FILE - A Zaman journalist holds a banner at the headquarters of Zaman daily newspaper in Istanbul, Dec. 14, 2014.
FILE - A Zaman journalist holds a banner at the headquarters of Zaman daily newspaper in Istanbul, Dec. 14, 2014.

As Turkey announced reforms in its judiciary branch in late May and promised to do more to preserve freedom of speech in the country, some analysts and rights groups are skeptical about the government's seriousness. 

"The announced Judicial Reform Strategy document seems like a way to avoid the problem. They are aware of the problem, but they are postponing its solution," Veysel Ok, a human rights lawyer and co-director of Istanbul-based Media and Law Studies Association, told VOA.

"More than 150 detained journalists are currently in prison, and more than 500 lawyers are in prison. If you want to start reform, your priority must be releasing these people who are arrested for doing their job," Ok added.

Judicial reform

In late May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan introduced Turkey's new judicial reform package whose main goal was to increase "citizens' confidence" in the country's judicial system.

FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a ceremony at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, May 6, 2019.

While revealing the so-called Judicial Reform Strategy document, a copy of which has been obtained by VOA, Erdogan vowed to preserve what he called the "key principle of democracy." 

"We regard freedom of expression as the key principle of democracy. Especially in the last six years, we have taken important steps to improve the status of freedom of expression and media in the country."

"With this document, we put forth new approaches aimed at further strengthening and promoting the freedom of speech," Erdogan added.


However, Turkey has been facing criticism by civil society advocates who say the country suppresses the media through its ongoing crackdown on journalists and rights activists. 

"It is not a secret that being a critical journalist is a risky position to take in Turkey. What makes it even more challenging is that the red lines are not clear, and they keep changing alongside the political climate," Ozgur Ogret, the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) Turkey representative, told VOA.

"Two journalists may report on a sensitive subject, for example, and one may get prosecuted while the other may not. There is not a clear order or a pattern to such prosecutions. … While you are working, you are aware that with each news story or social media post, you may be writing your own indictment," Ogret added. 

There are conflicting reports about the exact number of journalists imprisoned by the Turkish government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists' 2018 report, there were at least 68 journalists imprisoned across Turkey, which made the country the world's leading jailer of journalists for the third consecutive year. 

The European Union's annual progress report for Turkey, however, estimates that the government has imprisoned up to 160 journalists as of February 2019.

The government announced its judicial reforms a day after the EU published its annual progress report on Turkey.

FILE - Journalists are seen gathered outside a court building to support a colleague who was detained in connection with the investigation launched into a failed coup attempt in Turkey, in Istanbul, July 27, 2016.

The EU report alleges that the criminal justice system in Turkey allows the country's anti-terror laws to be misused in cracking down on political dissidents, reporters and rights activists. 

"Over 20% of the total prison population are in prison for terrorism-related charges. These include journalists, political activists, lawyers and human rights defenders," the report said. 

Terror charges

Some analysts charge that Turkey's anti-terror laws are vague and broadly defined, which allow the government to use them against critics and political opponents. 

"The definition of terror-related offenses in the anti-terror legislation is written in a way that provides very broad discretionary power to the judiciary. Unfortunately, the judiciary does not use its power to advocate for freedom of expression, but uses it against freedom of expression," Sezgin Tanrikulu, a human rights lawyer and a member of parliament from the main opposition Republican People's Party, told VOA.

"I read the whole reform document, and the problems will continue unless the current mindset of the judiciary is changed and the judiciary is saved from becoming part of the security apparatus," Tanrikulu added.

Turkey's stance

Turkish officials defend the country's freedom of speech record and maintain that they would take even more measures to preserve the freedom of expression and improve the country's anti-terror laws.

"Turkey will build a system where no one is imprisoned or convicted for their expression, thoughts, criticisms," Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul told Anadolu Agency in an interview about the announced reforms.

"Everyone will speak freely. Nobody will be silenced. They will be able to share their criticism," Gul added.

Existing laws

Legal experts, however, argue that Turkey does not need to ratify new laws nor does it need a new reform package for its judiciary branch. Rather the country should simply implement the laws that are already in effect and the treaties that Turkey has signed. 

"If you arrest a journalist because of his or her work, you will not comply with your constitution, and you will not follow the European Convention on Human Rights. Enacting the constitution or the European Convention is enough for us," Ok of the Media and Law Studies Association told VOA. "We do not want new reforms or new legislation. We want Turkey to implement Turkey's constitution." 

The Turkish Constitution's Article 26 defines freedom of expression in the country broadly: "Everyone has the right to express and disseminate his/her thoughts and opinions by speech, in writing or in pictures or through other media, individually or collectively."

In addition, Turkey is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and bound by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.