The penal code and antiterror law contain multiple articles that restrict freedom of the press. International and domestic human rights organizations noted particular concern over the overly broad definition of terrorism under the antiterror law and the disproportionate use of the antiterror law by authorities against members of the press, academics and students, and members of the political opposition and Kurdish activist community. Human rights monitors also emphasized that the penal code contains multiple articles that directly restrict press freedom and free speech, including provisions on praising a crime or criminal, inciting the population to enmity or hatred and denigration, and protecting public order. Authorities indicted journalists for protecting the confidentiality of sources and investigations; attempting to influence the judiciary; insulting the Turkish nation, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic, and organs and institutions of the state; and discouraging individuals from doing their military service.
The Third Judicial Reform Package contained reforms allowing authorities to suspend or abandon the prosecution of journalists accused of propaganda on behalf of terrorist organizations and also provided for the release of media personnel accused of belonging to or “collaborating” with outlawed organizations. The package also requires judges to justify in writing why authorities must keep detained suspect in detention before trial.
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, and Kurdish nationalist or cultural viewpoints. Active debates on human rights and government policies continued in the public sphere, particularly on problems 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 was far more accepted than it was a decade ago. However, many who wrote or spoke on such topics risked investigation and some reported exercising self-censorship.
Article 301 of the penal code criminalizes insults to the Turkish nation. The Ministry of Justice reported receiving 247 complaints concerning Article 301 through November 13--down from 305 in 2011--of which, it rejected 222. As of November 13, the Ministry of Justice had given permission for 18 cases to proceed and was evaluating seven cases.
In June authorities charged pianist Fazil Say with inciting hatred and insulting the values of Muslims for retweeting the phrase, “I am not sure if you have also realized it, but if there’s a louse, a nonentity, a lowlife, a thief or a fool, it’s always an Allah-ist.” If convicted, he faces up to 18 months in jail. On October 18, a court dismissed his plea for acquittal, and the case continued at year’s end.
Freedom of Press: The country had active privately owned print media. Hundreds of private newspapers spanning the political spectrum appeared in numerous languages, including Kurdish, Armenian, Arabic, English, and Farsi. However, authorities routinely censored media with pro-Kurdish or leftist content, particularly in the Southeast, by confiscating materials or temporarily closing down the media source. The government’s close business relationships with various media conglomerates further limited media independence and encouraged a climate of self-censorship.
Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) is a government-funded semiautonomous body. The High Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) registered and licensed a large number of privately owned television and radio stations that operated at local, regional, and national levels. In addition privately owned television channels operated on cable networks, and the RTUK granted 29 television and radio enterprises broadcast permits necessary for their operation. The wide availability of satellite dishes and cable television allowed access to foreign broadcasts, including several Kurdish-language private channels. Large, private holding companies that had a wide range of outside business interests owned most media. The concentration of media ownership influenced the content of reporting and limited the scope of public debate.
In addition to Turkish, the RTUK allowed radio and television stations to broadcast in Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, Bosnian, Circassian, Laz, and Kurdish (both the Kurmanci and Zaza dialects) during the year. Public broadcaster TRT offered a Kurdish television channel (TRT 6).
According to the TNP, authorities confiscated 46 publications in 2012, including 12 newspapers. During the year authorities continued to file numerous cases against publications under the antiterror laws. As a result of the Third Judicial Reform Package, the government lifted a ban on hundreds of previously censored publications.
Violence and Harassment: Prosecutors continued to bring dozens of cases against writers, journalists, and political figures under various laws that restrict media freedom. Human rights and press freedom activists asserted that authorities filed numerous civil and criminal complaints against authors and publishers for ideological reasons. Authorities at times also ordered raids on newspaper offices; closed newspapers temporarily, issued fines, or confiscated newspapers for violating speech codes. Government officials, including political leaders, made statements throughout the year that appeared intended to influence media content, including but not limited to news coverage.
Scores of persons identified as journalists remain imprisoned at year’s end, most charged under antiterror laws or for connections to an illegal organization. On December 20, Reporters without Borders reported that at least 61 journalists were arrested during the year, with approximately 42 journalists and 30 other media personnel detained awaiting trial. Authorities charged most of these journalists under the antiterror laws. In October the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimated that 70 percent of the imprisoned journalists were Kurdish or worked for Kurdish publications. In detailed responses to the CPJ and Reporters without Borders reports, the Ministry of Justice asserted that most of the detained journalists were under prosecution for crimes not related to their work.
After public and international pressure, the government released some journalists from detention while their cases were pending trial. OdaTV journalists Soner Yalcin, Nedim Sener, and Ahmet Sik were released pending trial on March 12 after more than a year in detention; Yalcin was released on December 26 after 682 days in jail.
Following significant international pressure, on April 10, authorities released on his own recognizance after five months’ detention prominent journalist, publisher, and human rights activist Ragip Zarakolu. Zarakolu was charged in October 2011 as part of the KCK case with violating antiterror laws, “helping terror organizations by means of his international prestige,” as well as publishing books on the Kurdish issue. Zarakolu had his first hearing July 13-21, during which his 2,500-page indictment was read. The court then adjourned proceedings; their resumption remained pending at year’s end.
After the passage of the Third Judicial Reform Package, authorities dropped several cases against members of the press and released approximately 15 journalists from prison pending trial. For example, on July 23, Vedat Kursun, former editor in chief of the Kurdish-language newspaper Azadiya Welat (Free People), was released from prison after 43 months. A court had sentenced Kursun to 10 years and six months’ imprisonment for membership in a terrorist organization and violating antiterror laws in connection with 102 articles he wrote in 2007 and 2008. Five additional Azadiya Welat journalists remained imprisoned in connection with the KCK case at year’s end.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Printing houses were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors at the time they were published. The Turkish Publishers’ Association (TPA) reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content in order to stay out of court.
The government maintained a list of banned publications; however, the Third Judicial Reform Package declared null and void the banning of all past publications unless a court issued a new order for the banning of a specific publication. As a result authorities no longer banned publication of approximately 400 books. Prosecutors did not apply for renewal of previously banned publications, although they continued to ban new publications throughout the year. According to the TPA, authorities banned 10 books during the year, a decrease from 2011, although unofficial prohibition and recall of books, particularly those related to the Kurdish issue, remained a problem.
Writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, and insulting religious values. According to the TPA, authorities investigated or continued court cases against 45 publications and publishers during the year, including numerous books related to the Kurdish issue.
Human rights activists and the media reported that authors increasingly practiced self-censorship to avoid prosecution. Observers also reported that, with the consolidation of media outlets into a few media conglomerates with other business interests, media entities increasingly practiced self-censorship in order for such conglomerates to remain eligible for government contracts. Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government over fears of jeopardizing other business interests.
Libel Laws/National Security: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents from voicing criticism. Antiterror laws had the greatest impact in limiting free expression related to Kurdish issues.
On December 25, Prime Minister Erdogan was awarded 15,000 lira (approximately $8,300) after he won a libel case against former Taraf editor in chief Ahmet Altan. Erdogan’s lawyers argued that Altan had violated Erdogan’s personal rights by calling him “arrogant, uninformed, and uninterested” in a March 2011 newspaper column. According to the CPJ, thousands 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 antiterrorism law.
Publishing Restrictions: Printing houses were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors at the time they were published. Media activists reported that the Ministry of Culture sometimes denied approval of a barcode required for all publications as a means of censorship.
The government maintained restrictions on Internet access. The Internet law allows the government to prohibit a Web site 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. Upon receiving a complaint or as a result of personal observations, a prosecutor may request that a judge prohibit access to the offending site or, in an urgent situation, the Telecommunication Internet Presidency (TIB) may prohibit access while the complaint is examined. In either case, a judge must rule on the matter within 24 hours. Following a judicial decision to uphold the complaint, the Internet service provider (ISP) must block access within 24 hours. If the judge does not approve the block, the prosecutor must ensure access is restored. ISP administrators may face a penalty ranging from six months’ to two years’ imprisonment for failing to comply with a judicial order. The law also allows persons who believe a Web site has violated their personal rights to request the TIB to order the service provider to remove the offensive content. Authorities also used the antiterror law and other sections of the penal code to block Web sites.
There were no official figures on the number of blocked Web sites. However, Engelliweb, an NGO working on Internet freedom issues, reported that authorities had blocked 6,609 Web sites in 2012, for a total of 22,629 blocked sites, up from 15,595 in 2011.
The Information Technologies Institute (BTK) reported that 47 percent of the Web sites that were blocked contained pornography, a significant decrease from the previous year. Authorities also blocked Kurdish-related sites, including ozgurluk.org and firatnews.org, as well as Kurdish video and radio Web sites, such as medciwan.com, on antiterror grounds.
In November 2011 the BTK implemented a voluntary filter with “child” and “family” settings. Civil society organizations criticized the program, both for the government’s involvement in deciding what was appropriate for family or child use on the Internet and a lack of transparency regarding the criteria used to block sites. The BTK met several times with civil society groups and came up with agreed procedures to address their concerns.
According to the Google Transparency Report, from January to June the company received 148 requests from the BTK to remove 426 YouTube videos, Blogger blogs, one Google document, and one search result on the basis of their alleged criticism of Ataturk, the government, or national identity and values. Google restricted Turkish users from accessing 63 percent of the BTK’s YouTube videos of concern. The number of requests for removal of content that Google received between January 1 and June 30 increased by 1,013 percent compared with the last half of 2011.
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 and generally did so in practice. In December the ECHR found the country’s Internet content regulation and supervision law, Law 5651, to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and fined the state for violating freedom of expression. Law 5651 allows authorities to block Internet content that is obscene or promotes child abuse or gambling. Approximately 79 percent of Web sites blocked under the law were the result of administrative decisions by TIB, although some sites were blocked as a result of court orders.
The BTK reported there were approximately 28,000 Internet cafes in the country. Internet cafes were primarily used by young people. Under the Internet law, mass use providers, including Internet cafes, can only operate if they obtain an official activity certificate from a local authority representing the central administration. Internet access providers are required to deploy and use filtering tools approved by TIB. Providers who operate without official permission face administrative fines. Internet activists and the press reported that more than one million Web sites were blocked in Internet cafes in the country. The sites for many mainstream LGBT organizations were among those blocked. Additional Internet restrictions were applied in government and university buildings. These restrictions led to a flowering of “tunnel” sites, which trick filters and allow users to reach blocked sites by altering Internet addresses.
According to International Telecommunications Union statistics, 47.2 percent of the country’s population used the Internet in 2012, an increase from 42 percent in 2011.
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.
In June authorities detained former YOK president and Turkish Science Foundation president Kemal Guruz, eight months after freeing him pending trial in the Ergenekon case. Human rights activists claimed that his arrest was part of a systematic intimidation of academics who opposed the government’s efforts to introduce or assert Islamic elements into the country’s academic institutions. Prosecutors stated that in 1997, while Guruz was president of YOK, he helped the military to prepare the so-called postmodern coup by providing information about the religious orientation of Turkish university rectors. The case continued at year’s end.