Council of Europe’s new secretary-general must enhance efforts to protect press freedom

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]To: Marija Pejčinović Burić
Council of Europe

Dear Secretary-General,

On behalf of the undersigned organisations, we warmly congratulate you on your appointment as the new Secretary-General of the Council of Europe. We are motivated by our experience and understanding of the worsening of the environment for journalists and free expression across Europe to ask you to make sure that your commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights will be reflected in enhanced efforts for the effective protection of freedom of expression, press freedom and the safety of journalists, backed up by robust measures and strong and consistent statements and actions by yourself as Secretary-General. 

Media freedom and media pluralism must be given a clear and consistent priority across the Council of Europe area, as they enable the public to make informed choices about their government and society, and are thus prerequisites for the full enjoyment of all other rights.

Renewed and determined efforts to achieve Member States’ compliance with the Council of Europe’s conventions, recommendations and other texts, as well as the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) are vital in these times of rising threats against journalists and press freedom throughout Europe. The environment for media freedom has worsened significantly, as was documented in the Annual Report published by the partner organisations of the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists. We see extremely worrying developments in Azerbaijan, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere.

Regarding the Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, we urge you to provide all necessary means and support available to ensure that Member States respond concretely to alerts, intensify the dialogue and follow-up moves to provide redress, and to do everything possible to gain the active cooperation of those Member States which have failed to reply to alerts that highlight shortcomings or abuses on the part of state authorities. We ask you to establish a monthly exchange at the level of the Committee of Ministers to allow for a meaningful discussion on the progress of Member States in dealing with the alerts and persistent and serious threats to media freedom and the safety of journalists and other media actors. 

In view of the well-documented increase in attacks on the media and backsliding in some states’ fulfilment of their commitments, we request you to prioritise actions and policies to implement Recommendation CM/Rec(2016)4 of the Committee of Ministers on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors – including specific measures to comply with Council of Europe standards on Protection; Prevention of attacks; and Prosecution of crimes against journalists. 

We hope that the concerns and recommendations outlined in the Platform partners’ latest report will be given priority by the Secretariat under your leadership, and through the projects and activities foreseen in the bi-annual Council of Europe programme and budget. To address these concerns, we request you to make available the resources and support needed to give it greater visibility, recognition and impact – both internally and externally to the Council of Europe.

We are convinced that strong and concerted political action from Member States and the Council of Europe is now essential. We request your energetic support against the ongoing impunity for attacks including murders of journalists within Europe, and against widespread attempts to adopt severely restrictive legislation on media regulation, defamation, anti-terrorism that are increasingly used to criminalise journalists. 

Anti-media rhetoric is creating a toxic atmosphere for journalists amongst the general public and must be countered. The spread of online disinformation intensifies this effect. We welcome the recent PACE resolution on the rule of law in Malta, which points to the urgent need for effective actions against the politicisation of state institutions, media capture by political forces, and a climate of impunity related to attacks against members of the media.

We call on you to provide your full political support, and necessary resources, to ensure the successful implementation of Recommendation CM/Rec(2016)4, as is specified in the 2018 Steering Committee on Media and Information Society (CDMSI) strategy 2018. It is especially important to us that robust and frank debate on the subject of implementation (including securing firm commitments to national action plans) takes place at the Conference of Ministers responsible for media and information society in Cyprus in May 2020, with the full participation of civil society to pave the way for meaningful actions to reverse the recent negative trends.

We call on you to use your influence on Member States to reform their domestic laws and practices so that they comply with their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and CM Recommendation (2016)4, and do everything in your power to improve the safety of journalists through the establishment of effective safeguards.

We thank Thorbjørn Jagland for his efforts in the past years and we are happy to continue to support the Council of Europe with our research and our international networks.

We request a meeting with you soon to discuss these matters in person and to share our knowledge and experience with you as you begin your term of office. 

We look forward to your positive response. 

Yours sincerely,

Lutz Kinkel, Managing Director, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia, ARTICLE 19 

William Horsley, Special Representative for Media Freedom, Association of European Journalists (AEJ) 

Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

Daniel Gorman, Director, English PEN 

Ricardo Gutiérrez, General Secretary, European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Leon Willems, Director of Policy and Programmes, Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

Ralf Nestmeyer, Vice-President, German PEN

Bertrand Pecquerie, CEO, Global Editors Network (GEN)

Annie Game, Executive Director, IFEX

Joy Hyvarinen, Head of Advocacy, Index on Censorship

Anthony Bellanger, General Secretary, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

Ravi R. Prasad, Director of Advocacy, International Press Institute (IPI)

Ides Debruyne, Managing Director, vzw

Hege Newth, Secretary General, Norwegian PEN

Chiara Sighele, Programme Director, Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT/CCI)

Alberto Spampinato, Director, Ossigeno per l’informazione

Aaliya Ahmed, International Programmes Director, PEN International 

Christophe Deloire, Secretary General, Reporters without Borders (RSF)

Oliver Vujovic, Secretary General, South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

Clothilde Redfern, Director, The Rory Peck Trust

Andrew Heslop, Director, World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA)[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1568796322393-650d0cd0-526d-5″ taxonomies=”6534″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

European Court of Human Rights is failing Turkey’s endangered freedom of expression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”81952″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]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.


Turkey should immediately release Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay


Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan

Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan

Turkey should immediately implement the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and release the veteran journalists Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay without delay, a coalition of nongovernmental groups said on 23 March 2018. Furthermore, Turkey must ensure that domestic remedies for human rights violations are effective, in particular by ensuring the urgent review of all cases of journalists and writers currently pending before its Constitutional Court.

The organizations, which had intervened as third parties in the cases before the court, included PEN International, ARTICLE 19, Committee to Protect Journalists, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, European Federation of Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, International Press Institute, International Senior Lawyers Project and Reporters Without Borders. The coalition welcomed the judgments announced on March 20, 2018. The rulings are the first by the court in the cases of journalists arrested and detained on charges in relation to the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. They set an important precedent for the other cases of 154 detained journalists in Turkey.

“The Turkish government must take action to implement the European Court of Human Rights’ judgement. The ongoing trials are a serious breach of human rights and freedom of expression by the government. Turkey must cease its judicial harassment of journalists, academics and lawyers,” said Joy Hyvarinen, head of advocacy of Index on Censorship said.

In its two judgments, the European Court found violations of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression. The court made clear that criticism of governments should not attract criminal charges since, in addition to pre-trial detention, this would inevitably have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and would silence dissenting voices.

“We welcome these rulings, in particular the European Court’s recognition that a state of emergency must not be abused as a pretext for limiting freedom of expression,” said Carles Torner, executive director of PEN International.

While acknowledging the threat posed to Turkey by the attempted coup, the court crucially noted that “the existence of a ‘public emergency threatening the life of the nation’ must not serve as a pretext for limiting freedom of political debate, which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.”

The European Court has also found that the journalists’ detention was unlawful under the right to liberty protected by Article 5 (1) of the European Convention. The European Court endorsed the January 2018 ruling of Turkey’s Constitutional Court, which held that there was not sufficient evidence to keep the defendants in detention and ordered their release.

The judgment further sharply criticized the lower courts for refusing to carry out the Constitutional Court’s decision. In particular, the applicants’ continued pre-trial detention raised serious doubts as to the ability of the domestic legal system in providing an effective remedy for human rights violations, stating: “For another court to call into question the powers conferred on a constitutional court to give final and binding judgments on individual applications runs counter to the fundamental principles of the rule of law and legal certainty.”

“We welcome the court’s finding that the right to liberty of the applicants was violated,” said Caroline Stockford, Turkey Advocacy Coordinator for the International Press Institute. “The Court rightly criticised the refusal by the lower domestic courts to implement the Turkish Constitutional Court’s decisions and to release Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay.”

The European Court decided not to examine the applicants’ complaint that the detention of the applicants was politically motivated, under Article 18 of the convention.

“In deciding not to rule on Article 18, the European Court dodges an important question at the core of this litigation, which is whether Turkey’s prosecutions of journalists just for doing their work is part of a larger campaign to crack down on independent journalism?”, said Torner.

“The decision stated that ‘the investigating authorities had been unable to demonstrate any factual basis’that indicate that both journalists had committed the offenses with which he was charged’. The Court repeats what we have been saying with our affiliates for years to Turkish authorities that journalism is not a crime and journalists, like writers or academicians in the country, must not be prosecuted for their work or opinions,” said Ricardo Gutiérrez, EFJ General Secretary.

What the judgments mean for other cases

The judgments contain some important statements of principle on unlawful detention and freedom of expression. In particular, the European Court emphasised that it is not permissible to prosecute individuals on the basis of expression that is critical of the government.

However, in practice, the judgments also imply that the European Court will wait for the Constitutional Court to rule on the other pending cases of Turkish journalists before proceeding to its own review. This is because the European Court still considers the Constitutional Court an effective remedy in general.

Although the European Court was prepared to accept the length of time the Constitutional Court took to review these cases, the judgment is effectively putting the Constitutional Court on notice, saying that it will keep the situation under review and that it cannot continue taking this long to decide on cases.

The coalition repeats its call for the immediate implementation of these two judgments and for the release of Mehmet Altan from prison and Şahin Alpay from house arrest.

“These judgments are an important affirmation of the right to free expression and clearly state that the state of emergency is not a good enough reason to hold journalists and writers in detention for what they say,” said Gabrielle Guillemin, Senior Legal Officer at ARTICLE 19. “The Turkish authorities must now immediately release them both and the Turkish courts should apply these principles to the many other cases of detained journalists in Turkey,” she added.

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Free expression organisations intervene on cases of detained Turkish journalists

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Leading freedom of expression organisations have submitted third-party interventions in ten cases against jailed Turkish journalists to which the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has given priority status. The interventions offer detailed legal analyses of the principles at stake in the cases of the detained journalists.

The cases before the ECtHR concern the detention of board members from the Cumhuriyet newspaper, along with the cases of journalists Murat AksoyŞahin AlpayAhmet and Mehmet AltanAli BulacAyse Nazlı IlıcakAhmet ŞıkDeniz Yücel, and Atilla Taş.

The separate interventions include submissions from the Media Legal Defence Initiative, PEN International, ARTICLE 19, the Association of European Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, the European Federation of Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, the International Federation of Journalists, the International Press Institute, the International Senior Lawyers Project and Reporters without Borders. The organisations worked with a group of British lawyers, including Eddie Craven of Matrix Chambers, in drafting the interventions.

The briefs urge the Court to hold that the detention of a journalist is “subject to the strictest scrutiny”, and that such measures in response to a journalist’s work can only be justified in “extreme and exceptional cases.” They underline that “the deliberate and arbitrary use of the criminal law to target journalists and other media for exercise of freedom of expression and opinion that may be critical of government for the ulterior purpose of punishing and preventing dissemination of critical opinions amounts to a violation” of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a state party.

“The extraordinary abuse of power by the Turkish state towards the detained journalists is symptomatic of a relentless crackdown on all dissenting voices since last July’s attempted coup. These journalists have been deprived of an independent and effective judicial system in their own country. These urgent cases before the ECtHR therefore are an opportunity to not only redress the injustice in these egregious instances but to give wider protection to the Turkish media and society as a whole,” said Sarah Clarke, PEN International.

“The volume of cases concerning detained Turkish journalists that are coming before the European Court are indicative of the dire state of press freedom in the country,” said Padraig Hughes, the Media Legal Defence Initiative’s Legal Director, “these cases offer the European Court an important opportunity to take a stand against the widespread deprivation of liberty of those who have been willing to criticise the Turkish Government, and to recognise that the real purpose behind these detentions is to deter journalists from speaking out in the future.”

“The number of Turkish cases on the Court’s docket should come as no surprise. While some journalists are released – such as Murat Aksoy and Atilla Tas this week – still others are detained. The revolving doors of Turkey’s jails just serves to underscore the arbitrariness of these detentions”; said Gabrielle Guillemin, Senior Legal Officer at ARTICLE 19.  “With the independence of the Turkish judiciary under serious threat, the Court in Strasbourg is the last hope journalists have to obtain justice: these cases present the Court with a unique opportunity to protect freedom of expression in Turkey”; she added.

Turkey is currently the world’s largest prison for journalists, with over 150 currently in detention. Turkey has now been under a State of Emergency for 16 months, which has enabled an unprecedented repression of the free press and critical voices.

Third party interventions represent an additional tool to help promote and protect human rights at the European Court of Human Rights. They are an opportunity for civil society to assist the courts by providing an independent analysis of the human rights principles and standards at issue in a case, as well as any relevant international and comparative human rights law. The UN Special Rapporteur, David Kaye, and Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, have also intervened on these critical cases.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Mapping Media Freedom” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-times-circle” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]

Index on Censorship monitors press freedom in 42 European countries.

Since 24 May 2014, Mapping Media Freedom’s team of correspondents and partners have recorded and verified 3,597 violations against journalists and media outlets.

Index campaigns to protect journalists and media freedom. You can help us by submitting reports to Mapping Media Freedom.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

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