The extent of the latest crackdown on civil liberties in Turkey, in the context of the military offensive, raises serious concern that authorities are now using war in northern Syria as a pretext to further crush dissent and inflict fear.
There is a joke doing the rounds in Turkey. One man asks another how life is in Turkey. “We can't complain,” he replies. “That's great,” says the first man. “No, seriously,” says the second. “We can't complain!”
For people in Turkey, this is nothing new but since the start of last month’s military offensive in northeast Syria, things have become much worse. Anyone who dares to deviate from the government’s official line – be they journalists, social media users, protesters and so on - can find themselves in trouble.
As the tanks rolled across the Syrian border last month, a second front opened up inside Turkey in which the media and social media platforms became the battlefield. Language around the military incursion was heavily policed as the government used the cover of the military operation to launch a domestic campaign to quash dissenting opinions from the media, social media and the streets.
Critical discussion on issues of Kurdish rights and politics has become even more taboo with hundreds of people detained merely for commenting or reporting on the offensive. They are facing absurd criminal charges, often under anti-terrorism laws, and if prosecuted and found guilty, they could face lengthy prison sentences.
On 10 October, a day after the offensive began, Turkey’s broadcasting regulatory body, RTÜK warned media outlets that there would be zero tolerance of “any broadcasting that may negatively impact the morale and motivation of […] soldiers or may mislead citizens through incomplete, falsified or partial information that serves the aims of terror.”
On the same day, Hakan Demir, a journalist with the daily newspaper Birgün, tweeted: “Turkish warplanes have started to carry out airstrikes on civilian areas.” His tweet was based on a report by NBC. In the early hours of the next morning, police raided his house and he was taken away for questioning for "inciting enmity or hatred." He was later released with overseas travel bans pending the outcome of criminal investigations.
Demir is just one of many journalists who have been detained - and it is not soleyTurkish journalists that have been targeted. Last week, President Erdoğan’s lawyers announced that they have filed a criminal complaint against the editor of French magazine Le Point, following the publication of their 24 October issue which used the cover headline “Ethnic cleansing: the Erdoğan method” in its coverage of the military offensive. The lawyers claimed the cover is insulting to the president, a crime under Turkish law.
Social media users have also been targeted with 839 social media accounts under investigation for “sharing criminal content” in the first week of the offensive. According to official figures, 186 people were reportedly taken into police custody and 24 remanded in pre-trial detention.
One social media user, who was detained and accused of “propaganda for a terrorist organization” had retweeted three tweets, one of which read: “Rojava [the autonomous Kurdish area in northern Syria] will win. No to war.” As with others, these tweets did not come remotely close to constituting evidence of an internationally recognisable crime.
He was given an overseas travel ban and required to report to a local police station twice a month. One lawyer told Amnesty International: “Using the words ‘war,’ ‘occupation,’ ‘Rojava’ have become a crime. The judiciary says ‘you cannot say no to war.’”
This was graphically illustrated in Istanbul on 12 October where the ‘Saturday Mothers,’ who were holding a peaceful vigil for their missing relatives, were warned by police not to use the word “war.” As soon as a statement was read out that criticised the military operation, the vigil was violently broken up by police.
‘Operation Peace Spring’ has also been used by the government as a pretext to escalate its crackdown on opposition politicians and activists. Several MPs are currently subject to criminal investigations, including Sezgin Tanrıkulu who is facing a criminal probe for comments he made in the media and a tweet which read: “Government needs to know this, this is an unjustified war and a war against the Kurds.”
This latest crackdown has deepened Turkey’s already entrenched atmosphere of censorship and fear which descended following the failed coup in 2016. Under the cloak of a two-year state of emergency, the Turkish authorities deliberately and methodically set about dismantling civil society. Despite the state of emergency having been lifted, the situation has not improved and extraordinary measures have become increasingly normalised.
For the third year in a row, Turkey is the world's biggest jailer of journalists, and tens of thousands of people have been locked up by a judiciary that lacks the most basic independence and incarcerates real or perceived critics of the government without evidence of any actions that can reasonably constitute offences.
Speaking after a dawn raid on her home two weeks ago, journalist and human rights defender Nurcan Baysal said: “Having my home raided and my children terrorised by 30 heavily armed, masked police officers simply for some social media posts calling for peace, shows the level of suppression of freedom of expression in Turkey.”
- Stefan Simanowitz is Amnesty International’s media manager for Europe and Turkey. You can view Amnesty’s report into the ongoing situation in Turkey here
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