Turkey: The disconnect between what is said and what is done

Human Rights Council

Copenhagen, 9 July 2015 | Out of 278 recommendations for improvements in human rights put forward, the Turkish government accepted 215 as Turkey’s second Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations Human Rights Council came to a close on 26 June. Turkey rejected key recommendations to amend or abolish laws which are used to unfairly limit the right to freedom of expression, including arts freedom, while Turkish officials told the UN Council that positive steps had been taken.

Over a year ago, in June 2014, the UN invited NGOs to submit reports on human rights in Turkey for inclusion in the process. Freemuse, Siyah Bant and Initiative for Freedom of Expression made a joint submission detailing various reports of attacks against artists, ranging from imprisonment to threat, to censorship. It gave eight specific recommendations to the Turkish authorities, including to secure that anti-terror legislation is not applied against artistic and creative works that clearly have no connection with nor propagate violence, and to end defamation suits.

In the 12 months since the submission, the three organisations have noted that far from decreasing, the numbers of attacks on artists continue unabated. To address the new arts freedom violations, the organisations issued an update that gives details of new judicial cases, dismissals and other censorship, while reiterating the recommendations from a year ago.

Removing criminal defamation from the statute books by abolishing Article 125 of the Turkish Penal Code, and in the meantime restrict public officials and authorities from initiating defamation cases before criminal and civil courts, were among the three organisations’ recommendations. The Czech Republic had subsequently put forward a similar formal recommendation. Turkey did not accepted the recommendation arguing that Article 125 “is in line with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights. The Article does in no way lead to prosecution of human rights defenders and journalists.”

Recent cases in Turkey show a different picture. Article 125 and other defamation laws are being used to silence critical voices, including artists. In March 2015, cartoonists Bahadır Baruter and Özer Aydoğan were each sentenced to 14 months in prison, converted to a fine of TL7,000 [c. €2,500]. They are accused of having attacked the ‘honour and dignity of [President] Erdoğan’ with a caricature published on the cover of the satirical magazine, Penguen, in August 2014 during the presidential elections.

Two weeks before the presidential election itself, musician Kutsal Evcimen sang a song about a donkey titled Satın Eşek Sıpaları, at the Arguvan Folk Festival, and followed it with a short speech. In January this year, he found himself under investigation for insult of now President Erdoğan. The song, Evcimen has explained, was written some 30 years earlier, and he denies that there was any element of insult within it.

Between the time Erdoğan assumed office in August 2014 and March this year, 236 people were investigated for allegedly insulting the president, with 105 indicted, according to BBC News citing Turkey’s Justice Ministry statistics. The defendants have included artists as well as journalists, writers and protesters.

The disconnect between what is said at the Human Rights Council and the actual freedom of expression environment in Turkey is worrying. By rejecting, and by considering the more specific recommendations “already implemented” despite what is happening on the ground, Turkey brings into question its real commitment to act on the recommendations it has accepted, as pointed out by Amnesty International during the final adoption of the UPR outcome.

Freedom of expression groups, arts institutions, journalists and the UN member states who made recommendations must now hold Turkey to account to secure the accepted recommendations are implemented in law and in practice. But even more importantly, they must continue to document all the freedom of expression violations Turkey’s government claims do not exist.

[ENDS]