Last year, 2018, was a difficult year in Turkey and the country entered the new year under the shadow of two new emergency decrees. Decrees 695 and 696 not only sacked 2,766 more public officials, but also brought criminal immunity to “civilians that perpetuated crimes during suppression of coup attempt and terror acts”. This immunity provided the setting for Turkey’s human rights record for 2018. Together with these decrees, the single-colour prisoner uniforms principle was also adapted, abandoning the presumption of innocence.
The State of Emergency Decrees provided the framework for the securitising policies imposed by the AKP government in response to the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. But the country’s human rights and democracy records have consistently been deteriorating since 2011. By the beginning of 2018, Freedom House’s World Freedom Report had already downgraded Turkey to the Not Free category. Reporters Without Borders’ Freedom of Expression Index ranked Turkey 157th among 180 countries and in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index the country came 101st among 113 countries indexed.
Only in 2017, 187 journalists were detained. Out of these, 58 were arrested, raising the number of imprisoned journalists to 165 by the beginning of 2018. In November 2017, there were 232,132 inmates in the country’s 384 prisons and 88,745 of these were not even convicted. The number of people in prisons have increased around 10 per cent annually since 2002, the year AKP came to power. Since the thwarted coup attempt of July 15, 2016, about 150,000 people were detained due to their alleged links to the Gulen Movement. Of the detained, 48,305 were arrested. While Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul promised that, in 2018, the coup cases would be removed from the public agenda, he also promised to open 38 new prisons.
Alongside with the coup cases, other issues occupying human rights defenders in 2018 were the arrests of Kurdish deputies and politicians, the suppression of the public unrest against the Afrin Operation, the sentencing of the academics who signed the “We won’t participate in this crime!” petition, the journalists who, in some cases, received life sentences, the monocoloured prisoners’ uniform policy, the interventions into the “I want my work back” meetings, the unending chain of insulting the president cases, children forced to stay behind the bars together with their mothers and, of course, the perpetuating of the State of Emergency There was not a single day when the police did not use disproportionate power, or when there were no news of torture and rights violations from the prisons. It was a difficult year.
The year started with a series of convictions about Kurdish deputies of Peoples’ Democratic Party, HDP. Diyarbakır deputy Idrıs Baluken was given 16 years and eight months for alleged membership of a terrorist organisation. Leyla Birlik was given one year and nine months for insulting the President of the country while Lezgin Botan was given two years because of his election speeches and Selma Irmak was given a year’s prison sentence for defaming the Turkish Republic. Five Kurdish deputies of the Grand National Assembly lost their status in 2017; in 2018, six deputies’ memberships of the Assembly was waived. Among these deputies were symbolically important names like Leyla Zana, Osman Baydemir and Dilek Öcalan.
Former co-chair of the party, Selahattin Demirtas was, since November 2016, already behind bars. He appeared before a judge in 2018 for the first time. On 20 November 2018, the European Court of Human Rights called for his release, but a Turkish court of appeal confirmed the sentence at breakneck speed and prevented his release. Thus, the Kurdish Obama, whom the prosecutors are asking for 43 to 142 years in 20 different cases, was certain to spend 2019 behind the bars.
The last Kurdish politician to enter prison in 2018 for alleged involvement in terrorist propaganda was former deputy and film maker Sirri Sureyya Onder, who surrendered on 6 December 2018 to serve his three years and six months prison sentence.
The arrest of their politicians were not the only problem of the Kurds in 2018. The Kurdish-dominated cities of Turkey were under continuous curfew. Governors of these cities declared bans on all kinds of protests or public events whenever they felt a stir among the public. The city of Diyarbakir alone has imposed curfews 332 times in the last three years
The government was already removing elected Kurdish mayors from their positions in 2017. In early 2018, it began to do the same to mayors from the Republican People’s Party CHP. The first victim was Murat Haznedar, a promising mayor of the Besiktas district of Istanbul. This increased the number of caretakers appointed to municipalities to 95. By the end of 2018, this number grew to 101. This was followed by the removal and replacement of village-heads with caretakers. The replaced village-heads were the ones that rejected to participate in the President’s routine village-heads meeting at his palace.
Advisors of CHP and the newly founded IYI Party followed suit. The prosecutors of the regime were skilfully labelling all opposition politicians as either Gulenists or Kurdish separatists.
The country saw a general election in June 24. The presidential candidate of the Kurds, Mr Selahattin Demirtas, had to run his campaign from his prison cell in the Edirne Prison. Both the official TV channel of the country and the eight major private channels heavily discriminated against the opposition parties when allocating airtime. CHP members of the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK) İsmet Demirdöğen and İlhan Taşçı prepared a report on the visibility of political parties on TRT and some private TV screens between May 1 and April 3, 2018. According to the report, the public channel TRT spent no time on covering HDP. At the same period, AKP was covered 61 hours, MHP one hour, CHP 9.5 hours, the IYI Party 31 minutes, and the Felicity and Homeland parties ten minutes each. CNN Turk, Haberturk TV, NTV, TGRT Haber, Kanal 24, TV NET, ULKE TV and Akit TV aired, in total, AKP for 354 hours, 79 hours nine minutes for CHP, eight hours 34 minutes for MHP, five hours 20 minutes for the IYI Party, two hours 23 minutes for the Felicity Party, one hour 30 minutes for Grand Unity Party, one hour and seven minutes for the Free Cause Party, and one hour five minutes for Homeland Party. HDP was not aired at all. These eight private channels – TGRT Haber, Kanal 24, TV NET, ÜLKE TV and Akit TV – did not allocate any airtime at all to any opposition party.
Opposing this injustice would not help as the Higher Election Board declared President Erdogan exempt from election restrictions. Accordingly, he has the right to mobilise all facilities of the state to the order of his campaign.
The civil society organisations concerned that Turkey would be dragged into a great war in the Middle East with the pretext of the Afrin Operation were the first to learn that 2018 would be even harder than previous years. The statement titled “War is a public health problem” from the Turkish Medical Association was enough for the Association to be declared traitors and for eleven academics and members of the central council of the Association to be detained.
Another civil society activist who found the Afrin Operation meaningless was the outspoken chairman of the Furkan Education and Service Foundation, Alparslan Kuytul. Kuytul, who had a significant follower base among religious circles, was detained on January 30. The same day, the number of detentions rose to 25 in three different cities and all assets of the Furkan Education and Service Foundation were frozen. Though each document provided by the National Intelligence Agency and the Police Intelligence proved that the Association had nothing to do with violence or terrorism, the Furkan Education and Service Foundation was declared an armed terror organisation and Kuytul was accused of being its founder and manager.
What made 2018 most difficult for the civil society was the ban on “any kind of march, press meeting, meeting, tent building, stand opening and similar type activities”, which was declared on important days such as the International Women’s Day. These bans were declared either locally or nationally and for periods from ten days up to one month.
Eventually, civil society organisations were unable to celebrate the March 8 International Women’s Day or the Nowruz Celebrations on March 21. Any kind of protest march was banned 15 days before the May 1 Workers’ Day and the ban continued 15 days after then. The Pride Parades of the LGBTI+ organisations planned for the week of 24-25 June were prevented in the same way.
In fact, all activities of the LGBTI+ organisations, be it protests, meetings, or even a film screening, were banned throughout the country on pretexts of “public sensitivity and susceptibility,” “public safety,” “preservation of general health and morals,” and “protection of the rights and freedoms of others” or simply by referring to similar bans promulgated under the State of Emergency.
The civil society was not free behind closed doors either. Governorates of cities and districts banned meetings, panels, conferences and even concerts with the allegation that their “content were inconvenient”. Tourism festivals aimed at the promotion of cities, strikes and lockouts organised by the unions for the rights of employees were either cancelled or deterred with same pretexts and methods. According to the monthly human rights violations’ reports prepared by CHP deputy Sezgin Tanrikulu, during September and October 2018 alone, 26 events were banned, 125 events were intervened by police and at least 1,165 people were detained during these interventions nationwide.
One particular civil society organisation that was affected the most with these kinds of “bans on events” was the Saturday Mothers, which is inviting the government to act to find their missing relatives through silent sitting gatherings at the Galatasaray Square of Istanbul for the last 23 years. On 25 August 2018, the 700th gathering of the Saturday Mothers was banned. Before then, the Saturday Mothers missed 18 Saturdays and several of their members and supporters were detained and arrested.
Observing the unbearable pressures on the civil society and realising that the projects they have been supporting in Turkey would be harmed due to the religious identity of their founder George Soros, the Open Society Foundation was forced to cease all its operations in Turkey as of 26 November 2018.
It has never been easy to be woman in Turkey. But in 2018, women suffered even more, particularly when their grievances overlapped with other causes.
Gender-based violence is an important issue in Turkey. According to the numbers given by the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, the number of women killed by me grew from its already high number of 347 in 2017 to 363 by the end of November 2018. In a significant share of these femicides, the police were reportedly indifferent to the demands of the women for protection.
According to research commissioned by The Confederation of Public Employees’ Trade Unions (KESK) on the occasion of International Working Women’s Day in March 2018, of the public employees sacked from their positions because of the State of Emergency Decrees (KHK), 21,409 were women. Of the removed academics, 1,409 were women.
According to the report prepared by the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK) for the same occasion, eleven women associations were closed under the State of Emergency conditions. Sixteen women journalists, 35 women mayors and five women deputies were arrested.
According to a report published by CHP’s Istanbul deputy Sezgin Tanrikulu on the occasion of the World Children Rights Day on 20 November 2018, 61 children were killed as and 1,014 children were subjected to one form of sexual abuse during the first ten months of 2018. Official statistics provided by the Presidency reveals that during the 18 months between January 2017 and June 2018, 21,957 children were pregnant in Turkey. And this was only the recorded, official figure. At the same period, 1 185 000 children under 18 were part of the workforce in Turkey.
According to statistics shared by the General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Houses, the number of children under six years of age staying in prisons together with their mothers grew from 624 in 2017 to 743, as of 14 November 2018.
These children, particularly those under 12 months old and those suffering from chronic illnesses such as asthma, suffered the most in 2018. According to media reports on 9 April 2018, Esma Yilmaz, staying in Urfa’s No 2 T Type Prison, was given two days of cell confinement. The prison court saw no harm in putting her nine months old baby with asthma in solitary confinement.
Teacher Ayşe Çelik, who was charged with “propaganda of a terrorist organisation” for her saying “Let no children die!” during a live broadcast she joined via phone, entered the Diyarbakir E Type Prison together with her baby when her one year and three month long prison sentence was approved and her six months suspension of execution term ended.
Not a single day passed in 2018 without psychological pressure, sexual violence, maltreatment, torture, denial of access to the right to health, imposed nudity searches, forced handcuffed treatments at hospitals and bans on books, magazines and newspapers occurred in the prisons of Turkey.
Among the recorded human rights violations in prisons reported by the Human Rights Association (IHD), there are issues such as the denial of access to health, physical violence, forced body searches, transfers of inmates who attempt to protest, carry out hunger strikes or resisting counting while standing to other prisons against their will or consent, the delay of release through disciplinary fines, the failure to deliver books and letters, restrictions on rights to sports and fixing cameras throughout the facilities including toilet cabins.
While these were real problems of prisoners in Turkey, the one topic that busied the Turkish press in 2018 with regards to prisoner rights was the monocoloured prisoner uniform policy that was legalised by one of the State of Emergency Decrees late in 2017. President Erdogan was referring to the Guantanamo prisoners’ uniforms as a source of legitimacy and was stressing the colour of the uniforms as “darker than the kernel of an almond”, a clear hint to the colour of human excreta.
Monocoloured prisoner uniforms were imposed after the 1980 military intervention and would destroy the basis of presumption of innocence. Hence, the policy attracted much reaction. In many prisons, prisoners started hunger strikes while the government used this reaction as an opportunity to increase the pressure on the prisoners. Prisoners who protested against the new policy, through hunger strikes or other means, were transferred to remote prisons, sentenced to lengthy cell confinements and their releases were delayed.
One of the worst conditions of the prisons in 2018 was overcrowding. As of 14 November 2018, there were 259,327 prisoners living in prisons with a maximum capacity of 211,766. The number of inmates continues to increase daily. This means, about 50,000prisoners entered 2019 sleeping on the cold floors of prisons.
According to the numbers given by Human Rights Association (IHD), there were 1,154 unwell prisoners in Turkish prisons as of March 2018. Out of these, 402 were in critical conditions. İbrahim Akbaba, aged70, became the last victim of the insistence of the Turkish regime to keep suspects behind bars during trials despite poor health. Akbaba, who had partial paralysis in 2015 and had one of his legs amputated due to diabetes, died during a court appearance when he had a heart attack on 6 December 2018. All campaigns for his release due to poor health had fallen to deaf ears. Only after he died did the court rule for his release, almost as a matter of irony. IHD also observed that pregnant prisoners were kept under inappropriate hygiene conditions unsuitable for their needs. They were also poorly nurtured and at risk for their lives in the overpopulated prison wards.
According to the joint declaration made on 10 December 2018 by the Human Rights Association (IHD) and Turkey Human Rights Foundation (TIHV), 538 applications were made to TIHV in the first eleven months of 2018 on claims of being subjected to torture or other forms of maltreatment. IHD’s data suggests that, in the same period, 2,719 inmates were subjected to some form of torture or maltreatment, 284 of these being beaten during detention and 175 beaten outside of detention. Another 2,260 cases took place during interventions of security forces to meetings and protests.
Either because of the denial of right to access health services or because of traumatic experiences in the prisons, a series of prisoners lost their lives in 2018. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) patient Halime Gülsu was arrested even though she entered coma twice while under detention. Her health reports were lost and medicines were not given. She died in 28 April 2018. Musa Gülbeyaz, 97 years old, had been bedbound for several months and passed away in the prison on 18 September 2018. On 1 June 2018, radiologist Dr. İbrahim Halil Özyavuz, who was arrested for alleged use of Bylock (an encrypted messaging app similar to WhatsApp) – which does not amount to evidence according to international observers – ended his life in prison by committing suicide. On 8 July, another prisoner named Davut Demirkale killed himself by hanging himself with linen.
The Gulenist paranoia did not calm down in 2018. According to TurkeyPurge.com, an average of 450 people with alleged links to the Gulen Movement were detained every week in 2018. Prosecutors found that subscription to a newspaper published by the Gulenists, having a bank account with their bank Bank Asya, the use of Bylockas enough evidence for proof of being a Gulenist. By November 2018, the number of detained, alleged Gulenists grew to 217,971, of which 82,142 were arrested.
The majority of the detained or arrested had nothing to do with the coup attempt. Many had nothing to do with the Gulen Movement at all. Secret witness statements were used to link American Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson, anti-Gulenist columnists Can Dündar and Hikmet Çetinkaya as well as the famous secular human rights activist Osman Kavala to the Gulen Movement.
CHP’s former Istanbul deputy Erden Erdem, an Alevite and a secular citizen of Turkey, was among the arrested people accused of being a Gulenist, despite having nothing to do with the movement. It was simply used as a pretext for the prosecutor to arrest this harsh critic of Erdogan.
On May 21, 2018, while trying to fly to Germany, Erdem’s passport was apprehended at the airport. When he was finally arrested on June 29, the prosecutor asked for a prison sentence that can go up to 22 years on charges of “knowingly and willingly helping the organisation despite not being a member,” “disclosing a secret witness,” and “violating the secrecy of a legal case.”
The purge against the Gulenists reached new levels in 2018, including collective punishment and guilt by association cases. In three different cases, Turkish courts sentenced two nephews of Fethullah Gulen, Ahmet Ramiz Gulen and Selman Gulen to 12 and 7.5 years in prison for their alleged membership to the Gulenist Organisation, which is a designated terrorist organisation in Turkey. In neither of the cases had the accused done anything wrong, apart from simply being related to Fethullah Gulen. In another case, Mr Gulen’s brother, Kutbettin Gulen, was given ten years and six months of imprisonment for being a member of the organization.
The Turkish Navy adapted a Fetometer designed by a colonel to detect crypto-Gulenists in 2018. The surveillance of their relatives’ phone calls, bank transactions, social relations and Bylock usage were used to detect Gulenists in the army.
Gulenists, and people accused of being Gulenists, suffered from the purge not only through direct detentions and arrests, but also by being forced to flee the country in order to avoid being arrested Many tried to flee the country through unofficial means, as their passports had been cancelled and some paid for their courage with their lives in the Aegean Sea or the Evros River between Turkey and Greece.
On 28 July 2018, a human smugglers’ boat was capsized on its way to Greece from the Ayvalik Province of Balikesir. Out of the 14 passengers, six drowned, including three young children. HDP deputy Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu claim that the Funeral Services Department of the Balikesir Municipality denied the deceased its services due to their alleged allegiance to the Gulen Movement.
For workers, 2018 was worse than ever before. Both the economic crisis and, and neo-liberal policies diminishing workers’ rights, coupled with a government that regarded any form of strike as an intervention attempt of international powers, embittered the conditions of the workers. Time and again, workers and members of labour unions using their rights to strike were detained with allegations of membership of terrorist organisations or of furthering their propaganda.
The most striking attempt aimed at suppressing a workers’ protest in 2018 took place on the night of 14 September. Workers protesting the oft-repeating workplace accidents and bad working conditions at the construction site of the Third Airport were met with pressurised water, plastic bullets and gas. A total of 543 workers were detained and 33 were arrested. On 5 December 2018, all but one was released on judicial control conditions.
Thanks to this action, the public learned that 52 workers were killed in otherwise preventable accidents at the Third Airport construction site. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Assembly that prepare monthly reports on workplace accident and homicides, while the number of workers killed in workplace accidents in 2017 was 1,970, in the first eleven months of 2018 this number was 1,797. At least 61 of these were children in child labour.
Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, who has been on a hunger strike for over a year as they hope to come back to their jobs they were removed from because of a State of Emergency Decree, finalised their strike when their application to the State of Emergency Decisions Review Commission was rejected on 26 January 2018. The “I want my job back” protest that the two started in 2016 in front of the Human Rights Statue at Yuksel Street of Ankara was interrupted every day of 2018. Even people who came together to give support to these protests at different cities of Turkey were detained and sued.
Veli Saçılık who was a regular participant of the “I want my job back” protests until he decided to run as a candidate for the Grand National Assembly in the 24 June Election, was detained over 50 times due to his participation in these events and had his car confiscated because he failed to pay the 22,000 Turkish Lira he was fined.
Türkan Albayrak, who was fired from her job at the Sariyer District Health Directorate on 3 August 2018 with pretext of a ‘security investigation’ and ‘archival search’ was detained 41 times in four months during protests she took part in to get her job back.
Being detained or arrested for social media messages is not something new. A majority of the over 20,000court cases initiated in 2017 with charges of insulting the president of the country concerned social media messages. On orders from Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu, the police department’s cybercrimes section has formed a special social media screening unit in 2018 and Turkey has outpaced the whole of Europe in the number of social media accounts investigated.
Within one month after the start of the Afrin Operation on 20 January 2018, 845 people were detained because of their social media messages. Of these, 127 were arrested.
According to numbers given by the Security General Directorate (the police), seemingly with great pride, 110,000social media accounts were investigated in 2018, 7,109 of the users were detained and 2,754 were arrested. Around 2,828 were released with judicial control restrictions, which meant they were in grave trouble with the crippled Turkish judicial system.
The number of Turkish applications to Twitter for suspension of accounts boomed in 2018. While Turkey asked for the suspension of 5,823 accounts in 2017, in the first six months of 2018 this figure was 8,480. This large number meant that Turkey accounted for 73 per cent of Twitter’s suspension requests. Russia came second, having filed 1,585 suspension requests in the first six months of 2018.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to be the most insulted man in the world. The evidence is the over 80,000 people investigated on charges of insulting the president. In 2017 alone, 6,033 people were sued for having insulted the president. By now, over 3,500 have received prison sentences. While the execution of 2,550 of these decisions were delayed, their sentences means that if they commit a crime of similar nature within five years, these will be revived.
Since Erdogan became both the president of the country and the chairperson of his party after the 24 June 2018 election, lawyers thought that, as the president is devoid of his neutrality now, he should also be devoid of the constitutional protections provided to the former presidents. The opposite occurred. Whereas the standard punishment for insult cases was eleven months and 20 days of jail prior to 24 June, in October 2018, 78 years old Ali Ergun Guran was given seven years for having insulted the president on social media. Erdogan’s lawyers sued the chairman of the main opposition party for damages worth one million Turkish Lira after he retweeted a cartoon that allegedly contained material insulting Erdogan.
The most famous case of insulting the president in 2018 was undoubtedly the case against the Middle East Technical University students, who held a cartoon-placard named “The World of Tayyips” and showing the president in various animal forms, at their graduation ceremony. The case, where six students were detained and 13 held for interrogation, is still on-going, even though the President withdrew his complaint.
Tens of academics allegedly linked to the Gulen Movement were dismissed from their universities, arrested and, on charges of being members of a terrorist organisation, sentenced to prison ranging from six years and three months to up to 15 years in 2018. They were not only imprisoned, but had their academic titles removed as well. Their books in public libraries were destroyed; their MA and PhD theses were erased from the digital thesis banks and articles they had written were deleted from online encyclopaedias.
In 2018, a series of senior academics such as Prof. Dr. Turgut Tarhanli and Prof. Dr. Betul Tanbay were detained because of their alleged involvement with the Gezi Park events and their work at the Osman Kavala’s Anadolu Kultur Association.
It was also a difficult year for the 2,212 Peace Academics who signed the “We won’t participate in this crime” petition against state violence in southeast Turkey. Around 115 of them had already been dismissed by the AKP government in 2017.
In 2018, a total of 542 academics was sued on accusations of “making propaganda of terrorist organisation”. By the end of the year, 61 of them were found guilty and most were sentenced to of one year and three months in prison.. The sentence was doubled for the president of the Turkey Human Rights Foundation (TIHV) and human rights defender Prof. Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincancıby judges under the control of the government. If the ruling is confirmed by the regional court of appeals, Fincancı will go to prison to serve the sentence.
Turkey entered 2018 as the worst jailer of journalists. Seeing that its ranking could not be worse, the government continued to arrest journalists, monopolise the press and punish the opposition media throughout 2018.
The first detained journalist of the year was journalist and poet Fadıl Öztürk, who was detained on 5 January 2018. The same day journalist Ayşenur Arslan was sentenced to eleven months and 20 days in prison accused of “insulting the president”.
On January 11, the Supreme Court of Turkey ruled that journalists Sahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan had been arrested with baseless allegations and that their rights to freedom and safety had been violated. Yet, the local court resisted the call for their release. Though Alpay was eventually released on March 16, on July 6, he was sentenced to eight years and nine months in jail together with fellow Zaman Daily columnists Ali Bulac and Ahmet Turan Alkan. In the same case, Ibrahim Karayegen received nine years and Mumtaz’er Turkone and Mustafa Unal ten years and six months.
On January 16, journalists who served as substitute editors at the Ozgur Gundem Daily in a show of solidarity were sentenced to prison. On January 22, journalists with Kurdish origin were detained in three different cities. On January 23, journalist Seda Taskin was arrested when the court decided that the khaki dress she wore amounted to terrorist propaganda. The next day author Hamide Yigit was sentenced on charges of insulting the president.
While the world was busy putting pressure on Turkey to release the German Die Welt correspondent Deniz Yucel, a Turkish court made February 13 the darkest day of Turkish journalism. Nazli Ilicak, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Fevzi Yazici and Yakup Simsek were all sentenced to life imprisonment for their journalistic work, which, the prosecutor claimed, contained subliminal messages. On February 28, another court added insult over injury and sentenced Ahmet Altan to two years and eleven months for having insulted the president.
On February 27, the former editor of Birgun Daily, Burak Ekici, was sentenced to six years and three months in prison for being accepted as a member of Gulen Movement due to use of Bylock messaging app.
On March 8, 24 journalists were sentenced to imprisonment for six years and three months and seven years and six months respectively for alleged membership of a terrorist organization in a case where 29 media workers were sued, among them, Murat Aksoy and Atilla Tas. Murat Aksoy was sentenced to two years and one month and Atilla Tas to three years and one month and 15 days. They were released pending appeal, but as the court of appeal affirmed their sentences on October 24, both were rearrested to serve the rest of their sentences.
Senior journalist Hasan Cemal was sentenced to three months and 22 days on 3 April 2018 for his newspaper series “Journal of Withdrawal”.
On 11 September 2018 Austrian journalist Max Zirngast was detained due to his articles about Turkey and a book he wrote about Kobane, a Kurdish city in Syria. He was released on 24 December 2018, but remains barred from leaving the country.
On 14 November 2018, former Zaman Daily columnist Ali Ünal was sentenced to 19 years and six months in prison for being the founder and manager of a terrorist organisation. On December 18, Hamza Gündüz, Hakkari correspondent for the Mesopotamia Agency, was sentenced to one year and eight months in prison for allegedly spreading terrorist organisation propaganda on social media.
On December 17, President Erdogan threatened Fox TV anchor Fatih Portakal, who advocated for people to use their rights to protest like the Yellow Jackets in France with these words: “Know your limits! If you don’t know your limits, this people will blow your neck.” While nothing was done about this open targeting, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) fined Fox TV for one million Turkish Lira and suspended its broadcasting three times. In Turkey, if a TV channel receive a similar fine twice in one year’s time, it risks losing its broadcast certificate.
By mid-December 2018, the number of journalists in jail increased. According to the Free Journalists Initiative, which counts active journalists only, the number was 173 and according to the Stockholm Centre for Freedom, which counts all media workers, it was 242.
Detention and imprisonment were not the only difficulties Turkish media faced in 2018. Secular Left newspaper Cumhuriyet changed administration under pressure and became less critical of the government. Secular Right Sozcu faced allegations of being “crypto-Gulenist”. The admiralship of the Turkish Media, the Hurriyet Media Group, changed hands and was sold to a pro-government media mogul, again under political pressure.
Under economic crisis and unbelievable fines, few critical news outlets remain and have had to downsize their operations. With an unemployment rate of 19.2 per cent, journalists became the profession with the smallest prospects of employment in 2018. Adding to the difficulties, the Turkish government continued to cancel press cards with an average of two per day, thus reaching 1,954 by mid-December since the thwarted coup of 2016.
In an atmosphere where the conventional media is silenced, online newspapers become an important voice. But 2018 was not easy for them either. The Turkish government acquired the authority to close sites under the State of Emergency conditions. News outlets like Özgürlükçü Demokrasi, Mezopotamya Ajansı, 1 Haber Var, Demokrat Haber, Jinnews, and sendika.org were all blocked several times throughout the year.
Sendika.org developed a strategy of adding numbers to its domain name when the previous site was blocked by the government. When sendika62.org was blocked on 5 December 2018 for the 62nd time, they moved to their sendika63.org site.
When the government did not or could not block a site altogether, it banned access to particular news items or cartoons on that site. On 11 January 2018, 15 internet sites which broadcasted Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff’s Erdogan cartoon faced partial bans. On 10 June 2018, the Aydinlik, Evrensel and Cumhuriyet dailies had online content blocked as they bothered AKP politicians.
On 11 July 2018, Istanbul 10th Peace Court blocked 122 sites on claims that they were all linked to Adnan Oktar, despite there not being any legal decisions against him at that time.
Turkey’s Erdogan has always accused artists and intellectuals of being “strangers to the values of the Turkish people.” Since the Gezi Park events, these “strangers” were also “pawns” of foreign powers trying to topple the AKP government. The first artist to suffer from this negative outlook in 2018 was Abdullah Ayav, soloist of Koma Denge Amara group. The court decided that Ayav’s songs amounted to propaganda of a terrorist organisation. In April, Dilan Ekin of Grup Yorum and in May, artist Erdal Guney suffered the same court ruling.
President Erdogan also took offence of the criticisms made by artists he labelled “artist copies”. Singer Zuhal Olcay was sentenced to ten months in jail on March 2018 for having insulted the president. A higher court reversed the judgement and decided that the punishment should have been longer. In April, artist Mehmet Suavi and in May, Erdal Guney were sentenced to eleven months and 20 days in jail, also for having insulted the president.
Theatre and TV soap opera actor Baris Atay was on Erdogan’s radar as he supported the Gezi Park Events. On May 16, he was detained for his social media messages. On December 5, an arrest warrant regarding his colleague Memed Ali Alabora was issued. Atay escaped sentencing by becoming a parliamentarian in the June 24 election and Alabora by resettling in the United Kingdom.
Artistic productions also suffered in 2018. Among the ones targeted were Barış Atay’s play “Just a dictator” and the Soma Displaced Theatre’s play “Not for sale with money.” Both plays were not allocated theatre houses to be staged or their arranged programs were cancelled by governorates of various cities.
At the end of 2018, Metin Akpinar, 77 years old, and Mujdat Gezen, 75 years old, were detained because of their comments on the polarising rhetoric of the president. They were released on parole on December 24.
When tens of publication houses were closed after the coup attempt 2016, their publications were also banned automatically, regardless of their content. The Gulen Movement’s Işık Publications, which included eight publishing houses, had 2,972 books for sale and they were all banned with one single decision. All these books, serials and magazines continued to be banned in 2018. Even having a copy of one of the 65 banned books by Fethullah Gulen was enough. A university student whose finger print was found on a Fethullah Gulen book thrown into the bin was arrested.
Concerned that the Gulenist publishers would try reaching young people through books, the Turkish National Education Ministry developed an artificial intelligence programme to screen 993 books that have been included in applications to be used in the curriculum. When this AI programme, called the FETOMETER of the publishing industry, scanned these 993 books for concepts and phrases often used by Gulenists, 100 were found to be inconvenient and twelve were labelled as certainly Gulenist. These were banned by the National Education Ministry. Among the concepts the FETOMETER scanned for were for example dialogue, respect for human beings, the golden generation, horizon man, hope and dedication.
Gulenists, or alleged Gulenists, were not the only victims of the bans on books. In 2018, 13 books of Avesta Publications and 85 books of Aram Publications were banned. Among the books banned in 2018 were Aliza Marcus’s Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence which was published by Iletisim Publications in 2009, Faysal Dağlı’s Birakuji (Civil War of the Kurds) published by Belge Publications in 1994and Fehim Taştekin’s Rojawa (The Time of the Kurds) published by Iletisim Publications in 2016 as well as Aytekin Gezici’s History of the Kurds published by Tutku Publications in 2013 .
In 2018, the Turkish Government and authorities found new ways to dismay authors and publication houses, apart from banning their books. “Problematic” authors like İhsan Eliaçık were not accepted to book fairs and if they were accepted by mistake, their programmes were cancelled. Book fairs which used facilities provided by municipalities were closed to all “problematic” names.
In prison, certain books were also banned. Kurdish prisoners were not given books on the history and culture of the Kurds. Selahattin Demirtas’s best-selling book Seher was banned in most prisons. When prisoners asked for published Kurdish books that were not banned, prison authorities asked them to pay for the cost of translating them so the content of the books could be inspected. At the Silivri Prison, Dan Brown’s global best-seller The Da Vinci Code was banned, most likely because the prison’s inspectors linked the name of the publishing house, Golden Books, with a famous Gulenist concept -the Golden Generation. At Diyarbakir prison, prisoners were denied books like Robinson Crusoe, The Little Prince and even Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
The number of books prisoners could have in their wards was also limited in 2018. In most prisons, the maximum number of books that could be in a ward at any one time was dropped from ten to as low as three.
For almost all segments of Turkish society, 2018 was a difficult year. The number of people imprisoned outpaced the growth of the capacity of prisons. By mid-November there were 259,327 behind bars, which means 50,000 inmates entering the new year was sleeping on the cold floors of prison cells. Amid them were 743 babies and children under six years, in cells together with their mothers. Though not in prison, 2,535 people began 2019 with electronic tags at their ankles.
While 2019 will be a difficult year in Turkey, the International Observatory of Human Rights will be observing, reporting and campaigning against the government’s human rights violations.
* This Almanac of Human Rights Violations in Turkey in 2018 was prepared largely by information taken from Turkish Human Rights Foundation’s (TIHV) daily report of human rights violations in Turkey (http://tihv.org.tr/category/gunluk-insan-haklari-raporlari/), Human Rights Foundation’s (IHD) occasional reports (http://www.ihd.org.tr/category/c86-raporlar/c34-el-raporlar/), weekly human rights violations reports published by CHP deputy Şenal Sarıhan, and monthly reports published by her colleague Sezgin Tanrıkulu.