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ARTICLE 19 calls on government to lead by example during Committee of Ministers Chairmanship

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 17 November 2010 - At the start of Turkey's six-month Chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, ARTICLE 19 urges the Turkish government to fulfil its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights by taking immediate steps to address the country's alarming freedom of expression situation. ARTICLE 19 is particularly concerned by acts of violence against journalists, the imprisonment of journalists, severe legal restrictions on freedom of expression, internet censorship, and restrictions on the right to freedom of expression of marginalised groups.

Through their ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights, Council of Europe Member States are obligated to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression. As the current Chairman of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, Turkey has an excellent opportunity to lead by example in fulfilling these obligations. At present, however, the freedom of expression situation in Turkey is alarming. ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by a number of freedom of expression issues, outlined below.

Violence against journalists

The continuing cycle of violence and threats of violence against journalists and impunity for perpetrators in Turkey is alarming. Most recently, local sources reported that Dicle News Agency reporter Omer Celik was attacked in May by a group of nationalists. Celik had written an article about violence against Kurdish students. In the eight days preceding the attack against Celik, two other reporters from the same news agency had been threatened or assaulted in connection with their journalistic activities.

In December 2009, editor Cihan Hayirsevener was murdered after receiving death threats following his reporting on a corruption scandal involving the owners of another newspaper. Twelve defendants were brought to trial in connection with Hayirsevener's murder; however, on 15 October 2010, noting that the murder was a result of organised crime, an Istanbul criminal court declared a lack of jurisdiction and referred the case to the Supreme Court.

On 14 September 2010, the European Court of Human Rights issued a judgment in the case of Dink v. Turkey, finding that the Turkish authorities had failed to protect the life and freedom of expression of Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin. Dink, who was known for his criticism of Turkey's human rights record and denial of the Armenian genocide, was murdered in January 2007 after receiving death threats from nationalists.

Imprisonment of journalists

According to the Freedom for Journalists Platform, six journalists are currently in prison and 44 journalists are in detention awaiting trial on charges related to their professional activities. These charges include defamation, "violation of confidentiality", "attempting to influence a fair trial", and "spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation". Most recently, BIANET reported that Haberin Yeri ("News Site") website editor Cem Buyukcakir was sentenced to 11 months' imprisonment at the end of September for publishing a reader's comment alleging that Turkish President Adbullah Gul was of Armenian descent.

Severe legal restrictions on freedom of expression

The Turkish authorities use and abuse a range of criminal law provisions to silence critical voices. These include provisions on defamation, obscenity, incitement to hatred, anti-terrorism, and insulting the Turkish Republic, governmental bodies, the Turkish flag, the national anthem, or being a Turk.

In addition to the 50 journalists currently in prison or detention, according to the European Federation of Journalists, more than 700 others face lawsuits which could land them in jail. Most recently, local sources reported that sports journalist Hincal Uluc faces imprisonment of up to two years for defamation on the basis of an article he published in Photomatch newspaper on 27 July, which the Istanbul Public Prosecutor claims insults a football club's sports director.

Internet censorship

Under Law 5651, commonly known as the Internet Law of Turkey, authorities can ban websites that are suspected of violating a number of criminal provisions, including "crimes against Ataturk". According to an OSCE report, from the enactment of the law in May 2007 until December 2009, approximately 3,700 websites had been blocked by authorities, including YouTube and many Google services. In a short-lived positive step, on 30 October, Turkish authorities lifted the ban on YouTube, only to reverse it several days later - just one week prior to assuming the Chairmanship. Additionally, the Internet Law has been criticised for severely restricting the right to access information.

Restrictions on freedom of expression of marginalised groups

The trends outlined above present particular problems for marginalised groups in Turkey, including ethnic minorities (particularly Kurds) and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons, as their right to freedom of expression is often disproportionately restricted. For example, 151 Kurdish public figures, politicians, and civil society activists currently stand trial en masse on charges of "violating the unity of the state" and "abetting terrorism", which has been widely criticised as aimed at shutting down the political activities of Kurdish groups. LGBT groups are often targeted under legal provisions on "public exhibitionism" and "offences against public morality", and LGBT publications and websites have often been blocked or targeted on the false grounds that they contain pornographic material.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Turkish authorities to use the opportunity of its Committee of Ministers Chairmanship to lead by example by taking immediate steps to address these problems and establish a climate enabling of and conducive to freedom of expression.

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