The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled that Turkish authorities violated the European Convention on Human Rights commitments when they arrested 10 individuals working for Cumhuriyet.
Cuhmuriyet is a left-leaning secular Istanbul newspaper critical of the current regime as the ECtHR noted in their judgement:
“Cumhuriyet was established in 1924 and is one of the oldest newspapers in Turkey. It is known for its critical stance towards the current government and for its particular attachment to the principle of secularism. It is regarded as a serious newspaper of the centre-left.”
In 2016, ten employees of the paper were taken into police custody by the Istanbul police, suspected of committing offences on behalf of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), considered by the Government to be terrorist organisations.
Among those arrested was Murat Sabuncu, the editor-in-chief, and Akin Atalay, the chief executive.
Others arrested included IPI Turkey National Committee chair and Executive Board member Kadri Gürsel, Önder Çelik, Turhan Günay, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Hakan Karasinir, Hacı Musa Kart, Güray Tekin Öz, and Bülent Utku.
The court’s ruling of CASE OF SABUNCU AND OTHERS v. TURKEY concerned the 10 people arrested at the newspaper, but all 18 members were arrested. Besides journalists and managers, a cartoonist, accountants and lawyers were also arrested.
The newspaper’s staff was charged with terrorism-related crimes and accused of promoting and disseminating propaganda for Kurdish militants and supporters of a failed coup attempt to remove Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Seven out of the ten applicants were released in July 2017. The remaining three journalists – Kadri Gürsel, Murat Sabuncu and Akın Atalay – were released by April 2018
After the failed coup on July 15 2016, Erdogan ordered a state of emergency and oversaw a severe crackdown on people his government perceives as threats.
The country remains the biggest jailer of professional journalists, and media outlets and their employers are consistently targets of state harassment. Currently, Turkey ranks 154 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
This is far from the first time Turkey has been condemned by the ECtHR. As noted in by the Turkey Tribunal, in collaboration with the International Observatory of Human Rights:
“the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Turkish state 154 times between 2000 and 2019. After the failed coup d’état, the restrictions and prosecutions intensified. The scope of the limitations and the prosecutions clearly indicate that the fight against terrorism has been the mere justification on the part of the Turkish Government before the ECtHR and the different international commissions and rapporteurs. It is clear that this justification cannot serve valid grounds for all the violations committed by the Turkish Government; some of which have been documented in this report.”
Similarly, the ECtHR found:
“Accusing journalists of making propaganda for the Kurdish armed group PKK, or for the Gülen movement, for the sole purpose of justifying their arrest, is not admissible”
The verdict comes just weeks after the United Nations General Assembly met to adopt the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The International Observatory of Human Rights reported at the time that:
“Turkey has for years said it will implement recommendations made by the UPR yet the situation for lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders are worsening in the country. In fact, in the period under review, the government has weaponised the legal system and terror legislation to restrict free expression.”
While Turkey state that it supported, or had already implemented 216 recommendations, human rights organisations and UN member states criticised the fact that key recommendations on arbitrary detention, freedom of the press and the judiciary, torture and reforming counter-terrorism legislation were all rejected.
Watch IOHR’s information meeting on press freedom and the UPR process in Turkey: