Turkey: New Arrests of Journalists Shine Spotlight on Problematic Terrorism Laws
Sweeps and large-scale arrests of people accused of being members of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), a pro-Kurdish group that Turkish authorities accuse of being a front for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), have become a commonplace event in Turkey over the last few years. But while the original targets of KCK-related arrests were mostly pro-Kurdish politicians, recent sweeps in the case have netted a wider assortment of suspects, including academics and writers (see this previous post).
Turkey's Kurdish issue continues to be largely defined for the world by the government's nearly 30-year conflict with the outlawed, armed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, during which gross human rights abuses were committed by both sides and 40,000 people died.
At the heart of the issue lie restrictive laws that limit free speech, prevent the teaching of minority languages such as Kurdish in schools and require a political party to secure a whopping 10% of the nationwide vote to gain a seat in parliament. This has meant that Kurdish political parties cannot get into parliament except by standing independent candidates who can then form a minimum 20-seat party grouping once in office.
In the last three years the biggest problem has been the misuse of anti-terrorism laws to bring criminal charges against many ordinary people who engage in legitimate and nonviolent pro-Kurdish or leftist political activity. This crackdown also includes journalists, and it threatens the very fabric of human rights and democracy in Turkey.
Thousands are on trial for membership in the Turkey Assembly of the Union of Kurdistan Communities, or KCK/TM, alleged to be the PKK's urban wing. Most of the defendants are activist members, officials and serving elected mayors of the legal Peace and Democracy Party, which formed a group in parliament after winning 36 seats as independents in the June general election.
Several defendants are with local branches of the Human Rights Assn., including Muharrem Erbey, head of the Diyarbakır branch, who has been imprisoned for two years awaiting trial. Among the more than 1,000 in prison awaiting trial are 40 lawyers. One is Veysel Vesek, active in fighting for justice for families of the thousands of Kurdish citizens who disappeared or were killed by state perpetrators, such as the Turkish security forces, in the early 1990s at the height of the conflict with the PKK. Abdulcabbar Igdi, a local human rights defender in the southeast town of Cizre, is also in prison. I have worked closely with these people, and their imprisonment is a serious setback for the human rights cause in Turkey.
A new low came in November with the arrests of Ragip Zarakolu, an internationally known publisher and human rights defender; Busra Ersanli, a political science professor who had been advising the Peace and Democracy Party on constitutional reform, and Ayse Berktay, a vocal peace activist.
HRW has more on the troubling legal aspects of many of the KCK-related arrests in a report issued in November, which can be found here. Turkey's press freedom record has been recently criticized both by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and by the Council of Europe. In a report issued in July, the CoE's Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, wrote that "serious dysfunctions" in Turkey's legal system are having a chilling effect on the media. From his report:
The Commissioner observes that most violations of freedom of expression in Turkey stem from a lack of proportionality in the interpretation and application of the existing statutory provisions by courts and prosecutors. He is concerned that the interpretation of the concept of “incitement to violence” is not compliant with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights. The Commissioner urges the authorities to introduce into the Turkish legal system the defences of truth and public interest, through legislation and case-law.
The Commissioner is deeply concerned that the excessive length of criminal proceedings and remands in custody, problems concerning defendants’ access to evidence against them pending trial, and the lack of restraint on the part of prosecutors in filing criminal cases, has a distinct chilling effect on freedom of expression in Turkey and has led to self-censorship in Turkish media. He urges the Turkish authorities to address these problems through legislative and practical measures, as well as through systematic training and awareness raising activities within the justice system.
The exact number of journalists behind bars in Turkey is a matter of dispute, but these recent arrests make Turkey among the world's leading countries in terms of the number of imprisoned journalists. Turkish officials have consistently batted away charges that the arrests of journalists are limiting press freedom, saying no reporters have been arrested for their journalism but rather for being involved in criminal or terrorist activities. But the way Turkish law is structured leaves open the question of if that's really the case.