U.N. Turkey rights review shines light on free speech repression

(Updates with Turkey's election to UN committee on human rights)

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) met on Tuesday to review Turkey’s human rights record since the last Universal Periodic Review in 2015.

Turkey’s third review in 10 years aimed to examine the country’s broad human rights trends, covering a diverse range of topics including hate crimes, minority and LGBT rights, and press freedoms.

It covers a period in which Turkey was rocked by an attempted coup in 2016, followed by two years of emergency rule during which the government used its heightened security powers to sack and arrest thousands of people it said were members of the Gülen religious movement that it blamed for the failed putsch.

Critics of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government say it used the emergency powers to root out political opponents.

The crackdown hit journalists and civil society activists in Turkey hard, with many prosecuted for supporting terrorism over criticism of government policies in its pursuit of Gülenists and repression of the Kurdish political movement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Turkey as the worst jailer of journalists in the world for three years running until 2019, when China jailed 48 journalists to Turkey’s 47.

The government’s control over the country’s mainstream press outlets and repression of critical journalism has led to an atmosphere where criticism of the three cross-border military operations in Syria and counter-insurgency operations against Kurdish militants in Turkey’s southeast is virtually criminalised.

The panelists at the IOHR meeting on Jan. 27.

“We are censoring ourselves because of these fears,” activist and Ahval contributor Nurcan Baysal said at a panel organised by the International Observatory of Human Rights (IOHR) and the Press Emblem Campaign the day before the UNHCR review.

“For example, before coming here I asked myself if I should use certain words, should I use the word invasion, or should I use the word war, because today in Turkey even to say war is forbidden,” she said. “Everything that I say has an effect on not only my life, but of the lives of my children and family.”

In another move that drew criticism, the Presidential Communications Directorate refused to issue press cards for journalists at BirGün and Evrensel, two critical press outlets.

“No state or power can decide who is a journalist, it is the domain for professional organisations and should always be separate from power,” Ahval editor-in-chief Yavuz Baydar said at the IOHR panel.

Responding to criticism of Turkey’s record on press freedom at Tuesday’s meeting, Turkish envoy Faruk Kaymakçı said the right to freedom of expression did not cover what he called propaganda for terrorism, adding that some members of the outlawed Gülen religious movement were posing as journalists.

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Şebnem Korur Fincancı speaks at the IOHR panel.

But speaking at the IOHR panel, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey President Şebnem Korur Fincancı said rights violations had become commonplace because “all the procedural safeguards have been neglected”.

Meanwhile, the UN on Tuesday elected Turkey as vice-chair of the committee that accredits and oversees the work of non-governmental human rights groups at the world body.

The UNHCR will announce its recommendations on Thursday.