Turkey, a democracy in crisis

Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AP, file)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AP, file)

President Erdogan regularly vilifies journalists as "terrorists" while stoking fears of terrorism among his citizens. He frequently eschews facts and voices conspiracy theories, writes Ivan Phahle.

The aim of this article is to explore what role can the South African government, mainstream media, non-governmental organisation and activists play in protecting and promoting human rights in Turkey.

Human rights and international organisations such as United Nations and the European Union have reported brutal human rights violations as well as a significant decline in the freedom of the press in Turkey. 

Turkey's human rights record, which started declining steadily after the 2010 referendum, has become worse following two significant political developments. First was the collapse of the peace negotiations and ceasefire between the states and armed the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and secondly was the failed coup where hundreds of people died and thousands were severely wounded. 

A report published in March 2018 by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted the human rights situation in Turkey during the period of July 2015 to December 2016 as highly concerning. Torture, violence against women, excessive use of force, prevention of access to emergency medical care, safe water and livelihoods, and severe restrictions of the right to freedom of expression were some of the issues (OHCHR) raised in its report. 

While OHCHR recognises the complex challenges Turkey has faced in addressing the 15 July 2016 attempted coup and a number of terrorist attacks, the state of emergency in Turkey has led to profound human rights violations against hundreds of thousands of people, from arbitrary deprivation of the right to work and to freedom of movement, to torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary detentions and infringements of the rights to freedom of association and expression. OHCHR has also regarded as arbitrary the nature of massive dismissals amounting to 145 711 of civil servants and private sector employees who were said to be connected with terrorist organisations, without describing the nature of such links. Moreover, most of these dismissals were executed on the basis of lists published as annexes to decrees, without individual notification and judicial review. 

In a report by the European Commission for Democracy Through Law's (Venice Commission) titled Opinion on Emergency Decree Laws, it declares the unlawfulness of the state of emergency decrees and criticised the Turkish government for legislating alone without any control by Parliament or the Constitutional Court; and making changes to the legislation, which should normally be done through the ordinary legislative process outside of the emergency period. 

The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, observed that measures taken by the government in the framework of the state of emergency went beyond what is permitted by the Turkish Constitution and by international law.

President Erdogan regularly vilifies journalists as "terrorists" while stoking fears of terrorism among his citizens. He frequently eschews facts and voices conspiracy theories, including the idea that Turkey's allies are secretly working to undermine the country's supposed economic might. Like many strongmen, Erdogan takes criticism personally. Turkey is the world's biggest jailer of journalists, ahead of China and Egypt, with 274 journalists arrested and 184 media outlets shut down since the coup attempt. 

In a report compiled by Human Rights Watch titled Silencing Turkey's Media, the following crucial components were listed relating to independent domestic media in Turkey: 

1. Government interference with editorial independence and pressure on media organisations to fire critical journalists. 

2. The government takeover or closure of private media companies. 

3. Fines, restrictions on distribution and closure of essential television stations. The blocking of online news websites and internet access.

Continued allegations of torture, ill-treatment, killings, prevention of access to emergency medical care, safe water and livelihoods, cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment in police custody and prison and the lack of any meaningful investigation into them remained a deep concern. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that approximately 600 women with young children were being held in detention in Turkey as of December 2017, including about 100 women who were pregnant or had just given birth. Other reports received by OHCHR from medical doctors and nurses, explain how medical professionals continue to fight to stop the police from handcuffing women in hospitals during or immediately after giving birth. Evidence has been collected of a woman who gave birth by caesarean section and was arrested hours later at high risk to her and child's health. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said he believes that the states of emergency declared in Turkey has been used to severely and arbitrarily curtail the human rights of a very large number of people. With respect to this, South Africa as a member of the United Nations Security Council which ensures international peace and security, is obliged to be more vocal on the injustices in Turkey. 

Sources interviewed by OHCHR in a report released in March 2018, indicated that the collective dismissals and suspensions of judges amounting to 4 424 from lower courts through lists issued by the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors have been largely arbitrary, and that appropriate procedures were not followed, including respect for the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence or the ability to present a defence. Any dismissals within the judiciary should be subjected to particularly exacting scrutiny, even in times of a serious public emergency. Such radical actions do not only affect the human rights of the individual judges concerned, but they may weaken the judiciary as a whole and compromise its effectiveness.  

As the country will be commemorating freedom later this month, it is important for South Africans to reflect and commit ourselves to ensure the defence of the sacred freedoms that we had won as a result of a long, difficult and costly struggle. We must remember during this time that the guarantee of these freedoms requires permanent vigilance. 

As I conclude, I would like to leave the reader with the following recommendations from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

- Turkey must conduct necessary reforms to ensure the independence of the legislative and judicial branches of power;

- Enforce the proclaimed policy of zero tolerance for torture, including by ensuring independent investigations of all allegations and independent monitoring visits to all places of deprivation of liberty.

- End the practice of detaining pregnant, and consider using non-custodial measures for sentenced pregnant women and those with young children.

- Phahle is managing director of SIP Media.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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