Despite improvements made by the Fourth and Fifth Judicial Packages, the penal code and antiterror law still contain multiple articles that restrict freedom of speech and the press. International and domestic human rights organizations expressed particular concern over what they regarded as an overly broad definition of terrorism under the antiterror law and its disproportionate use by authorities against members of the press, academics, students, and members of the political opposition. Human rights monitors also emphasized that the penal code contains multiple articles that directly restrict press freedom and free speech, for example, through inclusion of provisions on praising a crime or criminal, inciting the population to enmity or hatred and denigration, and protecting public order.
On March 3, the parliament approved a law known as the Democratization Package that introduced an article on hate speech or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Perpetrators of these acts may be punished by up to three years in prison.
Authorities indicted journalists on numerous grounds, including for refusing to provide information about their sources and investigations; taking part in antigovernment plots; being members of outlawed political groups; attempting to influence the judiciary; insulting the Turkish nation, the Turkish Republic, its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or organs and institutions of the state; and discouraging individuals from doing their military service.
Prosecutors filed criminal lawsuits against those who allegedly organized or supported the 2013 Gezi Park protests via their Twitter and Facebook accounts. In Izmir, in February, 29 persons were charged with inciting riots based on tweets they had sent during the Gezi Park protests informing followers about places where first aid was provided or reporting police violence during the crackdown. The charges named then prime minister Erdogan as the sole victim in the crime, which carried a three-year prison term. On September 22, the court acquitted 27 of the defendants but convicted Egemen Ciynekli for tweeting insults online. The court fined Ciynekli 8,100 lira ($3,600). The trial of one other defendant, Efecan Karakas, continued at year’s end.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government continued to restrict expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. Active debates on human rights and government policies continued in the public sphere, particularly relating to political Islam, Kurds, and the history of the Turkish-Armenian conflict at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Government critics and human rights associations acknowledged that open debate on some topics, most notably Kurdish and Armenian issues, was more accepted than it was a decade ago; nonetheless, many who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics involving the ruling party risked investigation. Some opinion leaders reported they exercised self-censorship.
The penal code criminalizes insults to the Turkish nation. The Ministry of Justice reported receiving 251 complaints brought under this law through July 31, of which it rejected 117. In one example, Filiz Akinci, who allegedly made a rude hand gesture and shouted at then prime minister Erdogan as he passed her house during a campaign visit to Izmir on March 16, was charged with insulting a leader. The prosecution asked for up to two years’ imprisonment. After a first hearing on September 9, the trial remained pending.
Press Freedoms: The print media was privately owned and active. Hundreds of private newspapers spanning the political spectrum published in numerous languages, including Kurdish, Armenian, Arabic, English, and Farsi. Conglomerates or holding companies, many of which had interests before the government on a range of business matters--including billions of dollars in government construction, energy, or communications contracts--owned an increasing share of media outlets. Only a fraction of these companies’ profits came from media revenue, and other commercial interests may have impeded media independence and encouraged a climate of self-censorship. The concentration of media ownership influenced the content of reporting and limited the scope of public debate.
The High Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) registered and licensed a large number of privately owned television and radio stations that operated on local, regional, and national levels. In addition privately owned television channels operated on cable networks, and the RTUK granted licenses for 245 television channels, 139 cable television channels, and 1,022 radio stations. The wide availability of satellite dishes and cable television allowed the public access to foreign broadcasts, including several Kurdish-language private channels.
The RTUK allowed radio and television stations to broadcast in Uighur, Laz, and Kurdish (both the Kurmanci and Zaza dialects) during the year.
Several organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Freedom House, reported authorities continued to abuse the antiterror law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Although the Fourth Judicial Reform Package provides that with few exceptions, persons convicted of “promoting terrorism propaganda” would no longer automatically receive additional punishment for being members of a terrorist organization, human rights advocates noted that the reform had not resulted in substantial numbers of prison releases. The Fifth Judicial Reform Package took additional steps to reduce pretrial detention time and abolish the special courts used to try individuals charged under the antiterror law. Human rights groups, however, asserted the reforms fell short of bringing the country’s laws in line with international human rights standards on freedom of expression.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters in the social media space attempted to silence opposing media voices by criticizing them and subjecting them to personal attacks. In May, Der Spiegel recalled its Istanbul reporter due to death threats after his reporting on the Soma mine disaster, and police briefly detained CNN’s Istanbul correspondent, Ivan Watson, during his live broadcast of demonstrations in Istanbul on the anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. The next day then prime minister Erdogan accused Watson of being an “agent” in a widely televised speech.
President Erdogan frequently attacked journalists by name in response to critical reporting. In August, while campaigning, Erdogan targeted Economist journalist Amberin Zaman over her remarks on Muslim society in a television program; Erdogan called her a “shameless militant disguised as a journalist” and told her to “know your place, you shameless woman.” In September, Ceylan Yeginsu, a New York Times reporter based in Istanbul, had her photograph published on the front pages of progovernment newspapers and received thousands of threatening online messages after President Erdogan took issue with a story she had written. Human rights and press freedom activists asserted authorities filed numerous civil and criminal complaints against journalists, authors, and publishers for ideological reasons under various laws that restrict media freedom.
Pressure on journalists took more direct forms as well. In February, Today’s Zaman daily newspaper correspondent Mahir Zeynelov, an Azerbaijani, was deported, reportedly due to his critical tweets about then prime minister Erdogan. In April authorities deported another Azerbaijani journalist, Rauf Mirkadirov, for no stated reason and without the opportunity for appeal. He was met by security officers at the airport in Baku, where he was arrested for treason. In March authorities detained Onder Aytac, a columnist for the left-leaning Taraf daily newspaper, reportedly due to government concerns he had received leaked information from the Foreign Ministry.
Authorities at times also ordered raids on newspaper offices, temporarily closed newspapers, issued fines, or confiscated newspapers for violating speech codes. Government officials and political leaders made statements throughout the year that appeared intended to influence media content, including but not limited to news coverage.
Five media organizations (T24, sendika.org, haber.sol.org.tr, gercekgundem.com, and Cumhuriyet.com.tr) reported that authorities threatened to close their websites if they did not remove content the government found objectionable. On September 30, police raided the office of a small online news website, karsigazete.com, in Istanbul. The editor in chief of karsigazete.com told media that police demanded removal of a website article providing information related to the December 17 corruption allegations, which they refused to do. The editor interpreted the raid as police intimidation. Within the day the organization’s website was blocked.
A report released in July by the Journalists Association in Ankara stated the RTUK issued fines to intimidate media organs opposed to the government. The association alleged this was outside of the council’s main duty of supervising and monitoring televised broadcasts and amounted to harassment.
Some individuals identified as journalists remained in prison, most charged under the antiterror law for connections to an illegal organization or for participation in antigovernment plots. The CPJ and other NGOs reported that since December 2013, 29 journalists were released from prison, most due to the Fifth Judicial Reform Package’s reduction in the maximum time allowed for pretrial detention to five years. As of October 3, there were seven journalists reportedly still in prison, down from a high in 2012 of 61. The CPJ noted many of the journalists who had been released from prison still faced charges and could potentially be incarcerated again, encouraging them to continue practicing self-censorship. In contrast the news organization Bianet stated that 23 journalists remained in prison as of July, and the HRF reported that 22 journalists remained in prison. The ministry asserted that these persons’ crimes were not related to journalism but rather ordinary or petty crimes. In September the Ministry of Justice reported that 20 convicts and one detainee claimed they were members of the press. On December 14, authorities detained more than 20 members of the media in raids that appeared to target media outlets openly critical of the government. Those detained included Zaman chief editor Ekrem Dumanli and Samanyolu Media Group head Hidayet Karaca. The majority were released pending trial.
On May 8, Bianet further reported that the Istanbul 20th High Criminal Court released journalists Fusun Erdogan, Bayram Namaz, Ibrahim Cicek, and four other defendants jailed in 2006 and sentenced in November 2013 to life imprisonment; the four were charged with attempting to “overthrow the constitutional order” by violence and of membership in an outlawed Marxist party.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders occasionally resorted to direct censorship of news media. For example, the government imposed an outright ban on news coverage of 46 Turkish citizens taken hostage by ISIL in Mosul. After two police sergeants were killed in an attack that targeted a provincial police chief in the eastern province of Bingol on October 9, authorities banned coverage of the investigation and subsequent actions. On November 25, an Ankara court banned reporting on a parliamentary inquiry into corruption allegations involving four former ministers who were still serving as parliamentarians. In an affirmative response to the request for the ban, the prosecutor mentioned the need for “preventing harm to personal rights and protecting the reputation and other rights of former ministers.”
Progovernment media often appeared to coordinate editorial decisions, as when all progovernment television stations cut away from live coverage of opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as he prepared to give a speech about December 17 corruption allegations. In February an audio recording was leaked of then prime minister Erdogan allegedly telephoning a television news editor and ordering him to remove a news ticker about a political opponent. Pressure through tax and regulatory bodies to threaten the economic interests of media owners compelled the sale of media outlets by independent or mainstream-oriented owners to allies of the ruling party.
With the passage of the Fifth Judicial Package, legacy lists of banned publications were eliminated. Printing houses, however, were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. Media activists reported that as a means of censorship, the Ministry of Culture sometimes denied approval of a barcode required for all publications. According to the TNP, through August 15, decisions were underway in the cases of 460 confiscated publications, including 52 newspapers, 197 journals, 33 banners, 118 books, nine bulletins, and 51 other types of written communication.
The Turkish Publishers Association reported publishers often exercised self-censorship to avoid legal action by avoiding works with controversial content. The association also reported that book inspection committees were set up widely in public schools and that school administrators closely monitored book recommendations, increasingly limiting students to books approved by the state. The association described cases in which teachers who shared unapproved literature with students, even at the university level, faced investigation.
Writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, and insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against myriad publications and publishers during the year.
Observers also reported that with the consolidation of media outlets under a few conglomerates that had other business interests, media entities increasingly practiced self-censorship to remain eligible for government contracts. Human rights organizations such as Freedom House noted companies with media outlets critical of the government were targeted in tax investigations and forced to pay fines. Journalists reported media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government over fears of jeopardizing other business interests. Examples of such firings over the previous year included the firing of columnist Nazli Ilicak by Sabah and the resignations of Hurriyet editor in chief Enis Berberoglu and Haberturk daily newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, Erdal Sen. Bianet reported that 384 journalists were laid off or forced to resign in the year ending June. The opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) released a report in October claiming 1,863 journalists had been fired or dismissed from their jobs since the ruling AKP came to power in 2002. The government also reportedly withheld accreditation for controversial journalists or select media outlets.
Libel Laws/National Security: Observers reported government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents from voicing criticism. The antiterror law and the penal code had the greatest impact in limiting free expression. Hundreds of journalists faced criminal charges, many of them multiple counts, for violations of the criminal code, including “denigrating Turkishness” or influencing the outcome of a trial as well as for offenses related to the antiterror law.
On January 20, then prime minister Erdogan won a libel suit against author Ihsan Eliacik, who had accused him of being “a dictator, a corrupt leader, provocateur, liar, and arrogant” on his Twitter account in June 2013. Erdogan was awarded 2,000 lira ($890) in damages. According to a Wall Street Journal article, after just two years in power, Erdogan had initiated 57 defamation lawsuits and won 21 of them, receiving awards the equivalent of $440,000 in compensation. The government has not released an update to the number of libel lawsuits in process or of specific libel lawsuits filed by the president or other national leaders. In April, the Radikal news publication reported that then prime minister Erdogan appeared as a plaintiff in 503 complaint files in the Ankara Public Prosecution Office. Most of the files were for social media messages deemed “insulting or threatening” to the then prime minister. The newspaper reported that the prosecutor’s office was trying to identify the offenders from their internet protocol addresses; if they were residing in the country, the prosecutor would immediately open a criminal case against them.
The government maintained restrictions on internet access. Internet law allows the government to prohibit a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any of eight crimes: insulting Ataturk, engaging in obscenity, engaging in prostitution, gambling, encouraging suicide, encouraging sexual abuse of children, encouraging drug abuse, or encouraging provision of substances dangerous to health. A law passed in February increased the power and discretion of the TIB to demand that internet service providers (ISPs) remove content or block websites with just four hours’ notice. The TIB must refer the matter within 24 hours to a judge, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months’ to two years’ imprisonment for failing to comply with a judicial order. The law also allows persons who believe a website has violated their personal rights to request the TIB to order the service provider to remove the offensive content.
After the Constitutional Court struck down provisions in the February law, the parliament adopted similar legislation in September, which provides that sites deemed objectionable may be shut down for up to 72 hours on the opinion of the president and without a court order. Authorities also used the antiterror law and other sections of the penal code to block websites.
According to the Google Transparency Report, authorities blocked YouTube for 68 days, from March 27 to June 3. Freedom House’s report The Struggle for Turkey’s Internet noted that Twitter was blocked from March 21 until April 2. The government eventually unblocked both Twitter and YouTube following Constitutional Court orders. Critics noted, however, that while the government complied within 24 hours with the April ruling to unblock Twitter, YouTube was unavailable for an additional five days after the court ruled at the end of May. In addition the Information and Communications Technologies Authority substantially increased its requests for Twitter to remove offending content from nine requests in 2013 to 186 requests in the first half of the year, of which 30 percent were removed.
Government authorities on occasion accessed internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. Police must obtain authorization from a judge or, in emergencies, the “highest administrative authority” before taking such action. During the year several persons involved in the 2013 Gezi Park protests were charged based on information the government obtained by monitoring their tweets and Facebook posts. The law allows authorities to block internet content that is obscene or promotes child abuse or gambling. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers, which is responsible for implementing website takedown orders and is supposed to coordinate with content providers. The TIB is not obligated to inform content providers about ordered blocks or to explain why the block was imposed. Content providers, including Twitter and Facebook, were required to obtain an operating certificate for the country.
According to internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, as of October a total of 58,635 websites were blocked--54,091 by the TIB, 2,112 by court order, 952 by prosecutors pending court decisions, and 1,336 by unspecified actors. In the first nine months of the year, TIB blocked 16,871 websites, while other institutions (such as the Supreme Election Board) blocked 62. According to the Transportation, Maritime, and Communication Ministry, as of September the government took a total of 18,491 decisions to block websites.
Internet access providers are required to deploy and use filtering tools approved by the TIB. Providers who operated without official permission faced administrative fines. Internet activists and the press reported that more than one million websites were blocked in internet cafes in the country. On June 12, the government also blocked access to Google Plus for a short period of time. Bianet reported that between January and March, dozens of websites--including Vimeo, Soundcloud, Vagus.tv, yenidonem.com, and Samsunanaliz.com--were blocked. Additional internet restrictions operated in government and university buildings.
According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, 46.5 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2013. The Ministry of Interior reported there were 30,406 internet cafes in the country during the year.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Government restrictions on freedom of speech at times limited academic freedom and cultural events. Some academics and event organizers stated they practiced self-censorship on sensitive topics. Human rights organizations and student groups continued to criticize constraints placed on universities by law and by the actions of the Higher Education Board (YOK) that limited the autonomy of universities in staffing, teaching, and research policies and practice.
The “postmodern coup” case, which involved 103 suspects accused of attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government by a military memorandum in 1997, continued at the Ankara Fifth High Criminal Court with a hearing on November 6. All defendants in the trial, including senior military officers and the only civilian suspect, former YOK president Kemal Guruz, were conditionally released in 2013 in view of defendants’ health, age, and time served in jail, as well as lack of possibility of escaping and obscuring evidence. Human rights activists claimed that the trial of Guruz and others in Ergenekon were part of a systematic intimidation of academics who opposed the government’s efforts to introduce or assert Islamic elements in the country’s academic institutions. Prosecutors accused Guruz of cooperating with the military in implementing antireactionary measures in universities and profiling faculty members with a religious orientation.