While the constitution and improvements made by the Fourth and Fifth Judicial Packages provide for protection of free speech, the penal code and antiterror law still contain multiple articles that restrict freedom of speech and press.
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 criminals, inciting the population to enmity or hatred and denigration, and protecting public order. The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law for not including protections based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
During the year many individuals, including journalists and minors, were indicted for insulting the president or prime minister; insulting the organs and institutions of the state; taking part in antigovernment plots; and being members of outlawed political groups. Some journalists were indicted for attempting to influence the judiciary (including publishing an opinion about how a pending case should be resolved or protesting in favor of a particular outcome).
Freedom of Speech and Expression: 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 and many journalists reported they practiced self-censorship.
On April 16, after he remarked that it was impossible not to admit that Armenians were subject to genocide during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, Etyen Mahcupyan, who had been serving as an advisor to Prime Minister Davutoglu, announced he had retired. He said his retirement had taken effect a month earlier when he turned 65, but political analysts questioned the timing of the announcement, coming just after Mahcupyan’s controversial remarks.
The penal code criminalizes insults to the Turkish nation and leaders, including the president and prime minister. The Ministry of Justice reported receiving 331 complaints brought under this law in the first eight months of the year, of which it rejected 265. This data contradicted reporting in the EU progress report, which stated the Ministry of Justice received 962 requests for investigations of alleged insult to the president in the first six months of 2015, up from 397 in all of 2014. Persons from all walks of life were liable to come under investigation for insult or related offenses, including participants in political rallies, politicians, and children.
On July 14, a court found lawyer Umut Kilic, a member of the Afyon Bar Association, guilty of insulting President Erdogan for allegedly shouting at the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors’ interview panel that they were representatives of “fascist Erdogan.” He received an 18-month suspended sentence.
On March 30, prosecutors launched an investigation against 58 persons (including journalists, musicians, and actors) for criticizing the state-run Anadolu Agency for biased coverage. The suspects were accused of “provoking persons to hatred and enmity, as well as defamation, slander and intimidation” for their posts on social media (under the penal code, which governs “offenses against public peace”).
Press and Media Freedoms: The print media was privately owned and active, although a small number of large business concerns owned many leading press outlets. Hundreds of private newspapers spanning the political spectrum published in numerous languages, including Kurdish, Armenian, Arabic, English, and Farsi, although most had low circulations. 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 their other commercial interests 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. According to the TNP, through December 15, one newspaper, 60 magazines, one banner, 19 books, three bulletins, and eight other published materials were banned, confiscated, or removed from distribution or sale.
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) registered and licensed a large number of privately owned television and radio stations that operated on local, regional, and national levels. 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.
Amid the renewal of violent PKK attacks during the second half of the year, the government on July 25 blocked the internet availability of a number of mostly Kurdish-language media outlets. On September 14, a court order blocked broadcasting of two digital media platforms affecting approximately 100 channels, of which 40 were Kurdish-language channels. The government alleged the platforms were operating in breach of legal or technical requirements; critics alleged the decision to block the platforms was political. Several channels applied to Ankara’s Administrative Court to appeal the block, and the court ruled in their favor on September 16. As of September 18, some channels had restarted broadcasting.
The Alternative Media Association reported that, as of July 25, the government had blocked nearly 100 internet news sites, most of which were largely pro-Kurdish or leftist in orientation (see Internet Freedom).
In the context of the government’s fight against the “parallel state” or “parallel structure”--which it alleged was a clandestine network of followers of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen within the executive and legislative branches that sought to overthrow the government--a court ordered that a Gulen-affiliated holding company, Koza Ipek Holding, be placed under government-appointed trusteeship on October 27. Koza Ipek Holding owned five media outlets, which re-opened with a progovernment editorial line shortly after the takeover. Another holding company, Kaynak Holding, with the nation’s largest publisher of educational textbooks, was put under trusteeship on November 18.
Most Gulen-affiliated television channels lost a significant portion of their audience after pay-television platforms dropped them, beginning with Tivibu on September 27. By October 15, four (out of six) digital pay-television platforms had dropped the channels. The government’s media regulatory institution, RTUK, warned the operators that the removal violated broadcasting requirements for platform operators to be fair and impartial and was inconsistent with standard legal procedure. Despite the RTUK warning, a fifth pay-television platform, Turksat, dropped Gulen-affiliated channels on November 16.
While the law does not ban particular books or publications, publishing houses 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.
The Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content that might draw legal action. The association also reported that the state established book inspection committees in public schools and that school administrators closely monitored book recommendations, increasingly limiting students to ones 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. On December 15, a Gaziantep court ruled that the books of three authors, Hasan Cemal, Tugce Tatri, and Muslum Yucel, would be pulled from bookstores because the books were found among the possessions of two persons arrested for PKK membership.
The TPA stated that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases where a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Publishers were also subject to book promotion restrictions. The TPA noted cases in which printers were held responsible for content, even if the publisher and author faced separate charges and, as in the 2011 case of Gulseren Aksu, were acquitted. Translators could also be held liable for translating material deemed objectionable. The government brought criminal charges against the publishers and translators of writers such as Guillaume Apollinaire and William Burroughs.
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 that certain companies with media outlets critical of the government were targeted in tax investigations and forced to pay fines.
On October 28, police used teargas and water cannons to disperse crowds of supporters in front of the office building housing the Kanalturk and Bugun TV television stations, then forced their way into the building and shut down the two channels during a live broadcast. The police action was the result of a court ruling creating a board of trustees to manage the stations’ parent company, Koza Ipek Holding. Critics of the takeover cited procedural irregularities and asserted that the media outlets were targeted for criticizing the government. Government officials denied any political motives, stating the connection between Koza Ipek Holding and Gulen justified the action.
Several organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Freedom House, reported authorities increased their abuse of 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 free expression.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in at least one case, physical attack. President Erdogan and AKP members sometimes verbally attacked journalists by name in response to critical reporting.
On May 29, a prosecutor opened an investigation against Cumhuriyet editor in chief Can Dundar on espionage charges related to a story he published in May alleging MIT had transferred arms to Syrian rebels via MIT-contracted trucks intercepted in Turkey in January 2014. On May 31, President Erdogan told a state television interviewer, “the person who wrote the story will pay a heavy price for it; I won’t let him go unpunished.” On June 2, prosecutors officially charged Dundar, asking for life imprisonment. After testifying before a judge on November 27, Dundar and his colleague, Cumhuriyet’s Ankara representative Erdem Gul, were arrested and charged with “acquiring documents related to the security of the state,” “political and military espionage,” “publishing information supposed to remain secret,” and “contributing to the propaganda of a terrorist organization.”
On August 4, Dundar and 17 other journalists were indicted on terrorism charges in connection with publishing photos of prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz, who died while being held hostage by DHKP/C terrorists. The two cases accusing Dundar of supporting terrorism continued at year’s end.
On September 7, approximately 150 persons attacked the Istanbul office of the independent daily Hurriyet, smashing windows and attempting to enter the building. The attack, led by then AKP deputy Abdurrahim Boynukalin, occurred in response to Hurriyet’s coverage of a statement by President Erdogan regarding recent violence in the Southeast. Two days later a video recording of Boynukalin surfaced in which he said it was a mistake not to beat Hurriyet columnists, specifically naming Ahmet Hakan. Prime Minister Davutoglu subsequently criticized Boynukalin’s comments, and on September 18, Boynukalin was dropped from the AKP candidate list for the November 1 parliamentary elections. On December 17, Boynukalin was appointed deputy minister for youth and sports, and on December 21, the prime minister, during his speech at AKP’s Youth Auxiliary Convention, praised Boynukalin for his success as the head of the AKP youth, presenting him with a gift of appreciation.
Government officials also pressured international journalists. On August 27, security forces detained British journalists Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury along with their Iraqi-national assistant, Mohamed Ismail Rasool, as they were filming clashes between security forces and the PKK in Diyarbakir. Authorities deported the two British journalists on September 6; their Iraqi colleague remained in jail through the end of the year.
Authorities at times also ordered raids on newspaper offices, temporarily closed newspapers, issued fines, or confiscated newspapers for violating speech codes. On January 14, police raided daily newspaper Cumhuriyet’s printing office to prevent the distribution of editions containing a controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoon. Authorities later allowed distribution after a prosecutor determined the cartoon was not included in the edition. Separately, a Diyarbakir court ordered a block of several websites that had published the cartoon.
The number journalists imprisoned or detained by authorities rose in the second half of the year, largely due to the government’s antiterror operations. In September the Ministry of Justice reported that 36 convicts and five detainees claimed they were members of the press. The ministry asserted that as of October there were no journalists in jail on journalism-related charges, arguing that these persons’ crimes were not related to journalism but rather to other crimes, including murder, damaging property, or terror-related charges. Human rights groups pointed out that terrorism-related charges were a common tool to target journalists investigating sensitive issues, particularly PKK terrorism. Journalists who reported on the PKK or KCK were sometimes charged with a crime for promoting terror organizations.
On December 15, the CPJ released a report stating there were 14 journalists in the country’s jails, double the number it listed in 2014. Other NGOs put the number of journalists in jail higher, including a listing by the EU in June (30) and the Turkish Union of Journalists in December (32). The CPJ noted many of the journalists released from prison in 2014 still faced charges and could potentially be incarcerated again, a status that encouraged self-censorship. On December 22, the Ministry of Justice stated that only four of the 32 journalists listed by the Turkish Union of Journalists carried press accreditation from the government and that another four of the 32 had already been released from jail.
The RTUK continued a practice of fining broadcasters whose content was considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” A change in the make-up of the board following the June 7 elections may have rendered it more politically independent, although the makeup will change again to reflect the composition of the November 1 parliament, which returned the AKP to a firm majority.
Besides criminal charges and arrests, media faced verbal harassment, tax investigations and fines, and terrorism investigations. On May 28, the government banned Dogan Holding, owner of Hurriyet, CNN-Turk, and other media outlets, from participating in state tenders just days after President Erdogan accused owner and industrialist Aydin Dogan of being a “coup lover.” On June 2, authorities opened an investigation against Aydin Dogan and several other businesspersons for their role in the “coup by memorandum” in 1997. On September 15, prosecutors opened an investigation into the Dogan Media Group for alleged terrorism propaganda. The investigation opened six days after progovernment mobs attacked the paper’s offices and accused it of sympathizing with the PKK. The charges were allegedly also linked to the paper’s failure to adequately blur the faces of dead Turkish soldiers in a photograph and to its interview of an individual who later joined the PKK.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders occasionally resorted to direct censorship of news media. During the year the government added several events to the list of topics about which media coverage was restricted, including prosecutor Kiraz’s March 31 death, the MIT arms-to-Syria scandal, the July 20 Da’esh bomb attack in Suruc, and the October 10 Da’esh bombing attack of a peace rally in Ankara. Independent media largely ignored the bans.
Progovernment media sometimes appeared to coordinate editorial decisions, running similar or identical headlines. In the initial minutes after a bomb attack at a June 5 HDP rally left five persons dead and nearly 400injured, progovernment media outlets collectively announced the explosion was due to an electrical transformer and carried only “ticker” coverage of the event for nearly an hour. Progovernment media covered the event as a bombing only after a government minister announced the event was not due to a transformer explosion.
Although campaign rules allocated specific amounts of broadcast time to opposition political parties, in April the state-run Turkiye Radyo ve Televizyon (TRT) refused to broadcast a campaign ad prepared by the main opposition Republican People’s Party on the grounds it “harshly targeted the AKP government,” although the Supreme Election Board allowed the ad to run on other channels. The TRT was criticized during the election campaign for partisan broadcasting (see section 3).
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests. For example, in August two Milliyet journalists were dismissed after criticizing the government on their personal Twitter accounts, although not in their reporting.
The government continued the practice of excluding certain journalists representing outlets critical of the government from official press conferences and official events. When Prime Minister Davutoglu held a press conference on July 25 to discuss “antiterrorist operations,” the editors of three newspapers linked to Fethullah Gulen--Zaman, Taraf, and Bugun--and the editor of the leftist daily Birgun were not invited. Similarly, these publications were not accorded credentials to cover the G20 summit in Antalya in November or its various antecedent events throughout the year.
On September 1, the group Solidarity against Censorship reported that, from July 24 through September 1, the government blocked 103 websites, specific content in 50 websites, and 23 Twitter accounts, and launched lawsuits against 21 journalists with a combined recommended sentence of 157.5 years in prison. It reported 20 journalists (including Milliyet and Hurriyet newspaper staff) lost their jobs at the same time. The organization also reported that during that same five-week period, 10 journalists were attacked, nine by police and one by an unknown assailant.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents and journalists from voicing criticism. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic can face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by the press or media. Hundreds of persons faced criminal charges, many of them multiple counts, for violations of the law, including “denigrating Turkishness” or insulting public leaders. According to the Ministry of Justice, it received 236 investigation requests and permitted 105 to proceed between August 2014 and February 28.
On June 16, an Ankara court gave a suspended 21-month prison sentence to Today’s Zaman editor in chief Bulent Kenes for a tweet in which he insulted President Erdogan even though he did not name him. On August 6, Kenes was summoned before a judge, this time for a tweet that the prosecutor altered, changing Kenes’ word “fools” to the singular “fool” and claiming it referred to Erdogan. He was briefly detained on October 8 on additional insult charges. On December 4, Kenes announced his resignation from Today’s Zaman, citing “government pressure.” On December 11, antiterror security officers again detained Kenes on charges of insulting President Erdogan in his articles and statements.
According to an April BBC report, since the beginning of President Erdogan’s tenure in office (beginning as prime minister in 2003), 63 journalists have been sentenced to a total of 32 years in prison and fined 380,000 lira ($128,000) collectively.
National Security: The antiterror law and the penal code were regularly used to limit free expression on grounds of national security. On July 24, then deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc accused the pro-Kurdish Evrensel and Ozgur Gundem newspapers of being “criminal machines.” On July 25, just several days after the Da’esh bombing in Suruc and the subsequent renewal of government-PKK hostilities, the TIB ordered and a court subsequently endorsed the blocking of websites for Evrensel, Ozgur Gundem and approximately 100 other mostly pro-Kurdish news and information sites. Sendika.org and ETHA News Agency, leftist news sites, were also blocked.
The government continued to block media coverage of controversial and sensitive events in the name of national security, including prosecutor Kiraz’s March 31 hostage-taking and death, the MIT arms-to-Syria scandal, the July 20 Da’esh bomb attack in Suruc, and the October 10 bombing attack on a peace rally in Ankara.
According to the Turkish Statistical Institute from August, 56 percent of the country’s population used the internet.
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 the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; engaging in obscenity, prostitution, or gambling; encouraging suicide, sexual abuse of children; drug abuse, or provision of substances dangerous to health. An amendment during the year added the following reasons a website can be blocked or content removed: right to life and protection of security of life and property, protection of national security and public order, prevention of commission of crimes, or protection of public health. The TIB is empowered to demand that internet service providers (ISPs) remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice. The TIB must refer the matter within 24 hours to a judge, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months’ to two years’ imprisonment or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($18,000 to $180,000) for failing to comply with a judicial order. The law also allows persons who believed a website has violated their personal rights to request the TIB to order the service provider to remove the offensive content. On April 15, an omnibus law (the Law on Amending Some Other Laws and Regulations) took effect and amended Internet Law 5651, extending the discretion to request website blocking to government ministers and requiring TIB compliance within four hours followed by a court order within 24 hours.
The government’s Information Technology Institution reported 150,924 complaints regarding offensive internet content, including vulgarity (56 percent), sexual exploitation of children (7 percent), prostitution (28 percent), and other offenses like gambling and insults against Ataturk. The institution did not provide numbers for the year and did not describe how many of the complaints resulted in blocking orders.
Authorities also used the antiterror law and other sections of the penal code to block websites.
On April 6, ISPs blocked access to YouTube and Twitter for several hours until they complied with a court order to remove images of prosecutor Mehmet Kiraz while he was held hostage by DHKP/C terrorists. On July 22, Twitter was again blocked for several hours after a court ordered the company to remove material related to the July 20 bombing in Suruc. According to a Twitter transparency report from August, Twitter content requests during the first half of the year represented a 26 percent increase over those of the second half of 2014. There were 408 court-ordered content removal requests from Turkey to Twitter, with an additional 310 requests from government agencies, police, and others lacking a court order. Twitter removed content in 34 percent of cases and blocked Twitter accounts in 125 cases. Twitter filed legal objections in response to 60 percent of the requests, but prevailed only 5 percent of the time. On December 11, news media reported that the government’s communications authority imposed a 150,000 lira (51,000) fine on Twitter for failing to remove content it said praised terror and incited violence.
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. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that 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 a block was imposed. Content providers, including Twitter and Facebook, were required to obtain an operating certificate for the country.
According to the internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, as of October 14, a total of 24,104 websites had been newly blocked during the year--23,023 by the TIB, 898 by court order, 23 by prosecutors pending court decisions, and 160 by the Turkey Pharmaceutical and Medical Device Institution’s requests. As of December 2, Engelliweb reported there were 106,198 blocked websites, compared with 58,635 in 2014.
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. Additional internet restrictions operated in government and university buildings.
Authorities used insult and antiterror laws to prosecute persons who used the internet for speech considered insulting or threatening to Turkishness, the Turkish nation, or national leaders. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals accused of insulting them.
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 their work was monitored and they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Consequently, some contacts reported that they could not easily attend academic programs and 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 that limited the autonomy of universities in staffing, teaching, and research policies and practice.
On April 10, the Ministry of Interior released a circular announcing that academics needed prior approval before conducting research on Syrian refugees living in the country, including surveys or fieldwork.
On April 13, Yucel Altunbasak resigned as president of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK), reportedly due to allegations that TUBITAK played a role in the “parallel state.” More than 250 TUBITAK officials have been fired or re-assigned since 2013 as the government increased its efforts to root out members of the alleged “parallel state.”
The arts continued to experience de facto and de jure censorship. On April 14, the Istanbul Film Festival, slated to run April 4-19, announced the cancellation of numerous screenings, two major prize competitions, and the closing ceremony after filmmakers pulled their films in protest of a Ministry of Culture decision to block the screening of a film about the PKK entitled Bakur (North). Festival organizers received notification from the ministry that the film lacked an official registration certificate, a requirement for all films produced in the country instituted five years previously but rarely enforced. More than 100 filmmakers, including the winner of the 2014 Cannes Palme d’Or, signed a letter alleging censorship. Filmmakers complained about a double standard, noting that many films made in the country on less sensitive topics were allowed to be screened during the year and previous years without approval.