Judicial harassment in Turkey

Cumhuriyet trial Caglayan courthouse

Image by Murat Bay/ Sendika.Org

The stories behind Turkey’s crackdown on expression

Judicial harassment: the practice by state authorities of repeatedly filing claims or charges under civil, criminal, and/or administrative law against individuals, often journalists and human rights defenders, in order to intimidate or silence them by entangling them in lengthy legal processes which disrupt their lives and prevent them from carrying out their work.

Freedom of expression has been under attack in Turkey for years, with a drastic decline since 2013. The Turkish state’s reaction to the Gezi Park protests in 2013 was a turning point in relations between civil society and the authorities. The conflict in the South East of the country and the collapse of the peace negotiations in 2015 also led to serious consequences for Kurdish journalists who face prosecution for “terrorism propaganda” without proper application of international standards on the right to freedom of expression. In addition, hundreds of academics were dismissed from their posts and banned from public service for signing a petition calling for a return to the peace process in January 2016. 

The July 2016 coup attempt and the subsequent state of emergency allowed the government to impose far greater restrictions on the judiciary, the media, civil society and academia. At least 170 media outlets have been closed down over claims they spread “terrorist propaganda”. Scores of journalists have been jailed on coup or terrorism charges with high profile “show trials” of journalists, demonstrating for all the dangers of openly criticising the authorities. Constitutional changes in 2017 cemented executive control over the judiciary after a quarter of judges and prosecutors had already been dismissed in the aftermath of the coup attempt. Since then the Turkish authorities have been behaving in an increasingly authoritarian manner, seeking to silence those who criticise state policy on issues like Covid-19, and gain increased powers to censor online speech.

According to official government sources, those prosecuted are not on trial for their expression or journalistic work. Jailed journalists, human rights defenders, politicians are in fact all “terrorists”. Calls from the international community for Turkey to ensure that no one is prosecuted on the basis of their expression have been rejected as interference in independent judicial processes. By monitoring trials, drafting expert legal opinions on cases and sharing this information with the international community, ARTICLE 19 aims to dismantle this narrative.

Case profiles

Those who face prosecution for their freedom of expression in Turkey, often through multiple cases in a pattern of judicial harassment, too often get lost behind the statistics. Here you can read more about the individuals behind these cases, and the details of their struggles against an unjust judicial system and repressive legal framework.

Ahmet Altan

Ahmet Altan is a novelist and journalist, who spent more than four years in prison. He was released in April 2021.

Selahattin Demirtaş

Selahattin Demirtaş is a Kurdish politician, the former co-chair of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), who has been imprisoned since November 2016.

Isminaz Temel

İsminaz Temel is the editor of Etkin News Agency (ETHA), who spent 16 months in pre-trial detention between October 2017 and February 2019.

Turkey’s legal framework

Turkey has a number of national legal provisions which are in violation of international standards on freedom of expression, and its obligations under international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights. According to Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution: “in the case of a conflict between international agreements, duly put into effect, concerning fundamental rights and freedoms and the laws due to differences in provisions on the same matter, the provisions of international agreements shall prevail”. Despite this, certain legal provisions in the domestic law are regularly used to target journalists, writers, and human rights defenders. Compliance with higher court verdicts, including those of the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights (the ECtHR), is also inconsistent. 

In order to comply with international human rights laws, which require Turkey to guarantee the right to freedom of expression, any restrictions on this right must meet a strict three part test:

 1. Provided by law – the restriction must be based on a precisely drafted law and be accessible, to enable individuals to regulate their conduct accordingly; 

2. In pursuit of a legitimate aim – meaning the restriction must have the purpose of protecting the rights or reputations of others, or protecting public health or morals, national security, or public order; and 

3. Necessary and proportionate – the measure must be necessary in a democratic society, and be the least restrictive means of achieving a legitimate aim. 

ARTICLE 19 has analysed some of the most frequently used provisions in trials against civil society in Turkey and their compatibility to international human rights law and standards.This list will be regularly updated to include more legal provisions and to reflect changes in Turkish law and and practice.

The Turkish Constitution

The Penal Code

The Anti-Terrorism Law

Law no. 3713 allows an overly broad interpretation of the term ‘terrorism’, leading to the prosecution of journalists and others on the basis of their expression alone, which did not incite violence or hatred. In particular, Article 1 does not require that the acts committed amount to deadly or otherwise grave violence. This analysis is consistent with the comments made by UN Special Rapporteur Martin Scheinin in 2006 on this issue. He stated that “The Anti-Terror Act is drafted in a way that allows for an overly broad application of the term terrorism” since “the provision is applicable to any kind of act that entails “pressure, force and violence, terror, intimidation, oppression or threat” with “the aim to change the “political, legal, social, secular and economic system” of Turkey and the aim of “weakening … the authority of the State.” He went on to note that in Article 2 of Law no. 3713, which defines who is a terrorist offender,  “there is no requirement that the person must have committed a serious violent crime.”

This analysis was drafted based on the ARTICLE 19 and TLSP joint Rule 9.2 submission. See the full text: https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Rule-9-Submission-Oner-and-Turk-ARTICLE-19-and-TLSP-FINAL.pdf

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This page was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of ARTICLE 19 and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.