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The true face of Turkey

The recent violent crackdown by police against peaceful demonstrators throughout the country has shown the world a picture of Turkey that successive governments have taken great pains to hide. But the veil has been lifted by the police violence and the public remarks made by government officials, in particular Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Together, they demonstrate how little respect Turkey has for fundamental rights and freedoms today.

“Police brutality, largely condoned by the Turkish Government, has come as little surprise to human rights organisations, including ARTICLE 19. For years we have expressed serious concerns about the situation in Turkey. These have included violence against human rights defenders and journalists, the large number of imprisoned authors, bloggers and journalists, internet censorship and, more generally, the severe legal restrictions on freedom of expression. Our concerns have mainly fallen on deaf ears, due to a combination of economic, military and strategic considerations.  Governments around the world have been prepared to prioritise these over respect for human rights,” says Dr Agnès Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.
Over the last week, as a result of the police crackdown, two protesters and a policeman have died, and a third protester has been declared brain dead. There are reports that over 4,500 people have been injured and a large number of people arrested. Ongoing protests have continually been met with excessive use of force, including the indiscriminate use of tear gas.
According to Turkish human rights organisations, no police officers or government officials have been suspended for their involvement in the violence against peaceful protesters that has resulted in deaths and/or injuries. Furthermore, the authorities have yet to release up-to-date and accurate information on the numbers of people arrested and injured.
Artists, journalists and film-makers have denounced mainstream media for failing to report adequately on the protests. One example is of CNN Turkey, which showed a documentary on penguins at the time of the first police crackdown on protesters in Gezi Park.
As a result of this failure by the mainstream media, Twitter has played a prominent part in the reporting and organisation of protests. This prompted Prime Minister Erdoğan to brand Twitter the “worst menace” to Turkish society and to accuse social media platforms of spreading lies. His statement was followed by the prompt arrest of over 30 Twitter users for “misinformation”. Although the majority of them were later released, fears remain that there will be a backlash against people who actively use social media during these protests.
Turkey is a signatory to the major human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Such treaties protect the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. ARTICLE 19 calls on Turkey to ensure, as part of its international and regional commitments, that these rights are fully respected and protected in the country.
ARTICLE 19 reminds the Turkish authorities that peaceful protest is a powerful form of exercise of a number of interlinked and interdependent human rights. These include the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs. These rights are essential for genuine democracy and the rule of law.  
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Turkish authorities to:

1.     Enable peaceful protest and investigate all cases of excessive use of force
Under international law, the right to freedom of expression protects not only ideas and information but also the form that such expression might take, in this case public protest. This right extends to the expression of ideas that may be considered controversial or that may be critical of the government. The ability of people to come together and express their voices collectively is fundamental to a democratic society.
Furthermore, international human rights standards state that police and security forces can disperse a protest only as a last resort. Excessive use of force by law enforcement authorities can violate fundamental freedoms and protected rights, leading to further tension and unrest. The police must respect and actively enable public assemblies to take place without participants fearing physical violence.
ARTICLE 19 condemns the excessive use of force by the police against peaceful protesters, which is a violation of these standards. ARTICLE 19 is particularly concerned about the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and high pressure water cannons to disperse protesters.
We call on the authorities in Turkey to comply with their international human rights obligations and ensure the safety of people who engage in peaceful protests. These obligations include abiding by the following principles which should apply whenever force is used by the police:
  • Establishing an automatic review process of the use of force, to take place promptly after the event
  • Setting up decontamination procedures in all cases where pepper spray or other irritant chemicals are used
  • Not using water cannons or other forceful methods against people who are unable to leave a particular area.
ARTICLE 19 also calls for a swift and independent investigation into police violence against the protesters, particularly into the two deaths.
2.     Respect the freedom of the media
Despite large-scale protests across the country, coverage by Turkish broadcasters has been limited. As a result, the Turkish people have not been provided with comprehensive information on matters of particular public interest and importance at this politically unstable time.
ARTICLE 19 believes that the mainstream media have failed to report on the protests due to their lack of independence, their economic links to the Government and the prevailing culture of self-censorship.
ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly criticised the Turkish Government for its failure to bring its domestic legislation in line with international freedom of expression standards. It has also criticised the Government for its frequent abuse of criminal law provisions to silence critical voices, including journalists. These provisions include legislation 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.  With the number of journalists in prison on politically motivated charges is estimated to be between 47 to 66 and more than 700 others facing lawsuits which could result in prison sentences, Turkey detains the world record of most journalists in prison
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Turkish Government to:
  • Ensure editorial freedom and secure the independence of all media as a matter of priority
  • Urgently review its legislation, in particular the Criminal Code, defamation and Anti-Terrorism Legislation, for its compliance with international human rights standards, in particular the European Convention of Human Rights
  • Release all journalists currently held on politically motivated charges.
3.     Respect freedom of expression online
The failure of traditional media to offer adequate coverage of the protests has driven many people in Turkey online, where they have sought and shared information using social media platforms, in particular Twitter. A study by New York University estimates that, in an eight-hour period on 31 May, at least 2 million tweets were sent about the demonstrations.
ARTICLE 19 is particularly troubled by a number of official statements that government representatives have made about social media. These include statements by President Gül, who reportedly commented that citizens should not be permitted to conduct a “witch-hunt” over Twitter and by Deputy Prime Minister Arinc, who stated that the government “could have shut down Internet access, but we didn’t”.  We are also concerned about reports that access to the internet or to social media sites have been blocked, particularly in parts of Istanbul where the protests have taken place.
Attacks such as these on freedom of expression online are unfortunately not rare in Turkey. The Turkish Government has been repeatedly criticised for its censorship of the Internet. Under the Internet Law (Law 5651 of 2007), the authorities can ban websites suspected of violating a number of criminal provisions, including “crimes against [founder of the Turkish Republic] Ataturk”. To date, according to experts, at least 30,000 websites have been blocked. In May 2009, the authorities stopped publishing statistics of the number of blocked websites, which has increased the lack of transparency regarding both the numbers of sites blocked and the reasons for blocking.
ARTICLE 19 reminds the Turkish Government that the protection given by international freedom of expression standards extends to freedom of expression online. We also remind the Government that political speech receives particularly strong protection under international law. Individuals must be allowed to voice criticism of their government online without fear of being censored or punished.
The right to freedom of expression can be limited in narrow circumstances - including protecting national security or public order – but any restriction must be strictly necessary and proportionate.  In relation to Twitter, the Turkish authorities should recognise that opinions can be expressed through superficial statements, such as sarcastic, hyperbolic or comical remarks. Given that statements on Twitter are limited to 140 characters, they may be open to different interpretations.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Turkish Government to:
·       Respect and protect the right to freedom of expression online as well as offline
·       Refrain from any attempts to illegitimately restrict access to the Internet in relation to recent events
·       Bring Law No. 5651 in line with international standards
·       Refrain from restricting access to and limiting the use of social media for the organisation of peaceful protests
·       Ensure that people in Turkey can use social media without fear of repercussion. 

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About ARTICLE 19
ARTICLE 19 is an independent human rights organisation that works globally to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression. It takes its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech.

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