State Department Report Slams Turkey on Human Rights and Press Freedom

The United States accused Turkey of restricting civil rights and violating basic human rights in a long annual human rights report released on Wednesday. The report starts noting that the "challenging security environment" and attacks on party officials and campaign staffers in some cases "hindered contestants' ability to campaign freely", and expressed concern that media restrictions during the campaign period "reduced voters' access to a plurality of views and information during the election process on November 1, which led to the formation of a government on November 24 by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, even though it was considered a generally free election.

The report revealed that multiple provisions in the law created the opportunity for the government to restrict freedom of expression, the press, and the internet. The report said:

"Government pressure on the media continued. As of November authorities had arrested an estimated 30 journalists, most charged under anti-terror laws or for alleged association with an illegal organization. The government also exerted pressure on the media through security force raids on media companies; confiscation of publications with allegedly objectionable material; criminal investigations of journalists and editors for alleged terrorism links or for insulting the president and other senior government officials; reprisals against the business interests of owners of some media conglomerates; fines; and internet blocking.

At least one journalist was physically attacked and injured in the wake of threats incited by a pro-government member of parliament. Self-censorship was common amid a prevailing fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals. Pressure on Kurdish-language and opposition media outlets in the Southeast reduced vulnerable populations' access to information about the conflict with the PKK. A number of media outlets affiliated with the Fethullah Gulen movement were dropped from digital media platforms (cable providers) and five outlets were taken under the control of government-appointed trustees. Representatives of Gulenist and some liberal media outlets were denied access to official events and in some cases, denied press accreditation."

The report pointed out that senior government officials used anti-LGBTI, anti-Armenian, anti-Alevi, and anti-Semitic rhetoric, particularly during polarizing election campaign periods. It also stated that inconsistent application of the law and the appearance of overly broad application of anti-terror laws remained problems:

"Wide leeway granted to prosecutors and judges contributed to politically motivated investigations and court verdicts that were not consistent with the law or with rulings in similar cases. Authorities applied the broad anti-terror laws extensively with little transparency to arrest opposition political party members and individuals accused of association with the PKK or the Fethullah Gulen movement. Authorities continued to make arbitrary arrests, hold detainees for lengthy and indefinite periods, and conduct extended trials. The government also indicted six judges and prosecutors involved in investigating alleged corruption of high-level government officials, a move interpreted as an attempt by the executive branch to intimidate members of the judiciary."

According to the report, 'peace courts' created legal confusion due to unclear hierarchy and authority. The report said.

"The courts in December 2014, for example, ordered the arrest of Samanyolu Broadcasting Company CEO Hidayet Karaca and other members of the media as well as 33 police officers with alleged ties to Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric accused of operating a clandestine network within the executive and judicial branches with a goal of overthrowing the government. After a higher-level court ruled on April 26 that detainees should be released, the Istanbul chief public prosecutor stated the higher court's decision was null and void because another peace court had simultaneously ruled for the continuation of their detention. The defendants were indicted on September 17, and the case continued at year's end."

The country has an inquisitorial criminal justice system.

The report suggested that the country's system for educating and assigning judges and prosecutors created close connections between them; observers (including the European Commission) claimed this led, at least, to the appearance of impropriety and unfairness in criminal cases. The report noted:

"Prosecutors and judges studied together at the country's Justice Academy before being assigned to their first official posts by the HSYK; after appointment, they often lodged together, shared the same office space, worked in the same courtroom for many years, and even switched positions over their careers. Prosecutors entered courtrooms through doors reserved for judicial officials and sat next to judges throughout court proceedings. Human rights and bar associations noted that defense attorneys generally underwent less rigorous training than their prosecutorial counterparts and were not required to pass an examination to demonstrate a minimum level of expertise."

The report emphasized that Turkish authorities used the anti-terror laws during the year to detain individuals and seize assets, including media companies, of individuals alleged to be associated with the Gulen movement, designated by the government during the year as the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization. The report revealed:

"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 pro-government 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."

"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."

In the report it was also noted that 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 report reminded 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."

The State Department report also reminded that several organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Freedom House, reported authorities increased their abuse of the anti-terror 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.