Since the publication of the previous Freedom Observer, significant developments have occurred in Turkey’s domestic and foreign politics. The most noteworthy external development has been the regrettable deterioration in the country’s relations with European institutions, including the Council of Europe and the European Union.
First, the European Parliament, the democratic representative body of the European Union, adopted a report on Turkey on September 13. As one might expect, the report emphasizes that Turkey is moving further away from European Union standards and, as a result, has largely failed to meet the conditions for Union membership.
According to the report, the judiciary in Turkey is not independent but has become a political tool, and independent media is suppressed by the government through the prosecution of journalists and censorship.
The report also highlights that the general elections in Turkey that took place last May occurred under circumstances that favored the government unfairly. It further emphasizes that the use of harsh, inflammatory, and discriminatory rhetoric, as well as the intimidation and harassment of supporters of certain opposition parties, along with the ruling parties’ association of the opposition with terrorism, undermined the electoral process. Meanwhile, the report notes that the reason for the stalled accession negotiations with the European Union in 2018 was the decline in the rule of law and democracy in Turkey.
Unsurprisingly, the Turkish government reacted strongly to the European Parliament’s 2022 Turkey Report. Statements from both the Minister of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that the findings in the report were far from objective and inaccurate.
The Minister of Justice went even further and, in a manner inconsistent with diplomatic courtesy, stated that the report was ‘filled with delusions.’ Meanwhile, the President, in a peculiar manner, after suggesting that the European Union was ‘attempting to distance itself from Turkey,’ added that ‘if necessary, we can go our separate ways from the EU.’ In summary, we are witnessing another instance of the ‘Turkish classic’: evading responsibility for its own shortcomings and shifting blame onto others for its mistakes.
The situation in relations with the Council of Europe is no different. As we have repeatedly mentioned in previous bulletins, the ‘infringement procedure’ initiated by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe against Turkey for its refusal to comply with the European Court of Human Rights ruling on Osman Kavala has reached its final stage. Despite this protracted process, which has become akin to a ‘never-ending story,’ it was believed that the Committee of Ministers had reached the stage of determining the sanctions to be imposed on Turkey during its last meeting held on September 19-21. However, the decision announced on September 22 proved otherwise.
Indeed, the Committee of Ministers once again called on ‘all competent Turkish authorities and national judicial bodies’ to decide on the immediate release of Osman Kavala in accordance with the ECtHR provisions. Failing this, they would continue to ‘examine other measures with a view to finding the most appropriate way forward.’ Thus, it became evident that the Council of Europe was not inclined to invoke a sanction provided for by the Convention to conclude the ‘infringement procedure’ against Turkey. In other words, we have come to understand that European institutions are also inclined to act based on political and diplomatic considerations rather than strictly legal ones.
Meanwhile, as interest rates have once again been raised in the implementation of the new economic program, Mehmet Şimşek, the head of economic and financial management, has shared ‘positive news’ that foreign financing opportunities are opening up for Turkey. Minister Şimşek announced that ministries and local governments have entered into a loan agreement with the World Bank, totaling 895.7 million euros, to address their financing needs for renewable energy and water efficiency.
Finally, the ‘Gezi trial’ in Ankara has come to a conclusion. In 2018, a lawsuit was filed against over 600 individuals who took part in the Gezi Park protests in Ankara in June 2013. The court has now reached a verdict, acquitting some defendants of charges related to resisting the police while convicting 19 defendants of participating in an unlawful demonstration and failing to disperse. However, the sentences handed down have been suspended.
Looking forward to the next Freedom Observer!
* Prof. Dr. Mustafa Erdoğan
European Parliament Adopts 2022 Turkey Report!
Turkey’s accession process to the European Union has effectively been stalled for a long time and was officially suspended in 2018. While the process has not been officially terminated, there have been rumors of proposals to that effect. On September 13, 2023, the European Parliament, the legislative body of the Union, adopted the Commission’s 2022 Turkey Report.
The report highlights numerous findings indicating that Turkey-EU relations are strained. It addresses issues where Turkey’s stance conflicts with EU foreign policy and acknowledges that these issues complicate the relationship. However, it emphasizes that the primary hindrance to the resumption of accession negotiations is Turkey’s failure to meet the political criteria outlined in the Copenhagen Criteria. The report explicitly states that Turkey has steadily and rapidly diverged from European values in recent years, experiencing regression in areas related to the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms. Within this context, it underscores that Turkey’s standing in various international indices measuring freedom, democracy, and the rule of law has continuously deteriorated, resulting in its placement at the bottom of global rankings.
The report also specifically highlights certain ECtHR judgments that Turkey has refused to implement, despite being a member of the Council of Europe and thus obligated to abide by ECtHR rulings. Chief among these are the Kavala and Demirtaş judgments, in which the ECtHR determined that Turkey had violated Article 18 of the Convention.
While Turkey faces systemic challenges in complying with ECtHR judgments, these two rulings are especially significant. This is due to the ECtHR’s finding of a violation of Article 18 of the Convention in both cases and the initiation of a violation procedure by the Committee of Ministers. Not only does this process pose an obstacle to Turkey’s EU membership, but it also raises the possibility of Turkey’s membership in the Council of Europe being discussed as a consequence.
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe initiated a violation procedure regarding the implementation of the Kavala judgment, marking the second time in its history that it has taken such action. In 2022, the ECtHR ruled that its judgment had not been complied with. During its 1475th meeting held on September 19-21, 2023, the Committee of Ministers included the issue of sanctions related to the Kavala judgment on its agenda. Additionally, measures concerning the implementation of the Demirtaş judgment will also be discussed at this meeting.
In its report, the European Parliament reminds Turkey of the binding nature of ECtHR judgments according to Article 46 of the Convention and calls on Turkey to comply with these judgments. The European Parliament’s report also highlights the ongoing democratic regression in Turkey and provides various examples of laws and practices that curtail freedom of expression, including the disinformation regulation aimed at limiting critical and dissenting voices. Notably, the report addresses practices that restrict dissenting voices during the electoral process.
The report emphasizes the critical issue of the lack of judicial independence and the politicization of the judiciary, which is of utmost importance to the EU. It underscores the vital role of judicial independence in the functioning of a democratic system and calls for an end to judicial harassment that restricts freedoms of expression and assembly. The report also underscores that the unhindered operation of all civil society organizations will contribute to the advancement of democracy in Turkey. It further stresses the importance of ensuring humane conditions for prisoners in detention.
The European Parliament report also discusses the repression of the rights of journalists, civil society organizations, dissidents, human rights defenders, women, LGBTI people, Kurds, and other minority groups. It expresses the expectation of improvements in these areas.
The Turkish Government and President responded strongly to the report. In a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the criticisms in the report were characterized as follows: ‘The report, rife with unjust accusations stemming from disinformation propagated by anti-Turkey groups, reflects a shortsighted perspective.’ The President also remarked that the EU was attempting to distance itself from Turkey and that the EU might separate from Turkey if deemed necessary.
This indicates that the government’s post-election pledges to improve relations with the EU are not realistic; instead, relations have deteriorated significantly. Furthermore, Turkey’s membership in the Council of Europe is swiftly approaching a point where it may come under discussion.
* Ali Rıza Çoban – Constitutional Lawyer
Case of Insulting Atatürk
A 17-year-old high school student named A.E.S. in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district gained public attention after a video of him insulting a photograph of Atatürk went viral on social media. The teenager was captured on his friends’ cell phone camera making disrespectful gestures toward a photograph of Atatürk, which had been torn from a school book. The video quickly circulated on social media and was widely shared by user.
After a public outcry over the video, Istanbul police took swift action. A.E.S., the individual seen in the video making the offensive gestures, was apprehended and detained shortly thereafter. Following his statement at the police station and necessary procedures, A.E.S. was brought to the Anatolian Courthouse in Kartal. Subsequently, he appeared before the prosecutor’s office and was referred to the Anatolian 4th Criminal Judgeship of Peace with a request for his arrest on charges of ‘publicly humiliating a section of the public based on social class, religion, sect, gender, regional differences,’ and ‘publicly insulting the memory of Atatürk.’ Upon the judge’s issuance of an arrest warrant, the suspect was remanded to prison. This incident garnered significant attention, both on social media and in traditional media outlets.
It’s important to note that A.E.S. is a 17-year-old teenager, legally considered a child. This is a developmental stage marked by rapid emotional, cognitive, and social growth, intensifying identity exploration, and frequent fluctuations in thoughts and feelings. Therefore, his arrest was deemed unjustifiable.
Moreover, A.E.S. has already drawn the ire of millions of people for his behavior, and his arrest could have a negative impact on his psychological and social development. Moreover, such an incident is likely to have negative effects on his education and career plans.
One of the critical yet controversial issues that this incident has once again raised is whether insulting the President should be regarded as an exercise of freedom of expression. It’s widely known that President Erdoğan has been responsible for the convictions of numerous individuals on charges of ‘insulting the President,’ which constitutes a distinct offense under the Turkish Penal Code. While it is exceedingly rare for an ordinary citizen to receive a prison sentence for insulting another citizen, tens of thousands of individuals have faced legal prosecution for insulting the President. Some of them have even been sentenced to imprisonment for statements that could be argued as mere insults. As mentioned in previous bulletins, this situation not only curtails freedom of expression but also violates the principle of equality, indicating an effort to stifle dissenting voices.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of statements related to religious values and Atatürk as grounds for defamation prosecutions. Law enforcement agencies take action when expressions made by certain individuals, often in private and on social media, regarding values and figures widely embraced by society gain widespread attention in order to attract public notice.
It can be argued that detention or arrest decisions are primarily intended to quell reactions on social media and intimidate those who might engage in similar behavior. This is evident as many insulting expressions go unchecked if they do not gain widespread attention and fail to provoke significant public response.
While defamation is classified as a criminal offense in the Turkish Penal Code, it is crucial to view it within the broader context of freedom of expression. Doing so can contribute to a society that is more open, equitable, and understanding. It’s important to note that assessing defamation within the realm of freedom of expression does not imply approval or tolerance of it. People have the right to criticize and respond to expressions they disagree with using their freedom of expression. However, resorting to the arrest of an individual due to their expression, thereby depriving them of their freedom, is seen as a disproportionate response.
In conclusion, A.E.S.’s insult may be unacceptable for many in society, but it is important to note that the decision to arrest may have irreversible negative effects on the life of a minor and, on the other hand, undermines freedom of expression.
* Ömer Faruk Şen – Ph.D. – Missouri University
Medium-Term Program and Weapons of Mass Destruction(!)
In the last issue of the Bulletin, we mentioned the three-year medium-term economic program announced by Vice President Cevdet Yılmaz. There, as an institutional backtrack, we stated that there were 3 programs for 2024.
Several other issues were raised for discussion in the context of the Medium-Term Program (MTP). The MTP included references to structural reforms, yet it lacked detailed information on the implementation of these reforms. The program was formulated in rather general terms, which may not align with the principles of a free-market economy.
On the other hand, although they are now referred to as ‘programs,’ these were previously referred to as ‘plans.’ Despite this change being presented as a commitment to a free-market economy, the transition from ‘plans’ to ‘programs’ does not alter the underlying essence. In essence, the centralist and exclusionary approach that we previously termed a planned economy continues, albeit with a change in nomenclature. This renaming practice is indeed one of the prominent features of Erdogan’s leadership. Erdogan has a penchant for renaming things in a manner that suits his agenda, and he effectively promotes these changes through the media channels at his disposal and his bureaucratic capabilities.
Returning to our main topic, it’s important to note that the MTP is not intended to be a panacea. In economics, it is often more prudent to introduce general programs like this rather than unconventional ideas that claim to be brilliant. However, this is where we can delve into the reason behind giving this note its seemingly unconventional title.4
At the end of 2020, Turkey enacted a regulation titled the ‘Law on the Prevention of Financing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction,’ following a recommendation by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Turkey is a founding member of the FATF, with its secretariat housed within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The primary motivation behind this enactment was to avoid being graylisted by the FATF. However, the passage of this law in parliament was marred by flaws, leading to Turkey’s immediate placement on the gray list. The gray list comprises countries that lack adequate safeguards against money laundering, proliferation, and terrorism financing on a global scale. In essence, Turkey is currently regarded as a country that does not align with international standards in combating issues like the financing of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Consequently, Turkey faces significant challenges in integrating into the global financial system. This issue also serves as a hurdle for credit rating agencies to assign Turkey an ‘investment grade’ status.
So, why did this law go awry? Regrettably, factors such as corruption, a lack of transparency, and the instrumentalization of the law all played a role. In the draft law proposed by the FATF, the most crucial aspect of the WMD prevention measures focused on imposing restrictions on the financial accounts of politicians, corrupt officials, or influential individuals. However, in the final law, the Turkish government shifted its emphasis towards the more peripheral issue of controls on non-governmental organizations. As a result, Turkey was unable to avoid being placed on the gray list.
In light of all these issues, Turkey should prioritize the development of its institutional capacity and view the rule of law as the cornerstone of progress and prosperity, rather than formulating plans for the short, medium, or long term. As long as situations like the aforementioned instrumentalization of the law continue, any measures or regulations enacted will likely yield limited results.