Just over four months ago, my fellows OSCE parliamentarians and I were in Turkeyfor elections that were vibrant, but tainted by restrictions to media freedom and other issues of concern. This time, we hope to observe a pluralistic and hard-fought campaign once again, along with improvements in the areas we highlighted.”
With these words, Ignacio Sanchez Amor, the special coordinator for the short-term Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission for the early parliamentary election, opened a press conference announcing the commitment of the intergovernmental agency established by the Helsinki Final Act (1975) in monitoring the Nov. 1 election. Alongside the OSCE delegation, other international observers — the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) — have been officially invited by the Turkish authorities to scrutinize the respect of pluralistic democratic values and electoral fairness.
Since early October, several international experts have been supervising the approach to the parliamentary polls, closely examining the observance of supranational values such as human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law by all political actors, not only at the domestic level but also in the light of international agreements to which Turkey is bound as a signatory party. According to the findings of the June monitoring mission OSCE/ODIHR final report, the main areas of concern are represented by media freedom and pluralism and by freedom of thought and expression. The final document stresses the need to bring domestic legislation in line with international obligations and standards, respecting the provision of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on freedom of expression “latu sensu” and asking the authorities to avoid any interference in the free enjoyment of this fundamental liberty.
But in the path towards the Nov. 1 election, the recommendations issued by the OSCE’s regional human rights body, whose core mandate consists in promoting democracy, respect for the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, are still being disregarded. The OSCE/ODIHR interim report published in October underlines how the political environment has worsened since the previous election, emphasizing the arbitrary application of provisions included in the Anti-Terrorism Law (Law No. 3713), the Criminal Code (Law No. 5237) and the Press Law (Law No. 5187), characterized by vagueness and susceptibility to value judgments and silencing opposition voices before and during the election period. The latest weeks have shown increasing pressure on independent thinkers. The constraint has curbed any political debate at a moment at which it was a vital demand for the entire country’s existence, especially after the heinous carnage that occurred during the “Labor, Peace and Democracy” rally on Oct. 10.
Targeting the media, neglecting the EP’s recommendations
To ensure democracy, safeguards for media personnel and properties is paramount for any state; every attack on journalists and media affects the entire community, sometimes more than just the individual targeted.
The seizure of Koza İpek Holding and the appointment of government trustees to guide to holding-run dailies just one week before the opening of polling stations have highlighted the boundaries of media freedom in the country. The decision by an Ankara’s court caused serious apprehension on the fair approach to and coverage of the election since it has totally annihilated the contribution of the antagonist press in the electoral process as public educator. “Mutatis mutandis,” the Ankara judge’s decision could be seen as a ban on the group from exercising its professional duties, “requiring [them] to refrain from criticizing the government or other authorities in a way that could be considered contrary to the interests of the State” (Ayşe Öztürk vs. Turkey).
Journalists have become additional targets of the campaign. The use of harsh political rhetoric resulted in physical attacks against prominent journalist Ahmed Hakan in early October. At a later stage, the judiciary renewed its hunt against critics of the administration by arresting Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş on charges of insulting the president of the republic via social media for the second time in one year. Mr. Keneş’s arrest was in clear violation of his individual right to freedom of expression, protected by Article 26 of the Turkish Constitution, Article 10 of the ECHR and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the recently adopted EU human rights guidelines on Freedom of Expression On-line and Off-line. Moreover, it has openly disregarded the European Parliament’s resolution 2014/3011 on FoE, whereby European Parliament deputies reminded Turkey of its commitment to aligning with the universal liberties recognized by the ECHR, avoiding any misuse of domestic laws and general respect for the rule of law, an essential founding principle of democratic environments.
Analyzing the arrest in conjunction with the threat to Mr. Keneş’s professional activity, another violation must be taken into account: The infringement of his private sphere and his primary right, as a Turkish citizen, to criticize public actors. A broadly accepted principle is that politicians and governments can be subjected to greater criticism than normal individuals and that these critics must be given greater latitude due to their active role in guiding the country (Castells vs. Spain, ECtHR; New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, United States Supreme Court).
The case of Tahir Elçi
The detention of Tahir Elçi, the president of the Diyarbakır Bar Association and a highly respected human rights lawyer, on charges of “making propaganda for or promoting a terrorist organization” sparked serious concern and the prompt reaction of both civil society and national and international political leaders. The decision was taken by the Bakırköy 2nd Penal Court of Peace in İstanbul to openly contravene basic human rights treaties, and there has also been a recent domestic law amending certain laws related to human rights and Freedom of Expression, widely referred to as the 4th Judicial Package. The ruling violates Mr. Elçi’s FoE guarantees as protected by the Turkish Constitution (Article 26) and the ECHR (Article 10) to which he is entitled as an individual and Article 23 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of the Lawyers, by reason of his profession. Additionally, the arrest is in sharp contrast with the 2013 reforms that amended “making propaganda for or promoting a terrorist organization” an offense in case of advocacy of violent methods (Article 220/6 Turkish Criminal Code).
Aiming to silence opposition voices as a primary effect, the administration’s election management has created a side effect in which basic electoral principles enshrined in the 1990 CSCE/OSCE Copenhagen Document and the EU Venice Commission Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters have been violated.
Source: Today’s Zaman