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Freedom of Speech Is Still Deteriorating Drastically in Turkey

A new report by PEN International documents Turkey's persecution of journalists and other writers, mass surveillance, blocking of social media, and criminalization of whistleblowing.
Jailed VICE News journalist Mohammed Rasool. Photo by VICE News

Turkey is the runaway capital of censorship in Europe, with freedom of expression declining radically there since 2013, said an annual report released on Wednesday.

In 2014 the European Court of Human Rights heard more freedom of expression cases relating to Turkey than all other 46 member states of the Council of Europe put together, highlighted the study by PEN International, a global NGO dedicated to press freedom.


PEN's report documented the persecution and jailing of individual journalists alongside mass surveillance, increasingly repressive legislation, and a draconian crackdown on social media and websites.

One of those in prison is VICE News journalist Mohammed Rasool, who was jailed alongside two colleagues, Philip Pendlebury and Jake Hanrahan, in Turkey in August. The group was falsely accused of assisting terrorists after reporting on fighting between the Turkish state and the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the country's southeast. Pendlebury and Hanrahan were released after a few days, but Rasool remains behind bars and in limbo.

"VICE News remains committed to supporting our friend and colleague Mohammed Rasool, who has been imprisoned for over 100 days for simply doing his job — reporting on an important story," said VICE News Editor-in-Chief Jason Mojica.

"Rasool is a highly-respected young reporter with a wealth of experience in journalism. In the three months since his detainment, the international community has helped spotlight his case with a global petition calling for his release.

"With that petition now approaching 100,000 signatures, we are appealing to the Turkish government to free Rasool so he can be reunited with his family, friends, and colleagues."

Related: 100 Days in Prison and a Lawyer Shot Dead: Turkey Still Won't Let Our Journalist Go

In another high-profile case, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, Editor-in-Chief and Ankara bureau chief of the respected opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, were jailed following a story in May claiming that Turkey's intelligence agency MIT had transported weapons to the jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra in Syria. They also face charges of assisting terrorists.


There are now around 30 journalists in prison in Turkey. Lawyers, activists, bloggers, and members of the public who use social media also have strict limits on what they can say, if they are not a fan of the government.

The number of civil and criminal defamation cases brought by officials, in particular President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "has skyrocketed," noted the PEN report.

During his time as prime minister, President Erdogan brought a raft of defamation cases against writers and intellectuals for criticizing him and his policies; since 2013 he's been doing the same against members of the Turkish public who have used their social media accounts to lambast him.

In April 2015, the website Bianet recorded details of 56 cases of defamation brought by Erdogan and his family against journalists and members of the public; 29 of these cases had been brought by Erdogan himself (21 while he was prime minister and another eight since his August 2014 election as president), while another seven had been brought by his son Bilal, and three had been lodged jointly by members of Erdogan's family.

Related: The EU Has Now Slammed Turkey's Imprisonment of Journalists

"Such cases have a chilling effect on writers' freedom of expression, and are driving journalists to self-censor," said PEN.

Religious defamation has also become a hot potato, with more and more people being prosecuted in relation to material posted online or via social media that satirizes religion, or criticizes or ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.


In April 2013, pianist Fazil Say was given a 10-month suspended sentence for "insulting religious values" in a series of tweets including a verse by Omar Khayyam which challenged the understanding of "heaven" in Islam.

YouTube, Twitter, Wordpress, Soundcloud, and Grindr are all among the websites which have been blocked in Turkey in recent years, for misdemeanors such as allowing posting of content relating to PKK, publishing recordings of Erdogan's phone calls, and religious defamation. In March 2014 Erdogan publicly vowed to "eradicate Twitter."

Laws regulating the internet were amended in April allowing the government to block access to websites for up to 24 hours without a court order if they fail to remove specified content within four hours.

The report also highlights a string of new laws which mirror "many of the worst Western surveillance practices that seriously [threaten] the fundamental rights and freedoms of tens of millions of Turkish citizens."

Related: #FreeRasool: International News Editors Express Concern Over Turkish 'Climate of Intimidation'

Following a December 2013 corruption scandal involving Erdogan's ruling AKP party, "the government introduced hastily-drafted legislation to strengthen the powers and reduce the accountability of the National Intelligence Agency," said PEN.

The April 2014 "Law Amending the Law on State Intelligence Services and the National Intelligence Agency" gave MIT wide-ranging powers to conduct surveillance and collect information from public and financial institutions, with refusals punishable by two to five years in prison. Whistle-blowing about the agency was criminalized, as was the distribution of information or documents related to MIT "by radio, television, social media, magazine, book, or any other form of media."

In March 2015 an internal security law was passed which allows police to conduct searches without prior authorization, detain suspects for up to 48 hours without the authorization of a prosecutor, and increases the penalty under anti-terror legislation for people participating in violent or "propaganda" demonstrations. It also expanded the length of time for which police can conduct digital surveillance of individuals suspected of national security offenses without requiring judicial authorization.

The combined net effect of repressive legislation and surveillance is driving journalists and other writers into self-censorship, said PEN's report. "Of course [surveillance] has had an impact," said investigative journalist Ismail Saymaz. "For one, people speak on the phone less; they constantly create new email accounts and communicate via them… We eventually got used to living this way. We had to somehow try to continue engaging in journalism regardless."

Related: Leaving My Friend Rasool Behind and Why He Must Be Freed from Turkish Prison