The Association of European Journalists, an independent professional association of journalists in Europe, expresses its extreme concern that freedom of expression, including the essential freedom of the press, is liable to be severely endangered after the announcement by the Turkish government that it intends temporarily to suspend its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights while maintaining a state of emergency in the aftermath of last week’s failed attempt by elements of the army to take over the government.
We cannot fail to note that the Turkish authorities have arrested and jailed scores of journalists in recent years, including several cases this year, on sweeping or ill-defined charges, including terrorism-related charges, which have been seen as failing to meet international standards of law and judicial procedure. Already this week more than 20 TV and radio stations have been forced off air, some newspapers have been forcibly taken over, and many accredited journalists have had their press cards taken away citing national security reasons. The scale of this attempt to limit the plurality of sources of news and opinion, and to interfere with the normal rights of journalists and others exercising their right to freedom of expression, is deeply disturbing.
The Turkish government authorities have also moved with precipitate speed to arrest detail, dismiss or criminally investigate tens of thousands of members of the armed forces, public bodies and the judiciary, giving rise to fears that the state of emergency may be used by those in power to silence those in many walks of life, including the media and education, who legitimately hold views different from, or critical of, the government in power.
The government’s announcement, by deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmus, reportedly seeks to justify the move as necessary to bring to justice those responsible for mounting the coup attempt and to ‘cleanse’ the state apparatus of members of the organisation headed by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, which the government has branded as a terrorist organisation.
But so far no substantial body of evidence has been presented in public that in the AEJ’s view might justify taking such sweeping powers, including suspending the constitutional role of parliament, independent regulatory authorities and the courts.
The Turkish government has compared its taking of emergency powers to the French government’s enactment of a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attack in Paris and its recent extension of those powes after last week’s mass killings in Nice. It should be noted that the French emergency provisions specifically exclude measures that would control the press and publications.
In order to reassure its own citizens, as well as others in countries that adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights and other international human rights agreements who fear that press freedom and other civil liberties in Turkey are at serious risk, the AEJ urges the Turkish government to restore the full rights and liberties to all those, including journalists who are now – or may in the near future be — detained, investigated or threatened with reprisals on account of their speech or published opinions.
Article 15 of the European Convention, which Turkey has invoked to suspend a wide range of human rights including freedom of expression, states that ‘in time of war or other public emergencies threatening the life of the nation’, a state may take certain measures derogating from its obligations. But in keeping with the spirit of the Convention and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, any suspension of the guarantees of individual rights must be proportionate to the ‘exigencies of the situation’ and must be consistent with its other obligations under international law.
Turkey has also signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR), whose Article 19 guarantees the right of freedom of expression to everyone and which allows that that right may be subject to certain restrictions related in particular to national security or public order.
The most authoritative interpretation of the obligations of states that are party to the ICCPR, by the UN Human Rights Committee, says (UNHRC General Comment No.34, #6) that a ‘general reservation’ to the rights of freedom of opinion and expression is not compatible with the object and purpose of the Covenant. In particular, the Committee says, it can never be legitimate for a state to derogate from the obligation to allow freedom of opinion, even during a state of emergency. The UN Human Rights Committee further states (#9) that it is unlawful in international law to criminalize the holding of an opinion.
The AEJ notes that the Turkish government has suggested that the state of emergency may be restricted to within one and a half months and that ordinary civic life will be able to continue during that time without serious disturbance. We ask the government to closely heed these urgent concerns in favour of restraint, and an immediate return to the rule of law and the safeguards provided by the European Convention, the International Covenant, and other binding international treaties.
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