The US State Department’s reports on human right and on religious freedom in Turkey for 2020 may have come at a moment where US-Turkey relations are perhaps the worst ever, but they essentially recapitalutate longstanding problems highlighted in previous annual reports even as they detail the sharply increasing authoritarianism of the Erdogan regime in a sweeping array of political, economic, and social activities.

The report on religious freedom details Ankara’s violations of the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate – the Patriarch is the first-ranking bishop for 300mn Orthodox Christians worldwide –  including the decades-long closure of the Halki seminary but this year it includes criticism of Erdogan’s decision to turn the Byzantine churches that have for decades been museums – Hagia Sophia and the Monastery of Hora (Kahriye) into mosques.

The human rights report details countless violations of press freedom and the persecution of journalists.

Excerpts of the reports on these two key areas follow.

Violations of religious freedom of Ecumenical Patriarchate

“The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Media and nongovernmental organizations reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations. The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed. Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; holding governing board elections for their religious foundations; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools. Religious minorities, particularly members of the Alevi community again raised challenges to religious content and practices in the public education system. In July, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reconverted Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum, originally an Orthodox church that was subsequently converted to a mosque and then a museum, into a mosque and declared it open to Islamic worship. In August, President Erdogan similarly ordered the reconversion of the Kahriye (Chora) Museum to a mosque.”

Persecution of journalists

“The government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists since the 2016 coup attempt hindered freedom of speech. Media professionals reported that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.”

“Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied, ranging from at least 37 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists to 79 according to the International Press Institute. The majority faced charges related to anti-government reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.”

“Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.”

Over 100 media outlets shut down

“An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. In June in response to a parliamentary question submitted six months earlier by an HDP MP, Vice President Fuat Oktay stated, the government shut down a total of 119 media outlets under state of emergency decrees following the 2016 failed coup attempt, including a total of 53 newspapers, 20 magazines, 16 television channels, 24 radio stations, and six news agencies. Independent reports estimated the government has closed more than 200 media companies since 2016.”

Criticism of government off-limits

“The government frequently responded to expression critical of it by filing criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups, terrorism, or otherwise endangering the state. In January, Ankara’s chief public prosecutor opened investigations into 50 persons for social media posts related to the 6.8-magnitude Elazig earthquake on January 24, charging that the posts were “creating worry, fear and panic among the public” and “insulting the Turkish people, the Republic of Turkey and public institutions.” At the end of May, the Ministry of Interior announced that in the six weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic reached the country in mid-March, authorities had examined 10,111 social media accounts containing “unfounded and provocative” information regarding COVID-19. Authorities also identified 1,105 individuals, detained more than 500 persons connected to those accounts for questioning, and initiated nearly 600 criminal investigations. Individuals investigated by police included prominent doctors and heads of medical associations. In October the Ministry of Interior announced it investigated 40 social media accounts, detained 10 individuals, and arrested two for social media posts related to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Izmir province on October 30.”

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