Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were credible allegations that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in connection with the violent clashes between government security forces and the terrorist PKK organization in the Southeast (see section 1.g.).
A coup attempt on July 15 resulted in the death of more than 240 individuals and the injury of more than 2,100, most of them civilians who took to the streets to defend their democratically elected government. The government attributed the coup attempt to the Fethullah Gulen movement, which it formally designated as the “Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization.” On July 16, angry mobs beat soldiers surrendering following the attempted coup as they tried to leave Istanbul’s Bosporus Bridge, killing at least one.
The PKK continued its nationwide campaign of deadly attacks on government security forces and, in some cases, civilians during the year. According to the government, 208 civilians died and 1,259 were injured in clashes between security forces and the PKK in the first eight months of the year. The government noted that 451 security personnel were killed in the same period, with 2,810 injured.
The Human Rights Association (HRA), a domestic nongovernmental organization (NGO), attributed more than 300 civilian deaths during the first eight months of the year to the security forces, most of them in the fighting with the PKK. Human rights groups alleged that the government took insufficient measures to protect civilian lives in its fight with the PKK in the Southeast (section 1.g.).
A range of groups criticized the government’s slow-moving investigation of the suspicious death of Diyarbakir Bar Association president, Tahir Elci, who was shot and killed at a press gathering in Diyarbakir in November 2015 under unclear circumstances. The investigation continued as of year’s end.
During the year the government tightened control of its border with Syria in response to requests from foreign governments to restrict the entry of Da’esh fighters who were moving through Turkey to commit terrorist acts elsewhere. This border tightening restricted humanitarian access to Turkey for those fleeing the conflict in Syria. Turkey allowed access only to those needing immediate medical assistance. Some Syrians attempting to cross the border illegally were injured or killed during border crossings (see section 2.d.).
Human rights groups documented several suspicious deaths of detainees in official custody following the coup attempt and noted 16 to 23 reported suicides of detainees as of November. On September 16, Seyfettin Yigit in Bursa allegedly committed suicide after being detained for Gulen-related connections. His family claimed he was a victim of police violence. Yigit had been heavily involved in developing the case announced in 2013, alleging high-level official corruption that implicated members of then-prime minister Erdogan’s family and close circle, including four ministers.
Security officers reacted with force to some protests and demonstrations. Human rights groups claimed the use of force might have contributed to civilian deaths during certain protests in the Southeast. Human rights organizations continued to assert that the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests (see section 2.b.).
In addition to the violence resulting from the coup attempt and attacks perpetrated by the PKK (see section 1.g.), citizens were also affected by five terrorist attacks attributed to Da’esh. On January 7, a suicide bomber in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square killed 12 persons and injured 14. On March 19, another suicide bomber targeted tourists in Istanbul’s Istiklal Street, killing five persons and injuring 36. On May 1, a vehicle-borne suicide bomb killed three police officers and injured 21 persons. On June 28, three men attacked Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, killing 45 persons and injuring more than 200. On August 20, a child suicide bomber killed 54 persons and injured 69 at a wedding in Gaziantep.
There were no confirmed reports of politically motivated disappearances during the year.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, but there were reports that some government officials employed these tactics. Human rights groups alleged that, although torture and mistreatment in police custody decreased following installation of closed-circuit cameras in 2012, police continued to abuse detainees outside police stations. The Ministry of Justice reported there were 457 investigations into allegations of mistreatment in prison or detention centers through October 20. In 39 cases the investigations resulted in fines, and in two cases the suspects were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment. There was one allegation of rape or sexual abuse in prison during the year, which was forwarded to prosecutors.
The HRA reported receiving hundreds of requests for assistance in connection with allegations of torture and inhuman treatment both in detention centers and outside police stations during the year, adding that intimidation and shaming of detainees by police were common. The HRA reported that victims hesitated to report abuse due to fear of reprisal. Following the coup attempt in July, detainees regularly reported problems including prison overcrowding and lack of access to legal representation and medical treatment.
Thousands of detainees taken into custody in the initial aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt were held in stadiums, meeting rooms, and other sites without cameras, where some were allegedly subject to mistreatment or abuse. Amnesty International (AI) alleged some detainees in Ankara and Istanbul were tortured and reported widespread use of stress positions, denial of food and water, detention in unsanitary conditions, in addition to beatings and rapes. On July 25, AI reported that an anonymous witness at the Ankara police headquarters gym described the following: “…650-800 male soldiers were being held in the Ankara police headquarters sports hall. At least 300 of the detainees showed signs of having been beaten. Some detainees had visible bruises, cuts, or broken bones. Around 40 were so badly injured they could not walk. Two were unable to stand. One woman who was also detained in a separate facility there had bruising on her face and torso.” Bar Association representatives corroborated the allegations; in some cases before-and-after photos appeared to show evidence of beatings by security forces. Authorities restricted lawyers’ access to the detainees as allowed under decrees passed during the state of emergency.
The UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, Nils Melzer, reported following his visit (November 27-December 2) that the government’s changes to due process implemented in response to the July coup attempt created an environment conducive to torture. He interviewed many inmates who reported experiencing torture either in connection with detentions in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt, or in connection with alleged PKK support in the Southeast. He concluded that in the days and weeks following the failed coup, torture and other forms of ill-treatment were widespread in the initial detention and interrogation phases. Melzer noted that very few of those who reported torture had made any official complaint due to fear of reprisals or mistrust of the institutions meant to prevent torture. Intimidation and distrust prevented not just inmates, but also other sectors of society such as lawyers, doctors, and NGOs, from initiating actions that might be perceived as critical of the government, including complaints about torture.
Two journalists detained on August 16 in connection with the closure of pro-Kurdish news media outlet Ozgur Gundem reported being beaten and threatened with rape by police officers.
On October 25, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the government’s decrees under the state of emergency facilitated torture by removing safeguards that protected detainees from mistreatment. The report described a pattern of denial of access to legal aid and detainees’ medical reports, which it claimed prevented substantiation of allegations of physical abuse. A provision in the emergency decrees absolved government officials of any responsibility for abuses in connection with duties carried out in the context of the decrees.
The government claimed witness reports described in the AI and HRW reports described above were a smear campaign on the part of Gulenists.
The TNP reported 24 criminal investigations into allegations of torture during the year, all of which led to decisions not to prosecute the officials involved. There were three disciplinary investigations related to torture; all three continued at year’s end.
The newly organized National Human Rights and Equality Institution (NHREI), parliament’s Human Rights Commission (HRC), and the Ombudsman Institution are administratively responsible for investigating reports of human rights violations, including allegations of torture, excessive use of force, or extrajudicial killings (see section 5).
Police harassment of LGBTI persons, particularly transgender sex workers, remained common.
According to the NGO Soldiers’ Rights Platform, some military conscripts endured severe hazing, physical abuse, and torture that sometimes resulted in suicide. The NGO reported that at least five soldiers had committed suicide as of September 27 but claimed the actual number was at least double. The Human Rights Joint Platform (HRJP), a domestic NGO, alleged that hate crimes, sexual orientation, and discrimination based on ethnicity played a role in military suicides and suspicious deaths, but it noted an absence of empirical data because the military did not recognize ethnic minorities or collect data on sexual orientation.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison facilities generally met international standards for physical conditions in many respects, with certain exceptions. Overcrowding, particularly in the wake of wide-scale arrests following the July 15 coup attempt, and lack of access to adequate health care remained problems.
Physical Conditions: In August, Justice Minister Bozdag reported the prison population was 215,000. As of October 20, the Ministry of Justice reported there were 372 prisons in the country with a capacity of 189,269 inmates. As of October 20, the prisons were occupied by 196,415 prisoners. Of these, 66,644 were in pretrial detention while 129,771 were convicted of a crime. Some 80 percent of the pretrial detainees had been in prison for less than a year. Pretrial detainees were held in the same facilities with convicted prisoners.
The government reported it used separate prisons for children where such facilities were available; otherwise, children were held in separate sections within adult prisons.
Human rights organizations asserted that prisoners frequently lacked adequate access to potable water, proper heating, ventilation, and lighting. According to the HRA, prisoners sometimes complained about food quantity and quality.
Through October 17, the Justice Ministry reported 283 inmate deaths from natural causes as well as 48 suicides and 16 deaths from other causes. It reported that 181 seriously ill prisoners had been released during the year.
Although the government asserted that doctors were assigned to each prison, according to Ministry of Justice statistics, 11 doctors served prisons in the country as of March 4, or one doctor for every 33 prisons and 16,839 inmates. Human rights associations expressed serious concern over the inadequate provision of health care to prisoners, particularly the insufficient number of prison doctors. As of September the HRA reported that 926 inmates were sick, including 331 in critical condition, and that three inmates had been released for health reasons during the year.
Chief prosecutors have discretion, particularly under the wide-reaching antiterror law, to keep in prison inmates whom they deem dangerous to public security, regardless of medical reports documenting serious illness.
In August, the Istanbul Prison Monitoring Commission of the Istanbul branch of the Progressive Lawyers Association reported that the state of emergency had negatively affected prison conditions. The report, based on information acquired through complaints received and interviews conducted by the association’s lawyers, identified several alleged violations of prisoners’ rights, including prisoners injured during prison transfers, restrictions on telephone calls and family visits, restricted access to information and reading material, recording of attorney-client meetings, and abuse of sick prisoners.
The HRA reported that political prisoners typically were held in higher-security prisons and only received one to two hours per week of recreational time. The law normally allows prisoners 10 hours of recreational time per week, a provision restricted by government decree following the coup attempt.
Administration: Authorities at times investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions but generally did not document the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner or take action to hold perpetrators accountable. The Ministry of Justice reported 457 investigations (both criminal and administrative) of alleged prison violence or mistreatment through October 20. The ministry did not supply prison monitoring boards reports for the year but stated that in 2015 monitoring boards made 1,302 visits to 358 prisons throughout the country.
The NHREI and the Ombudsman Institution were established to function as a human rights check for prisons as well as for broader human rights and personnel issues. Parliament’s HRC and the Ombudsman Institution had authorization to visit and observe prisons, including military prisons, without advance permission. During the year the HRC issued one report–on prison conditions in Tekirdag.
Independent Monitoring: The government reported it allowed prison visits by some international delegations, the EU, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), and UN bodies. A CPT delegation visited the country in April and carried out an ad hoc visit in August-September. The government postponed a visit in September requested by the UN special rapporteur on torture, citing limited government resources to support such a visit, which subsequently took place in late November.
The government did not allow NGOs to monitor prisons. The HRA reported it had received numerous complaints of inhuman treatment and torture by prison wardens or other inmates.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech (for example, through provisions prohibiting praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration; and by protecting public order and criminalizing insult). 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 hundreds of individuals, including journalists and minors, were indicted for insulting the president or prime minister and insulting institutions of the state. On July 29, President Erdogan announced a one-time forgiveness of insults against him, although he and his legal team began filing insult charges again shortly after. Experts estimated there were nearly 4,000 insult-related cases in process as of the end of July.
More than 140 journalists were detained for alleged ties to the PKK or the Gulen movement. Hundreds more lost their jobs as the government closed media outlets allegedly affiliated with the Gulen movement or the PKK.
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. Many who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics involving the ruling party risked investigation.
On January 8, a caller to a popular television talk program, The Beyaz Show, pled for viewers to “show more sensitivity as human beings” toward citizens in the country’s Southeast, many of whom were displaced and facing violence. The talk show host, Beyazit Ozturk, solicited applause after the call for solidarity, but a national backlash immediately ensued. Ozturk issued an apology the next day, accusing the caller, teacher Ayse Celik, of “provocation” and of misleading call screeners to get on the air. Prosecutors charged her with “praising terrorism and a terrorist organization.” Celik’s case and that of 38 codefendants continued at year’s end.
Within the first several weeks after the failed July 15 coup, human rights activists reported increasing restrictions on freedom of expression as the government arrested dozens of journalists for alleged Gulen or PKK links and closed more than 130 media institutions. Numerous journalists and others described a dwindling independent media under escalating official pressure. By the end of the year, the government had closed nearly 200 media institutions and jailed more than 140 journalists.
Press and Media Freedoms: Print media was privately owned and active. Conglomerates or holding companies, many of which had interests before the government on a range of business matters, 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, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate. Private newspapers published in numerous languages, including Armenian, Arabic, English, and Farsi, although most had low circulations. In the months after the failed coup attempt, authorities closed most Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations, citing national security grounds.
The government used its authorities under the state of emergency to close more than 195 media outlets critical of the government as of mid-December. Authorities linked most to either the Gulen movement or PKK. The government issued arrest warrants for more than 200 journalists and blocked dozens of online news media sites. On September 15, a representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that, in the first two months after the July 15 coup attempt, authorities stripped more than 600 members of the press of their credentials. The government also detained family members of journalists and others who fled the country and initiated criminal investigations against journalists for reports written before the coup attempt. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting increasingly standardized along progovernment lines.
On December 13, the CPJ reported there were 81 journalists in jail. The CPJ said dozens more journalists were jailed in Turkey, but it could not confirm a direct link between their work and their imprisonment. The Turkish NGO Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) reported that as of December 30, the number of journalists, editors, or media managers in jail stood at 145. According to P24, 117 of these were arrested as part of a coup-attempt-related probe, while 32 were in jail before the coup attempt.
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. The Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) reported that, as a means of censorship, the Ministry of Culture sometimes denied approval of a barcode required for all publications. Police conducted raids and confiscated books on some stands at annual book fairs and also stopped book-delivery trucks at times in the Southeast, confiscating their contents. Local courts banned books without regard to limits in the law that allow banning by the court only in the locality where the book was published. After the coup attempt, 29 Gulen-affiliated publishing companies were closed, and schools avoided the titles they published although the titles were not technically criminalized. The Ministry of National Education undertook to rewrite 58 textbooks after the failed coup attempt to remove alleged “subliminal messages” allegedly inserted by the Gulen movement. Primary, secondary, high schools, and universities became increasingly cautious about the books they allowed students to read.
The TPA reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The TPA reported 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 subjected to book promotion restrictions.
Writers and publishers were subjected 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 on these grounds during the year.
Prosecutors considered the possession of pro-Kurdish and Gulenist books credible evidence of membership in a banned organization. In one case police intercepted and detained Esar Dogan Ozturk in Duzce for attempting to eliminate Gulenist literature in his possession by burning it in July. (The AKP and Gulenists were close partners until roughly 2013. Owning Gulenist literature had not previously been criminalized.)
The government restricted access to the internet and regularly blocked selected online content, including online newspapers and journals (see Internet Freedom).
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 some cases, physical attack. President Erdogan and AKP members sometimes verbally attacked journalists by name in response to critical reporting. A study by the International Press Institute, covering the first several months of the year, found that government supporters and Turkish nationalists systematically targeted journalists online for verbal abuse, apparently intending to incite actions against them, damage their credibility, or shame them. Approximately one-third of the abusive messages were sexual in nature. An NGO tracking journalism issues in the country reported there were seven physical attacks against journalists in June, four in July, and three in August.
Prior to the failed coup attempt, the government also regularly filed criminal charges against journalists, prosecuting them on insult and terror-related charges. Human rights groups noted that filing terrorism-related charges was a common tool the government used to target journalists reporting on sensitive issues, particularly PKK terrorism (also see National Security).
On January 28, prosecutors indicted Cumhuriyet editor in chief, Can Dundar, and his Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gul, (who had been in jail since November 2015) for releasing state secrets and threatening to overthrow the state. The Istanbul prosecutor’s office sought aggravated life imprisonment and a separate life sentence plus 30 years for each. On March 25, the court ruled at their hearing that the remainder of their trial would be closed to the public. On April 25, an Istanbul court found Dundar guilty of separate insult charges, sentencing him to 955 days in jail, commuted to a 28,650 lira ($8,200) fine, for insulting officials in a series of articles. On May 6, the court found Dundar and Gul guilty of releasing state secrets and sentenced them to five years and 10 months’ imprisonment each. As of year’s end, the two remained free pending appeal and continued to face other indictments in connection with separate pending cases. Dundar left the country in June and remained abroad at year’s end. The government reportedly cancelled his wife’s passport following the July 15 coup attempt.
In November authorities detained or arrested more than 10 executives and journalists at Cumhuriyet, for purportedly supporting the activities of the Gulen movement and/or PKK. Editor in chief Murat Sabuncu, who succeeded Can Dundar, and nine colleagues remained in prison as of year’s end.
Persons accused of attacking journalists or independent media institutions often received minimal penalties. At a break in his hearing on May 6, Dundar was attacked by a gunman. Dundar was unhurt but a camera operator was injured. On August 25, the gunman appeared in court, charged with attempted murder. On September 28, an Istanbul criminal court downgraded the charges to attempted injury and threat with a weapon, and on October 21, the gunman was released from pretrial detention.
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. On January 13, the progovernment newspaper Aksam reportedly fired columnist Gulay Gokturk after she used her column to question the AKP’s call for a change to a presidential system. An organization tracking pressure against journalists found that 395 journalists were fired in July and 11 were forced to resign. During the month of August, this organization counted 2,308 journalists who were fired or lost their jobs and three who were forced to resign in the wake of the post-coup-attempt media closures and arrests.
Pro-Kurdish journalists faced significant government pressure, with more than 40 in jail pending trial as of September 5. On June 20, police arrested three temporary editors of the pro-Kurdish daily Ozgur Gundem, while an investigation into 37 others for their support of the publication continued. Human Rights Foundation of Turkey president, Sebnem Korur Fincanci; Reporters Without Borders-Turkey representative, Erol Onderoglu; and journalist/author, Ahmet Nesin, were arrested on charges of creating “propaganda for a terrorist organization” after serving brief tours as “duty” editors of the publication. Fincanci and Onderoglu were released on June 30 and Nesin on July 1. On October 19, Can Dundar was indicted in his absence on charges of “printing and publishing terrorist organizations’ statements” in connection with his service for a day as volunteer editor in chief of the since-closed newspaper. These trials continued at year’s end.
Authorities detained dozens of journalists working for pro-Kurdish DIHA, Azadiya Welat, Jin News Agency (JINHA), and Ozgur Gundemthroughout the year. As of September 26, the CPJ reported that 12 DIHA staff were in prison, with at least 19 others facing charges of creating propaganda for a terrorist organization. DIHA, Azadiya Welat, and JINHA were among 15–mostly Kurdish–media outlets closed by government decree on October 29. The government closed most additional Kurdish-language media during November.
Special operations police reportedly detained Nedim Oruc, a DIHA journalist who had extensively covered the violence in the Southeast, at his home in Silopi in Sirnak Province on the morning of January 5, along with 36 other persons. Oruc’s contacts reported they were unable to receive any information about his whereabouts for several days until a social media campaign resulted in an announcement from the Silopi Security Directorate that Oruc was in custody. On June 10, he was released pending trial on charges of making propaganda for a terrorist organization. His case remained underway as of year’s end.
The government also pressured journalists by employing an otherwise rarely used statute that allows courts to strip parental rights from those found guilty of criminal offenses. On May 18, an Istanbul court found journalist Arzu Yildiz guilty of breaching the confidentiality of a court case (a charge related to her coverage of the 2014 scandal where the government’s intelligence branch appeared to have covertly supplied arms to Syrian rebels) and sentenced her to 20 months in jail. The court also stripped Yildiz of her legal rights over her children. Her lawyer characterized the decision as an act of revenge and noted Yildiz would not be able to register her two children in school, open bank accounts for them, or take them abroad alone.
In addition to criminal charges and arrests, journalists faced verbal harassment, tax investigations, and fines. On March 22, Istanbul prosecutors filed an indictment accusing Aydin Dogan, founder and honorary chairman of Dogan Holding AS, and Ersin Ozince, chairman of the country’s largest publicly traded bank, Turkiye Is Bankasi, of involvement in a criminal scheme to evade taxes on fuel imports. Observers considered the charges linked to political considerations. Dogan’s company, Dogan Holding, was the owner of Hurriyet, CNN Turk, and other media outlets. In 2015 the company was banned from participating in state tenders and became the subject of two criminal investigations after President Erdogan accused Dogan of being a “coup lover,” alleging his involvement in a 1997 coup plot.
Government officials withheld press accreditation and denied entry to several journalists from Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Russia, Norway, Syria, and the United States. Eleven international journalists reported government interference in their ability to report within Turkey in the first four months of the year. Several international writers and at least one Turkey-based correspondent for an international media organization faced criminal charges during the year, accused either of insulting Turkish officials or of creating propaganda for a terrorist organization.
Extremists have also targeted Syrian journalists who had fled to Turkey. On June 12, two gunmen attacked Syrian journalist, Ahmed Abd al-Qader, outside his home in Sanliurfa. Al-Qader, who survived the attack, was presumably targeted because he founded the exiled Syrian news outlet Eye on the Homeland. On April 10, Syrian journalist, Muhammed Zahir al-Sherkat, was shot in the head on a street in Gaziantep’s Degirmicem neighborhood by Da’esh attackers; he died a day later. Da’esh claimed responsibility for killing three other Syrian journalists in the country since October 2015. Investigations into the cases continued at year’s end.
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 on which media coverage was restricted, including the Ensar child abuse case, accusations of sexual assault of children in Syrian refugee camps, terror attacks, Da’esh shelling of Turkey’s border town Kilis, precoup investigation of the Gulen movement, and others. The government declared media bans on terror attacks or other sensitive issues, although many media outlets disregarded these bans, which were often not enforced.
On September 15, a representative of the CPJ reported that, in the two months after the July 15 coup attempt, authorities censored at least 30 news websites. According to an NGO tracking journalism issues in the country, the government sharply increased its media interference as a consequence of the July 15 coup attempt. The government initiated approximately 200 blocking actions each in March, April, and May, blocking news websites, prohibiting hard-copy news publishing, or blocking television broadcasting. The number of blocking actions increased to 429 in June and 497 in July. After the coup attempt, the number of blocking actions rose to 783 in August.
Progovernment media appeared to coordinate editorial decisions, at times running similar headlines. On September 23, a Red Hack leak of purported e-mails between President Erdogan’s son-in-law (and energy minister) Berat Albayrak and the CEO of the Dogan Media group, Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, showed alleged collusion on the headlines planned for the next day’s Hurriyet newspaper. On September 28, an Ankara criminal court confirmed the hack of Albayrak’s e-mail, although Albayrak denied that the publicized e-mails were legitimate. Despite the seriousness of the allegation of official interference in media, progovernment media did not cover it. The websites and Twitter accounts of those independent media that did cover it were blocked.
On January 26, Istanbul prosecutors initiated an investigation into CNN Turk (owned by Dogan Media) for running a caption connected to President Erdogan’s image reading “Dictator on trial.” The caption appeared in CNN Turk reporting on a criminal case filed against the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who called Erdogan a “dictator” at the party’s January 17 convention. At year’s end the investigation had not led to charges, and the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) decided not to fine the station, but it issued directions on how CNN Turk might use different wording in the future.
The RTUK continued a practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.”
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens 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.
Citizens, including children, were charged with insulting Turkish leaders and denigrating Turkishness. On March 1, Justice Minister Bozdag told parliament that since Erdogan became president in 2014, his ministry had allowed the prosecution of 1,845 criminal cases based on alleged insult of the president (the Ministry of Justice must approve criminal prosecution of insult cases against Turkish leaders). In August news media reported there were about 4,000 criminal insult cases underway based on violations, including “denigrating Turkishness” or insulting public leaders.
On February 2, prosecutors demanded a nearly five-year prison sentence against journalist Ozgur Mumcu for insulting President Erdogan in a May 2015 editorial. The item in the opposition daily Cumhuriyet commented on Erdogan’s response to the mother of a Gezi victim, calling Erdogan “a tyrant who oppresses his people, treating them without mercy.”
The government encouraged citizens to report incidents of insult. In one example, in April the Turkish embassy in the Netherlands sent a communication to Turkish citizens in the country asking them to report incidents of insult against Turkish leaders. On April 25, a Dutch/Turkish dual citizen, journalist Ebru Umar, was detained while vacationing in Turkey for sending a tweet critical of the Turkish embassy’s communication. She was eventually allowed to depart Turkey, although her trial on insult charges continued.
Despite enjoying parliamentary immunity against most criminal charges, lawmakers were also the subject of insult-related civil cases. On July 14, an Ankara civil court ordered Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu to pay President Erdogan 50,000 lira ($14,300) for calling him a “sham dictator.” Erdogan’s lawyers argued that the comment constituted “extraordinarily weighty insults” with the intent of attacking Erdogan’s image. In another civil insult case in September 2015, a court ordered Kilicdaroglu to pay 20,000 lira ($5,700).
While leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, free speech advocates pointed out that the law was not applied equally. On February 29, President Erdogan’s spouse described the Turkish nation as a “90-year-old-wreck,” but she was not charged with any crime.
On July 29, President Erdogan announced he would forgive most insult cases his legal team had filed. On September 6, Erdogan’s lawyer told media that the team had filed a petition to withdraw complaints against thousands of defendants. As a result, 10 persons were released from prison and prosecutors dropped 16 cases against opposition CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and one case against Nationalist Movement Party leader, Devlet Bahceli. Prosecutors subsequently filed new insult charges against politicians and citizens.
The laws also allow prosecution for insulting religion or religious values. On April 28, Cumhuriyet journalists, Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Cetinkaya, were each sentenced to two years in prison on charges of “insulting people’s religious values” for reprinting the caricature of the Islamic prophet after the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris that killed 12 persons. Cumhuriyet faced security threats after it became one of five international publications that, in a show of solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims, printed excerpts from the edition published after the attacks.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the antiterror law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations including the CPJ and Freedom House reported authorities increasingly used the antiterror law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting the PKK. Before the July 15 coup attempt, at least 28 pro-Kurdish and five other journalists whose reporting was generally critical of the government were in jail pending trial. According to the television station T24, another 13 pro-Kurdish journalists and 66 journalists accused of links to the Gulen movement were jailed in the period between the July 15 coup attempt and September 5, bringing the total number of journalists in detention pending trial to 112. Another 54 were under detention but not formally arrested. As of November 15, the International Press Institute estimated that 160 journalists were in jail in Turkey. By year’s end the journalism-focused NGO P24 estimated there were 145 journalists in jail.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used a variety of pressure tactics that limited freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the Southeast. During the 2015 elections and also in the aftermath of curfews enacted in the spring in response to PKK violence, some residents of the Southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government restricted access to the internet and regularly blocked selected online content. The government at times blocked access to “cloud”-based services and to virtual private networks. There was evidence that the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority.
During the year internet freedom continued to worsen in the country, partly in response to ongoing security challenges, particularly in the Southeast. Internet law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any of a number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; encouraging suicide, the sexual abuse of children, or the use of drugs and stimulants; providing substances dangerous to health; engaging in obscenity or prostitution; providing means for gambling; threatening life or property. Sites may also be blocked to protect national security and public order. In June the internet governing body updated regulations to make it easier to censor internet content.
On August 15, the government issued a decree under the state of emergency dismantling the Turkish Telecommunications Authority (TIB) due to its alleged role in the coup attempt and folding its authorities into the existing Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK). The BTK is now empowered, as the TIB was previously, to demand that internet service providers (ISPs) remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice. The regulatory body 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 ($14,300 to $143,000) 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 regulatory body to order the ISP to remove the offensive content. Government ministers can also order websites blocked, and the regulatory authority is legally compelled to comply within four hours, followed by a court order within 24 hours.
The declaration of a state of emergency expanded the government’s powers to restrict internet freedom with reduced parliamentary and judicial oversight. Critics charged that the elimination of the TIB and empowerment of the BTK limited oversight of internet surveillance and censorship.
The BTK reported 200,634 complaints regarding offensive internet content through September 22. The institution did not describe how many of the complaints resulted in blocking orders.
The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that is responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The BTK 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.
Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals accused of insulting them.
According to the internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, as of November 16, 115,315 websites had been blocked during the year, an increase from 106,198 in 2015 and 58,635 in 2014. Approximately 93 percent of the sites were blocked via a TIB/BTK decision and 2.6 percent were blocked by a court order.
Internet access providers, including internet cafes, are required to use filtering tools approved by the BTK. Additional internet restrictions operated in government and university buildings.
The NGO monitoring project Turkey Blocks reported that the government greatly increased its use of “throttling” during the year, slowing access to specific websites in the aftermath of terror attacks or other sensitive events to the point where they were essentially unusable. This practice restricted information access during crises.
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, the company received 2,493 court orders and other legal requests from Turkish authorities to remove content in the first half of the year. According to digital news source the Daily Dot, on July 23 and again on July 25, Twitter blocked at least 12 journalists’ and three media outlets’ accounts. As of the end of September, Twitter had blocked 26 media-related accounts in the country at the government’s request. Twitter reported that it received more requests to block or remove content from the government of Turkey than from any other government.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
During the year the government increasingly limited academic freedom, restricted freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censored cultural events.
After the failed July 15 coup attempt, the Ministry of Education suspended 15,000 staff and revoked the licenses of 21,000 teachers at private primary and secondary education institutions. By mid-August the number of suspended teachers rose to 33,000 and revoked licenses to 27,000, representing about 6 percent of the education sector. Just before school resumed in mid-September, an additional 11,000 teachers were summarily purged. On November 25, the Ministry of National Education announced it had reinstated 6,007 of the suspended teachers.
University education was also affected by the postcoup purges. On July 19, the Higher Education Board (YOK) announced that all university deans were asked to resign; on July 20, YOK announced a ban on all academic travel. A decree issued on July 27 closed 15 universities affecting 64,533 students and 2,808 academics. As of December some sources estimated as many as 6,000 academics had been suspended or fired on allegations of terror links. On October 29, a decree issued under the state of emergency changed the process by which university heads (rectors) are named. The decree eliminated the possibility of faculty elections and put both public and foundation universities under a system where the YOK will choose three nominees to present to the president for his choice. If the president rejects all three candidates and if a month elapses with no new nominees, the president may appoint a qualified rector entirely of his own choosing.
Some academics and event organizers stated their work was monitored and that they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. 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, research policies, and practice.
On January 11, a group of 1,128 academics from 89 Turkish universities, along with more than 300 international academics, released a petition calling on the state to “put an end to violence inflicted against its citizens.” The so-called Academics for Peace accused the government of conducting “torture, ill-treatment, and massacres” in the Southeast. A nationalistic backlash ensued, with President Erdogan calling the academics “traitors” and the YOK initiating investigations against the signers. Many faced threats of violence or experienced vandalism of their property. Progovernment media published their photos and personal contact information, leading many to fear for their safety. On September 2, a decree issued under the state of emergency led to the dismissal of many academics, including some of the “Academics for Peace.” On December 22, the president of YOK said 4,797 academics had been dismissed since the coup attempt, with 3,025 suspended, and another 1,079 reinstated. More than 100 “Academics for Peace” signers had been dismissed.
The government’s response to the July 15 coup attempt also affected the arts community. On August 3, Istanbul Municipal City Theaters suspended four actors and two directors for alleged Gulen connections. On August 11, singer Sila Gencoglu was criticized after she described an August 7 rally commemorating Turkish democracy and those lost in the coup attempt as a “show.” Following her remarks, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality cancelled two concerts, and three other cities followed suit.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The 2015 Internal Security Package increased penalties for protesters carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibited the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalized covering one’s face during a protest. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization, if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, often using excessive force. At times, the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise that they might cause civil disruption. The government selectively restricted meetings to designated sites or dates, particularly limiting access to Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Ankara’s Kizilay Square, and set up roadblocks to prevent protesters from gathering there. The government banned many demonstrations outright if they touched sensitive issues.
Security forces regularly responded with excessive force to protests, resulting in dozens of injuries, detentions, arrests, and even deaths. The government generally supported security forces’ actions.
Human rights organizations remained critical of the violent police response to demonstrations and police use of tear gas. The current year European Commission’s progress report on Turkey noted widespread use of excessive force by authorities against peaceful protesters.
During events commemorating the Kurdish new year holiday of Newroz in March, there were clashes reported between celebrants and police in Batman, Adana, Mardin, Sirnak, Sanliurfa, Mersin, and Bursa. Media reported that at least 160 persons were detained by police nationwide during the celebrations and that police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse celebrants in some cities. Gatherings of as many as a million participants in Diyarbakir and 75,000 in Istanbul were peaceful.
Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year. On January 9 in Izmir, a group of women protesting in favor of peace in the Southeast were disrupted by police. Police detained 13 members of the group calling itself Women for Peace, including pro-Kurdish Evrensel reporter Eda Aktas, on the grounds that protesters’ press statements insulted the Turkish nation or its institutions. On February 2 in Adana, police allegedly shot and killed 20-year-old Murat Daskan during a protest against the curfews in the Southeast. Eyewitnesses reported police shot Daskan, took his body away, returned later to collect bullet shells, and then reported they “found” his body in the neighborhood. Another 20-year-old, Kadir Caliskan, was injured in the same protest. Police said the PKK shot the protesters. On February 9 in Diyarbakir, 16-year-old Mahmut Bulak was shot in the head while participating in a protest against curfews for Cizre and Sur.
On May 1 (Labor Day), the government took extraordinary security measures in Istanbul, with Taksim Square closed to the traditional annual demonstrations. Police intervened against crowds in Istanbul using tear gas and water cannons and reportedly detained more than 200 protesters. Nail Mavus was killed in Istanbul after being hit by a police water-cannon vehicle, apparently accidentally. After the government announced that Taksim square would be closed, the unions decided to hold their official demonstration in Bakirkoy, another neighborhood, where the event was peaceful. In the Southeast the governors of Adana, Gaziantep, and Sanliurfa cancelled May Day demonstrations, citing security concerns.
On June 19, police dispersed crowds using tear gas when activists attempted to hold a “trans pride” parade. Citing security concerns, the Istanbul Governor’s Office also banned the LGBTI community’s annual pride parade, which had been planned for June 26. Police actively prevented both those who nonetheless gathered for the pride parade and an anti-LGBTI group that had gathered the same day to protest parade participants (see section 6: Acts of Violence).
On September 20, an Ankara court found 45 students of Middle East Technical University guilty of violating the law on meetings and protests, resisting public officers, and obstructing the latter from doing their jobs. The charges related to a 2012 student protest against then prime minister Erdogan while he was visiting their campus. Police used tear gas and water cannons against the peacefully protesting students, injuring some of them. In the scuffle that ensued, several students were detained. Each of the 45 students was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
On November 6, a police officer was killed when PKK supporters threw Molotov cocktails at security forces during an unauthorized demonstration in southern Adana province.
Decrees issued under the state of emergency after July 15 increased the discretion of individual governors to limit citizens’ ability to demonstrate. For example, the government prevented teachers’ groups from demonstrating to protest the suspension and dismissal of tens of thousands of educators after the July 15 coup attempt. On September 23 in Diyarbakir, a group of suspended teachers staged a protest in front of the Ministry of National Education provincial office. Police intervened to stop the protest and detained 17.
On October 18, the Ankara governor’s office banned all demonstrations through November. Several times in November, the municipality allowed demonstrations against EU countries accused of supporting the PKK. Crowds of as many as 500 protesters staged outside of related embassies, with some contacts alleging the government had bused supporters to the demonstrations.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government increasingly restricted this right during the year.
In the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt, the government used its expanded powers under the state of emergency powers to close 1,694 associations and foundations for alleged threats to national security. The Ministry of Interior reported at year’s end that 1,390 had alleged links to the Gulen movement, about 240 to the PKK, 38 to DHKP/C or other leftist groups, and 12 to Da’esh. Many sources reported that the appeals process was opaque and ineffective. Decrees permitted the reopening of nearly 200 shuttered associations/foundations on November 22, although overall numbers of reopened institutions remained unclear at year’s end.
Under the law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, LGBTI, and women’s groups in particular complained that the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. Bar association representatives reported that police sometimes attended civil society organizational meetings and sometimes recorded them, likely as a means of intimidation.