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Memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey of the Council of Europe: The space for democratic debate in Turkey has shrunk alarmingly.

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Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Nils Muižnieks, published a “Memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey” on February 15 this year, based on an official visit to Turkey in the period from 6 to 14 April last year.

In a press release of the Council of Europe that was sent to us, the Commissioner expressed regret that the tangible progress concerning media freedom and freedom of expression which was painstakingly achieved by Turkey in cooperation with the Council of Europe, was halted and reversed in recent years. It was stressed that the wide application of the concepts of terrorist propaganda and support for a terrorist organisation, including statements and persons that clearly do not incite violence, has put Turkey on a very dangerous path.

This situation has significantly worsened under the state of emergency which confers almost limitless discretionary powers to the Turkish executive to apply certain measures against the media and NGOs, without any requirement, judicial decision and on the basis of vague criteria of alleged “connection” to a terrorist organisation.

Media pluralism and independence have been casualties of these developments, said the Commissioner, primarily because of favouring pro-governmental media, pervasive internet censorship, closure of media outlets critical to the authorities, violence against media workers and the incarceration of over 150 journalists.

Gaëlle Bausson from press office of the Council of Europe sent us the official statement of Nils Muižnieks, author of the memorandum and Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe:

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-censorhip. 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, Nils Muižnieks.

In the memorandum, the Commissioner stated the erosion of the independence of the Turkish judiciary as one of the important issues that go hand in hand

with the deterioration of media freedom. While this problem affects the whole judiciary, it is in particular the role of the criminal judges of peace that is the most concerning, Muižnieks says.

Therefore, the Commissioner called upon the Turkish political leaders to change course and to display the responsibility and tolerance expected in a democratic society. He asked for the redevelopment of the political will necessary to tackle the long-standing systematic issues that are suppressing freedom of expression in the country.

Furthermore, he emphasised that the Turkish authorities must completely overhaul the Criminal Code and the Anti-Terrorism Law so as to align them with the practice of the European Court of Human Rights. Also, it is crucial to change a judicial culture where judges and prosecutors interpret and apply laws in a way that undermines freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey, he states.

The response of Turkey to the memorandum was written in the expected tone. In the response, it is stated that freedom of expression and media freedom represent the basis of Turkish democracy. “The Constitution guarantees the right to express and disseminate thoughts and opinions without interference by official authorities as well as the freedom of the media. It provides that no one shall be blamed or accused because of his/her thoughts and opinions”, it is stated in the response.

Also, they commented on the closing of media outlets, highlighting that those media outlets and organisations made publications “as per instructions of the founder and the executives of terrorist organisations in order to achieve their illegal goals“. Investigations that are being conducted against journalists aren’t prompted by their journalistic work, rather their support of and links with terrorist organisations, it is stated in the response. Also, its added that Turkey is a state based on the rule of law and its commitment and political will to uphold the core values of the Council of Europe – human rights, democracy and rule of law – is indisputable.

The fact that since the coup attempt attacks on media workers and media houses have drastically increased and that in the meantime almost every media house that didn’t take on a pro-government attitude became a target, does not go in favour of the aforementioned claims. Nor do the pressures of the Turkish authorities from which neither Turkish nor Kurdish foreign media were spared of, as well as the fact that in the majority of the cases the charges are based on allegations that are at best indications. According to Reporter Without Borders, just in the first six weeks of the state of emergency more than 100 media houses were closed down; due to this more than 2300 journalists and media workers were left without a job, while a large number of them ended up in prison.

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