This statement was originally published on europeanjournalists.org on 15 February 2017.
"There is an urgent need to restore freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey. The closure of more than 150 media organisations since the coup attempt and the continuous detention of around 150 journalists had a huge chilling effect on the state of fundamental rights in Turkey," said Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks who published today (15 February 2017) a detailed Memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey based on the findings of two visits to the country in April and September 2016.
In a interview with the EFJ, the Commissioner insisted that the situation has significantly worsened under the state of emergency by the use of discretionary powers against journalists, opposition groups, media companies and NGOs. "The impact on press freedom affects the use of so many other fundamental rights like the right to have fair trials, fair elections… the measures taken by the executive also [resulted in] very serious damages to these basic democratic rights”. When asked if the publication of this Memorandum could convince Turkish authorities to change their policy, Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks replied "previous experience shows that positive changes are possible when there is a political will to go for it. We have a slow but good dialogue and cooperation with Turkish authorities but with very little change on the ground so far."
In regards to upcoming constitutional changes in Turkey whereas the Turkish Parliament recently adopted amendments to the Turkish Constitution, which are expected to be submitted to a referendum, the Commissioner regrets to observe that the serious shortcomings in the Constitution's approach to human rights, including freedom of expression, are not at all being addressed and invites the Turkish authorities to remedy this situation. "Constitutional changes in a country should be taken following an inclusive and democratic debate. I have serious doubts that the proposed constitutional amendments are made in conformity with international standards given the fact that they are taken under the state of emergency and when a number of members of the Parliament are kept in jail," said Nils Muižnieks.
The 25-page Memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey published by the CoE Commissioner on Human Rights reiterates the problems identified during his visits and ends with concrete recommendations including:
- Lift the current state of emergency and reverse the numerous unacceptable infringements of freedom of expression, and in particular media and academic freedoms that it engendered.
- Completely overhaul the Criminal Code and the Anti-Terrorism law so as to align law and practice with the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.
- Change a judicial culture where judges and prosecutors interpret and apply laws in a way that consistently undermines freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey.
- Defamation, in particular of public officials, should no longer be a criminal offence but, where absolutely necessary, could be subject to proportionate civil sanctions only.
- Serious review of the criminal judges of the peace who appear to have quickly transformed into an instrument of harassment to stifle opposition and legitimate criticism of the Turkish government.
- Prosecutors and courts must stop using criminal procedures, and in particular detention on demand, to punish and discourage the exercise of freedom of expression, including on the Internet, where there is an absence of direct, incontrovertible evidence establishing criminal wrongdoing and membership of a criminal organisation, in particular when the only basis is the content of journalistic writings or perceived affiliation based on spurious evidence.
- The overly wide application of the concept of terrorist propaganda and support of a terrorist organisation, including to statements and persons that clearly do not incite violence, reflects a mistaken belief that restricting freedom of expression in violation of international human rights norms will help solve these problems. Violence and the threat to use violence is the defining component of the concept of "terrorism", which must not be used as a catch-all label to punish statements that do not contain these elements, even when these statements are non-consensual, shocking or politically embarrassing.
- 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.