions often include national security and public order.

Turkey’s government has also recently passed a new law aimed at preventing disinformation. Worryingly, the vague-worded law prescribes three years in prison for anyone who publishes “misleading information” with the intent of instigating fear or endangering the country’s security and public order. The law seriously risks silencing, intimidating, suppressing, and punishing journalists, dissidents, and minorities. It will jeopardise the right to freedom of expression and access to public interest information, for both journalists and the general public.


The Foundation for Society and Legal Studies (TOHAV) was founded in Istanbul in 1994 by 46 human rights lawyers. The lawyers established the organisation in response to the frequent and severe human rights violations and enforced disappearances occurring during police custody in Turkey at the time.

TOHAV is an impartial, non-governmental, civil society organisation. Currently, the foundation has approximately 200 members. In addition to its members, there are hundreds of volunteer lawyers located throughout Turkey who support the Foundation’s work. TOHAV is one of the only non-governmental organisations whose members and volunteers are all lawyers.

Since its establishment, TOHAV has focused on researching, reporting, and documenting serious and systematic human rights violations. In doing so, the Foundation examines contexts in which violations take place, and identifies where the violations stem from in order to bring an end to them. TOHAV also provides legal and medical support to victims.

As part of its ongoing activities, TOHAV monitors and analyses laws, regulations and administrative orders that are incompatible with international norms. It critiques leqislation that does not abide to human rights standards, and challenges this legislation through litigation.

One of TOHAV’s main areas of work is minority rights, and the fight against discrimination. Minority groups are the most vulnerable and targeted groups in Turkey. These include, but are not limited to, the Kurds, Yezidis, women, LGBTQ+, immigrants and non-Muslim communities.

TOHAV and the support it gives to journalists

Following the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, the government declared a state of emergency. The state of emergency lasted for two years, during which the government issued 37 Statutory Decrees. Many of these laws restricted fundamental rights and freedoms, and have left journalists pressured by the judiciary under the guise of national security purposes.

In response to the consequent increase in rights violations, TOHAV has started to provide legal support to journalists being prosecuted as a result of their journalistic activities. TOHAV has been collaborating with Media Defence on some of these cases.

TOHAV & Media Defence

Considering the current situation in Turkey, the support given TOHAV by Media Defence is invaluable. With the support of Media Defence, TOHAV is able to defend journalists under pressure for their reporting. Not only does this have a positive impact on the lives of journalists, but it also contributes to the realisation of a world where everyone has the right to freedom of expression.

Moreover, it has been valuable for me to be a part of Media Defence for the past two months as part of its fellowship programme. The dynamic energy and kindness of the team has made my adaptation process a lot easier. I think that the knowledge I have gained thanks to Media Defence will be very useful in my future work. I would like to thank Media Defence both on behalf of TOHAV and personally for the support and opportunities provided to us.


Read our interview with TOHAV lawyer Hanifi Baris here.

Read our interview with MLSA lawyer Veysel Ok here.

If you are a journalist in need of support as a result of your reporting, please click here.


Recent News

Guardians of the Amazon: Abraji and FLIP’s Joint Report on Journalism in the Region

Our partners, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) and the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) have joined forces to address the challenges facing journalism in the Amazon, one of the most difficult regions to cover due to its natural density and the intersection of legal and illegal economic interests. For this report, the two […]


Meet the Team: Chloe Pethick, MEL Officer

Can you tell us a little about yourself? I’m Chloe Pethick, and I joined Media Defence in February 2024 as the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Officer. I hold a BA in Russian and International Relations, and an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies, so I’ve previously had quite a strong regional focus. Prior to joining […]


World Press Freedom Day Side Event: Profiling and surveillance, a renewed challenge to freedom of expression

From May 2-4 2024, UNESCO and the government of Chile will host the 31st edition of World Press Freedom Day in Santiago. The global commemorative conference commemorates the vital role of journalism and information access in fostering a sustainable future that upholds diversity of voices. Media Defence is organising a side event at the conference […]