While the scale of Turkey’s crackdown on freedom of expression in the post-coup-attempt emergency rule era has been intense, the assault on dissenting voices predated the failed putsch.
Whether it they were Kurdish writers at the turn of the decade, or worked for Feza Publications just months before the night elements of the military betrayed their fellow Turks, journalists that offered alternative viewpoints were long in president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crosshairs.
In the case of Feza’s popular publications — among them Zaman and the English-language Zaman Daily — which had been raided and its employees arrested on several occasions since 2014 as the shakey rule of law eroded in Turkey. In a March 2016 move that was condemned internationally, Feza Publications was targeted with the imposition of government-appointed trustees. This resulted in the termination of hundreds of media professionals from journalists to advertising reps and the literally overnight change from independent and critical outlets to government propaganda sheets.
An appeal on the takeover of Feza was made to the European Court of Human Rights to address a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression, among others. Yet the application was rejected on what was seen as questionable grounds, becoming one of the many disappointing decisions taken by the international court.
The assault on Feza Publications was ordered by the Istanbul 6th Criminal Court of the Peace on Friday 4 March 2016. By nightfall, the police had raided the Zaman newspaper office, using tear gas and water cannons on the protestors outside. The Saturday edition of Zaman was the last version of a free newspaper. The front page headline declared “the constitution suspended” and noted that Turkish press had seen one of its “darkest days”. The Sunday edition, under new ownership, was a disconcerting contrast. The front page showed a smiling president Erdogan holding hands with an elderly woman, coupled with an announcement that was he hosting a Women’s Day event. The main headline was “Historic excitement about the bridge”, a reference to a span being built across the Bosphorus with state funding.
Newly appointed government trustees immediately interfered with editorial decisions. A staff member commented that: “Before the takeover, our deadline was 7:30pm. The trustees moved that deadline to 4:30pm, and in the remaining three hours they censored and changed the paper to fit their new ‘line’.” The new management had also banned staff access to the newspapers’ archives.
The police who had raided the office on the Friday, stayed on to check staff IDs and prevent groups of three or more from assembling. Hundreds of Feza Publications employees were then dismissed under Article 25 of the Turkish labour law which lays out that contracts can be annulled without prior notice if an employee displays “immoral, dishonourable or malicious conduct”. Those dismissed have recounted how they received a generic letter which gave no explanation the accusations.
Considered enemies of the state, former Feza Publications employees found it difficult to obtain new jobs. They were left to survive on little to no income; Article 25 outlines that those dismissed are not eligible for redundancy packages or other compensation And recruiters were right to be weary; four-and-a-half months after the takeover, the July 16th coup attempt occurred, and purges began on a massive scale. Thousands of journalists were dismissed, and dozens were detained on terrorism-related charges. Feza Publications, already marked as Gulen-linked and thus terrorist – without the presumption of innocence – during the takeover, was a prime target. Thirty-one Zaman employees are currently standing trial, with nine, including Şahin Alpay, facing life sentences. In January 2018, Turkey’s constitutional court ordered that Şahin Alpay, alongside journalist Mehmet Altan, be released from pre-trial detention.
After the lower courts refused to comply, the ECtHR ruled that their detention was unlawful and that they should each be compensated €21,500.
The other journalists, unable to garner the same international support, have remained in pre-trial detention. Zaman’s Ankara chief Mustafa Ünal, arrested purely because of his newspaper columns and facing the same circumstances as Alpay, has also applied to the ECtHR. But his application was rejected, and after almost two years behind bars he expresses in despair “my scream for justice has faded away in a bottomless pit”. He is not alone, with the ECtHR and international community doing little in light of the Feza Publications debacle and abolishment of the freedom of expression in Turkey.
Appeal to the ECtHR
The Feza Publications takeover and ensuing rights violations, on top of individual pleas for justice, has led to appeals for the entity itself. Two shareholders of Feza Gazetecİlİk A.Ş. (the Feza stock company) took the matter of government-appointed trustees to the Turkish constitutional court. When this appeal failed, they applied to the ECtHR regarding violations of: Article 10, right to freedom of expression; Protocol Article 1, right to property; Article 7 and 6.2, no punishment without law and presumption of innocence; and Article 8, respect for private and family life. Dated 29 July 2016, the application was rejected by ECtHR Judge Nebojsa Vucinic on 14 December 2017 with reference to the Köksal v. Turkey decision.
The decision is reference to a case surrounding Gökhan Köksal, a teacher and one of over 150,000 dismissed from their jobs after the coup attempt. The ECtHR had rejected his appeal on the basis that he must first apply to the Turkish State of Emergency Commission, i.e., first exhaust all domestic avenues. The Köksal decision was problematic. The State of Emergency Commission was established in January 2017 for appeals against dismissals and closures assumed under the state of emergency imposed since 20 July 2016. To date, the Commission has only approved 310 out of 10,010 finalised cases, a 3% success rate. There are almost 100,000 cases still under examination. Many consider the mechanism to be inefficient, and its impartiality questionable. It should not be considered a reliable domestic avenue. Reference to the State of Emergency Commission in relation to Feza Publications poses a further problem; the appointment of government trustees occurred four-and-a-half months before the state of emergency was implemented.
The ECtHR decision is completely inadequate. Although some Feza employees were dismissed under state of emergency decrees, other dismissals and violations pertaining to the Human Rights Convention commenced well before. Although all Feza media outlets (Zaman and Zaman Daily, the Cihan News Agency, Aksiyon magazine, and the Zaman Kitap publishing house) were closed via emergency decree in July 2016, Feza shareholders are not entitled to apply to the State of Emergency Commission. Only persons in charge of the legal entities or institutions at the time of closure – by that point, the government appointed trustees – have the right to apply. Such a situation is implausible, leaving the ECtHR as the only option. Besides, it has been shown that regardless, neither the State of Emergency Commission nor the Turkish judicial system should be considered viable domestic avenues to appeal rights violations.
This ECtHR decision, one in a long line of disappointing rulings for Turkish victims, is seriously flawed. The ECtHR must reconsider the Feza Publications application, alongside those such as Köksal v. Turkey which only pave the way for future rejections. Without adequate ECtHR rulings there is little hope for the upholding of human rights, such as freedom of expression, in Turkey.