Crackdowns Against Freedom of Expression Continue in Turkey

Photo Credit: Reuters

Crackdowns against public dissenters continued this week when Turkish officials launched a criminal investigation against 1,128 academics who signed a petition calling for the Turkish government to halt its military campaign against the PKK in order to reduce violence against civilians in the southeastern region of Turkey. Twenty-seven scholars were briefly detained after being accused of insulting the state and spreading “terrorism propaganda.” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the academics of “treason” and of attempting the undermine Turkey’s national security. “The campaign against academics this week certainly targets a new group and has very serious consequences for academic freedom in Turkey, as well as free speech,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch. John R. Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, criticized the arrests, saying they would have a “chilling effect on legitimate political discourse.”

Amnesty International has also criticized the government’s onslaught against Kurdish towns in the region for putting civilians in danger, as well as the 24-hour government-mandated curfews and restrictions on movement that have been in place for months. Amnesty stated that the violence “is putting the lives of up to 200,000 people at risk and amounts to collective punishment,” while cuts to water, electricity, food access, and medical care are negatively impacting all civilians in the region.

Journalists have also come under fire, as Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of influential left-wing newspaper Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, its senior editor, were arrested in November 2015 after publishing footage that allegedly showed the state intelligence agency helping to send weapons to Islamist groups in Syria under the cover of humanitarian aid. Both men have stated that their arrests were “a clear message aimed at the press, saying: ‘Don’t write.'” They joined a dozen other journalists who were imprisoned in 2015, thereby making Turkey the fifth worst jailer of journalists globally in 2015.

Elected officials have also been targeted for the dissenting opinions and political affiliations. Eighteen mayors and almost 50 locally elected representatives of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party are currently being prosecuted, while the mayor of Van was sentenced to 15 years in jail earlier this month for allegedly being a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced increased attacks against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria after a suicide bombing attack in Istanbul last week left 10 foreign tourists dead. Turkish officials identified the bomber as a Syrian citizen who had entered Turkey and registered as a refugee, thus further stoking fears about inadequate border security and possible risks associated with allowing migrants to enter the country. Davutoglu has promised to pursue increased security measures in densely populated areas.