Freedom of Expression and the Death of the Rule of Law in Turkey

By Pier Luigi Parcu, Director, and Elda Brogi, Scientific Coordinator of the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, Robert Schuman Centre, European University Institute

On 16 February, two journalists, Ahmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak, and the academic Mehmet Altan, were sentenced to life in jail due to allegations of being involved in the 2016 coup attempt. The outcome of their trial, according to all international observers, is completely unjustified.

Moreover, it seems that the tribunal simply ignored a decision of the Turkish Constitutional Court, which had previously established that the pre-trial detention of Mehmet Altan, prolonged for longer than a year, had violated his rights to freedom and personal security as well as his freedom of expression. On this basis the Court had established for his immediate release, but the lower tribunal not only decided to not apply this decision but finally condemned him to life in jail.

This grave episode shows that the Turkish judicial system is no longer applying the principle of the rule of law, nor guaranteeing the fundamental rights and principles of a democratic state. A life in jail sentence for journalists based on their opinions is a crime against freedom of expression.

At the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute in Florence, we have been monitoring risks for media pluralism in the EU and candidate countries for years. Turkey has been under observation for the last two years, and the results are deeply disturbing.

It is hard to think about the situation in Turkey without feeling helpless and deeply worried for any journalist, any colleague who works, or used to work in Turkish universities, but also for all normal citizens as they go about their daily activities; we think of the normal life they used to have and how they live in fear now. Immediate action is needed to resolve a situation that is quickly and dramatically deteriorating, also in view of the many forthcoming trials involving other journalists and academics.

It is difficult to propose solutions to revert such a negative spiral, especially since the state of emergency in Turkey has already been going on for so long now that it has become the norm. A quick activation of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg could play an important role in some concrete cases, such as the sentences for the brothers Altan and Ilicak.  But a wider reaction is absolutely necessary. The answer cannot be only linked to individual cases, but it should be political. The pressure that can be exercised by the governments of the EU member states, as well as by the EU itself and the Council of Europe is going to be crucial.

European governments ought never to concede when human rights are at stake, and they should restate – now more than ever – that Europe is a strong protector of fundamental rights everywhere in the world. If a country wants to interact with European counterparts, it must respect the rule of law, fundamental rights and certainly freedom of expression, which is the cornerstone of democracy.

Without a response what is happening in Turkey these days may undermine the credibility of Europe and democracy: the fate of journalists, academics, intellectuals, and ultimately of the Turkish people cannot and should not be ignored. The EU, its democratic governments, public opinion, and obviously the free press, must keep Turkey in the spotlight.