Europe’s top human rights agency has called on Turkey to restore freedom of expression and thought, end crackdown on media freedom, as the country is plagued by a fraying democracy and collapse of the rule of law.
In a detailed 25-page report released on Wednesday, Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks says lack of media freedoms has reached an alarming level.
The report, based on two visits by Mr. Muiznieks in April and September 2016, reveals how country’s hard-won liberties reversed and faced setbacks. “Democratic debate in Turkey has shrunk alarmingly followed increased judicial harassment of large strata of society, including journalists, members of parliament, academics and ordinary citizens, and government action which has reduced pluralism and led to self-censorship,” he said while presenting the report.
“This deterioration came about in a very difficult context, but neither the attempted coup, nor other terrorist threats faced by Turkey can justify measures that infringe media freedom and disavow the rule of law to such an extent,” he added, calling the Turkish authorities to urgently change the course by overhauling criminal legislation and practice, re-develop judicial independence and reaffirm their commitment to protect free speech.
Turkey is set to hold a referendum on April 16 to decide to approve or reject a transition to the presidential system, a change that envisions expanding presidential powers at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence for the proposed change is interpreted as a new power grab, placing most of the executive powers at the presidential office.
The European official says the EU “foresee[s] a significant further diminution of the autonomy of the Turkish judiciary vis-a-vis the executive and legislative branches.”
“The commissioner urges the Turkish political leaders in the strongest possible terms to change course and start separating what is a terrorist action from criticism and dissent, and to display the responsibility and tolerance expected in a democratic society. They must redevelop the political will necessary to tackle the very long-standing systemic issues suppressing freedom of expression, including on the internet,” the report said.
“A first step is to lift the current state of emergency and reverse the numerous unacceptable infringements of freedom of expression, and in particular media freedom and academic freedom, that it engendered,” the official said.
Turkey’s crackdown on media took an unprecedented level since the coup attempt last summer, shutting down more than 150 media outlets. Turkey tops the list of countries in the world in terms of imprisonment of journalists as more than 140 journalists are held in jails.
Mr. Muiznieks also rejects Turkey’s argument that journalists are not jailed over conducting their job, but because of their links to a terrorist organization or an illegal armed group.
Last week Kanal D television channel sacked its experienced anchorman Irfan Degirmenci after he tweeted he will vote No in the upcoming referendum. The media outlets are either cowed or co-opted with the government under intense pressure, and act to silence its workers to avoid the wrath of authorities.
This leads to genuine concerns over a fair and free campaign for opponents of the presidential reform bill in the vote. The authorities recently detained more than 300 officials of pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), the third largest opposition party whose co-chairs are in jail, in an attempt to intimidate opposition ahead of the critical referendum. Mr. Muiznieks says imprisonment of lawmakers sent a chilling message to the society and increased fear.
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