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On a Precipice: Turkey ‘s Unraveling Rule of Law

In April of 2018 Global Freedom of Expression had the opportunity to interview Dr. Yaman Akdeniz professor of law, Istanbul Bilgi University and 2016 Global Freedom of Expression Prize Winner about the deteriorating legal situation in his country. In an effort to document the unraveling of rule of law in Turkey, we created a timeline of significant events relating to the judiciary and crackdown on freedom of expression from the start of the Gezi Protests in late May 2013 to the present.  We decided to start with the Gezi protests because they were a dramatic reaction to increasingly repressive government policies spanning the last decade, and they marked a turning point in Ergdogan’s rule.  Over the course of the last five years Turkey has transitioned from an emerging democracy based on rule of law to an aspiring authoritarian regime under the leadership of Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Video clips from the interview with Dr. Akdeniz provide context surrounding important national and regional court cases, legislative changes, government policy maneuvers and international efforts to correct Turkey’s course away from authoritarian nationalism and back towards democratic practices.

Much of the data provided on the timeline was drawn from an English PEN report, ‘Turkey: freedom of expression in jeopardy. Violations of the rights of authors, publishers and academics under the State of Emergency’ written by Akdeniz and his colleague Dr. Kerem Altiparmak (assistant professor of law at Ankara University).

Although Turkey has a long history of authoritarian centralized rule, the Pre-Erdogan Turkey had outwardly committed to a secular political path to align with western democracies in general and the European Union in particular. Akdeniz’s research shows that during the 1980s and 1990s restrictions of freedom of expression manifested largely as attacks on opposition journalists and dissents.  Prosecutions were frequently for denigrating  Atatürk or Turkishness.  After Erdogan began consolidating his power and assumed the Presidency, physical attacks have been replaced by legal strategies to silence critics based on arrests, detentions and prosecutions on terrorism related charges.  Through a secession of constitutional amendments, judicial purges and media crackdowns in the name of national security, the national courts have been able to implement sweeping restrictions, yet declare they conform with international as well as European legal standards. These interventions into the organization of the judiciary have compromised its independence and impartiality and ultimately undermined its ability to act as a check on government power.

A month on from the start of street protests in Turkey, photographer Jake Price shares some of his images and looks back on his time covering the clashes in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and the issues behind the unrest. Please visit the BBC for the full article.

A secular woman sits next to religious women on a ferry leaving Galata in Istanbul. Away from the protests life continued on in Istanbul, however it was feared that the divisive rhetoric from officials and by protesters in Taksim Square would break apart that societal cohesion.
A young woman reflects in Taksim Square during the protests.
The protests in Gezi Park drew a diverse section of society from business men to students who were concerned over an array of issues that included economic reforms to women's reproductive rights.
The protests started off peacefully, but clashes between protesters who refused to leave the park and security forces ensued.
Security forces directly firing on protesters which furthers the claim that protesters and journalists were directly targeted. Tear gas should have been fired overheated into the air.
Protesters run from security forces as they fired into the crowd.
Explosions in Taksim Square during clashes between protesters and security forces.
A couple walk around Gezi park in a moment of calm after the day's clashes.
After a day of clashes between protesters and security forces two blue collar workers ponder the day's fighting and the fate of the country.
Smoke obscures buildings after a day of clashes between security forces and protesters across from Gezi Park.
A family walks through Gezi park. This was moments before the park was cleared.
Gezi park as it was being cleared by security forces. There were many children in the park when the action was carried out.
When they received the order, security forces quickly cleared Gezi Park by force.
When the security forces cleared the park the handicapped were amongst those who had to flee.
Throughout the confrontations a newsstand remained open near Taksim Square. In the years that followed the events at Gezi Park, President Erdogan closed many publications that Turks would be able to read and this kiosk would see the variety of publications it would be able to offer decline.
A jumble of graffiti written over an advertising kiosk.

The political and judicial transitions taking place in Turkey represent an urgent test of the European institutions established to prevent the disintegration of democratic rule of law and erosion of human rights on the national and international levels. If and how the European Court and related institutions are able to mitigate and correct the legal abridgments of international standards will yield lessons for other leaders testing their boundaries, but most importantly for citizens faith in and the legitimacy of the international system.