According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the human rights situation in Turkey dramatically worsened in 2015 following the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process, a sharp escalation of violence in the southeast, and a crackdown on media and political opponents of the ruling party.
This trend seems to only be continuing this year and, according to a senior Turkey researcher at HRW, “Turkey’s trajectory is toward authoritarianism and the dismantling of all checks on the power of its leaders.”
The human rights situation deteriorated significantly following parliamentary elections in June and the outbreak of violence between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish armed forces in July. Following these events, the government heavily pressured the media to limit their online and print coverage. The government targeted, threatened, and physically attacked mainstream journalists, who often lost their jobs after criticizing the government. This is especially true of those who were predominantly covering the Kurdish southeast.
One specific example of the current state of restrictions on the media and reporters in Turkey is the case of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, journalists for a Turkish newspaper. The two journalists were charged with obtaining and revealing State secrets for the purpose of espionage. The evidence against them consists of a report about arm shipments to Syria, which included photographs and videos from a shipment in January 2014. Dündar and Gül were arrested on charges of spying, and they were detained from November 2015 until this February. If convicted, they face life in prison. On March 25, a court ruled to close the criminal trial on the grounds that some of the evidence pertained to state secrets.
Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and, therefore, the right to a fair trial as articulated in the Convention is binding on Turkey. The court’s decision to hold hearings in secret limits defendants’ right to a fair trial, and ignores the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights that any exclusion of the public from a trial must be exceptional and narrowly tailored to balance national security with the public interest in justice.
Furthermore, there has been controversy over similar allegations about the extent of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Four prosecutors were arrested and have been put on trial after investigating the situation reported by Dündar and Gül. The prosecutors acted on anonymous tips and attempted to examine the contents of the trucks against the authority of the Justice Ministry.
This response to the prosecutors’ attempt to investigate the arms transfers, and Dündar and Gül’s reporting thereof, demonstrate the government’s intention to prevent any legal or journalistic scrutiny of Turkish intelligence operations, according to HRW.
According to HRW, the authorities in Turkey need to immediately halt the prosecution of journalists and end the unjustified trials and interference with freedom of expression. Amnesty International has been actively monitoring the situation and urging Turkey’s government to end disproportionate restrictions on movement, such as curfews and other arbitrary measures which have left residents without access to health care, food, or electricity for extended periods.