A wave of demonstrations that began last year as a peaceful sit-in protest and later evolved into anti-government protests have led to a process dominated by the government’s intolerance toward criticism as well as its troublesome view of fundamental rights and freedoms, Turkish daily ‘Zaman’ reports.
Violations of individual rights and freedoms, problems related to press freedom and arbitrary dismissal of people from their jobs have seen an increase in the past year, and observers link the increase to the government’s growing intolerance toward criticism of its style of governing. The intolerance made itself more evident after late May of last year, which marks the beginning of the months-long Gezi protests.
The government — as the phrase goes — declared a “war” against its critics after the protests. Its officials, and the prime minister being in first place, have adopted a harsher language against critics of the government since the protests. This has led to a deterioration in the record of Turkey’s human rights, which was already problematic.
According to Human Rights Association (İHD) Chairman Öztürk Türkdoğan, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) grew more authoritarian after the Gezi Park protests, which paved the path for major and even mass violations of rights and freedoms.
The Gezi Park protests began on May 28, 2013, initially to oppose the urban development plan for Gezi Park next to Taksim Square in İstanbul. The protests were sparked by outrage as the protesters conducting a sit-in in the park were violently forced out by riot police. Subsequently, protests in support and clashes took place across Turkey protesting plenty of other concerns. The rallies brought together large groups of protesters who accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of increasing authoritarian tendencies.
The prime minister, in response, took a challenging, aggressive and insulting tone when he addressed the protesters. He described the protesters as “a couple of looters,” saying, “I wouldn’t ask a couple of looters for permission [to go ahead with the Taksim project].”
During the Gezi Park demonstrations, six protesters died as a result of the violent police crackdown; one more who died was a police chief who lost his balance and fell while running after protesters in Adana. In addition, more than 10 people suffered from impaired vision in one eye.
Journalist Cengiz Çandar, who writes columns for the ‘Radikal’ daily, believes the Gezi Park protests were a major opportunity to improve Turkish democracy, but Turkey missed that chance due to the government’s irreconcilable style. “The government grew violent after Gezi [protests]. As it grew violent, the government became more authoritarian and resorted to arbitrary practices,” he said.
With its growing trend of authoritarianism, the AK Party government often violated individual rights and freedoms, threatened press freedom, sacked or reassigned thousands of employees — they were working in either the private or public sectors — filed dozens of lawsuits against its critics, and thus Turkey made its way into international reports with a bad reputation in the past year.
Initial reports: Rights violations, decline in press freedom
In April, the Council of Europe (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks addressed human rights violations, police misconduct during the Gezi protests and government pressure on press institutions in his annual activity report for 2013.
In the report, the commissioner described the excessive use of force and impunity of police officers during the Gezi Park protests as a “long-standing human rights issue in Turkey.”
In his comments on the freedom of assembly, the commissioner found the Turkish legal framework “overly restrictive,” especially regarding the peaceful Gezi protests. Muiznieks “recommended that the Turkish authorities adopt clearer rules for the use of force in the context of demonstrations, in particular with respect to the use of tear gas and projectile-firing weapons, and better safeguards against ill-treatment and violations of the right to freedom of assembly by law enforcement officials,” the annual report said.
The international community’s concerns about Turkey are not restricted to the excessive use of power and police misconduct. In May, US-based watchdog Freedom House cited a significant decline in press freedom in Turkey and downgraded Turkey from partly free to not free in its annual report for 2014. According to the watchdog, media freedom around the world has hit a decade low and the biggest decline in Europe took place in Turkey.
“Constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and expression are only partially upheld in practice, undermined by restrictive provisions in the criminal code and the Anti-Terrorism Act. Turkey remained the world’s leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of December 1, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ],” said the report.
The report also said dozens of journalists were forced out of their jobs due to their coverage of politically sensitive issues such as the Gezi Park protests and government corruption scandals, and the firings highlighted the close relationships between the government and many media owners and the formal and informal pressure that this places on journalists.
Top government officials, including Prime Minister Erdoğan, have recently attracted harsh criticism for allegedly interfering in the media’s work. Mehmet Fatih Saraç, an executive at the Habertürk daily and TV station, made the headlines in early February when a phone call between him and Prime Minister Erdoğan was leaked onto the Internet, revealing that Erdoğan had instructed Saraç to censor the broadcasts of opposition leaders.
Also in February, Fatih Altaylı, then-editor-in-chief of the Habertürk daily, said there is tremendous government pressure on the Turkish media. “There is pressure on all of us. Today, the dignity of journalism is being crushed underfoot. Instructions pour down from somewhere every day. Everybody is afraid [of losing his job],” he noted.
The AK Party government, gradually increasing its pressure on the media and journalists, deported Today’s Zaman journalist Mahir Zeynalov in early February for posting tweets deemed critical of the government. The deportation drew outrage in both the national and foreign press.
In the past year, government officials have filed lawsuits against dozens of journalist for their reports critical of the government, arguing that they insulted the officials in their reports. Several journalists have been fined as a result of the suits.
Bleeding wound: Reassignments
Since the breaking out of a major corruption and bribery investigation on Dec. 17 of last year, the AK Party government has been quickly reassigning police officers, judges, prosecutors and bureaucrats, who have amounted to thousands.
The government is frustrated by the investigation, which has implicated several Cabinet members who had to resign later and senior government officials. As many as 20,000 police officers and hundreds of members of the judiciary as well as dozens of bureaucrats in public institutions have been reassigned since Dec. 17.
The fact that no investigation had been launched before those officials were reassigned and that most of the officials were not given any explanation for their reassignment have led to comments that the government is carrying out a witch hunt against its critics.
Erdoğan, while defending an ongoing government-sponsored wave of purges of public officials, publicly said in mid-May that the government will carry out a witch hunt — if that is how critics like to define the purges. “If reassigning individuals who betray this country is called a witch hunt, then yes, we will carry out a witch hunt,” he stated.
There are rumours that the only criteria behind these purges are alleged links to a “parallel state,” a term the government has been using to describe the Hizmet movement, which is a grassroots movement based on voluntary participation aimed at fostering interfaith dialogue and tolerance, with a particular emphasis on education. The government has been at odds with the Hizmet movement since the Gezi protests and has been reassigning public officials known or suspected to be close to the movement.