Following Turkey’s contested constitutional referendum on April 16, 2017, the Turkish government and president should end its immense crackdown on freedom of expression and reverse the decision to extend the state of emergency for three more months, PEN International said in a statement today.
The 51.3 percent win for President Erdogan’s “Yes” campaign grants wide-reaching centralised new powers to the president including the right to rule by decree, appoint ministers and top judges at his discretion, and to abolish parliament and call elections at any time. It also removes the authority of parliament to attain and assess ministers, budget bills, whilst also making it harder to impeach the president of criminal behaviour.
PEN International notes that the campaign took place under a state of emergency, which imposes heavy restrictions on freedom of expression, in place since the failed coup of July 15, 2016. According to PEN International’s records, 173 media outlets have been shut down, while more than 150 journalists and media workers remain behind bars. The Turkish authorities’ campaign was marred by threats, arrests and prosecutions of those who dared voice criticism of the proposed constitutional amendments including the co-leaders and thirteen MPs from the third biggest party, HDP, who were detained for the duration of the campaign. A further 80 people were arrested for campaigning for the “No” vote.
“Voters have the right to information on all views, including dissenting voices, in sufficient time. The need for the authorities to guarantee access to independent and pluralistic media is more important than ever in the context of a crucial referendum such as this one,” said Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International.
“Unless people are free to express themselves and share information without fear of reprisals, there can be no guarantee that elections genuinely reflect their will. We remain deeply concerned at the scale and impact these reforms will have on the separation of powers in Turkey and on the necessary checks and balances that are required to prevent abuse of power. We call once again on the Turkish authorities to immediately release all those held in prison for exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to revoke all provisions under the state of emergency that are incompatible with Turkey’s human rights obligations.”
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission has reported major concerns with legitimacy of the referendum process. Their statement of findings published on April 17, 2017, notes an “unleveled playing field” in the lead up to the referendum and outlines major concerns including the restrictions on freedom of expression under the state of emergency, the lack of independent media, police interventions, and detentions at “No” campaign events and the biased use of state resources. Erdoğan has rejected the OSCE’s findings. These findings follow a critical report in March from the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s constitutional reform advisory body which expressed concern about holding the referendum vote during a state of emergency and in light of the crackdown on media freedom.
The main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) has challenged the results of the referendum, largely on the grounds that Turkey’s Supreme Board of Elections issued a controversial ruling on the day of the vote to accept ballots in envelopes not bearing official polling station stamps, which election observer’s claim could have affected 2.5 million votes. Echoing CHP’s concerns, the OSCE report criticised the decision as “undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law.” The decision calls into question the potential for tampering with ballots and undermines confidence in results that saw less than a one and a half million difference between the Yes and the No side.
Following the victory on 16 April 2017, Erdoğan reiterated his support for capital punishment and raised the possibility of another referendum on the issue. The issue has been debated in Turkish politics since the failed coup in July and would reverse a fundamental reform in Turkey’s constitution.
PEN International calls on the Turkish government to release all journalists being held solely due to their freedom of expression, reverse its decision to implement a state of emergency for three more months, and to end the far-reaching crackdown on freedom of expression that has consistently escalated since the failed coup of July 2016.