By Sinam Sherkany Mohamad
Every person has a right to freedom of expression. More than that, the right to freedom of expression should be protected under the law, as a pillar of a democratic society. In a society that respects all people as equals, there is no place for government persecution of those who think differently and question those in power. Authoritarian governments seek to silence critics and jail the opposition. Democracies protect the human right to free speech.
In North and East Syria, we proudly protect freedom of expression in our social contract or Constitution, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Our social contract contains further protections for the freedom of dissemination of information, stating, “Everyone has the freedom to obtain, receive and circulate information and to communicate ideas, opinions and emotions, whether orally, in writing, in pictorial representations, or in any other way.”
Last week, Turkey officially withdrew from the Istanbul Convention to protect the rights of women and the LGBTQ community. There can be no clearer signal of its abandonment of the democratic ideals once pursued by the country.
We continue to see regular persecution by the Turkish government against Kurds, whether it is in the form of jailing journalists who criticize the government, or it is Turkey’s ongoing genocide against the Kurdish region of Afrin.
Afrin was once a beacon of human rights and women’s rights. The administration was led by women, and our local government protected individual rights such as freedom of expression. Following the Turkish invasion and military occupation of Afrin in March 2018, the Turkish government has shattered all hopes of human rights in the region. Most of the original inhabitants of Afrin have fled, but those who have stayed live in fear. A campaign of violence against women is being conducted by the Turkish-backed militias who occupy the region. Women have been kidnapped, raped, and killed, and live in fear of even leaving their homes. Anyone reporting on the abuses in the region faces the repression of the Turkish state.
The award-winning Agence France-Presse photographer Bulent Kilic was violently arrested recently, simply for taking photos of an LGBTQ pride event in Istanbul, which was occurring despite the event having been banned. Photos show the Turkish police pinning Kilic to the ground, their knees on his back and neck.
A comprehensive survey of Turkish voters conducted in mid-2018 by the Washington DC-based think tank Center for American Progress found that “[a] remarkable 70 percent of respondents thought that the media ‘presents biased and untrustworthy information,’ and a majority—56 percent—thought that the press “is not able to speak freely and is more controlled by the government.”
A delegation including representatives from 11 human rights organizations, including the organization Human Rights Watch, visited Turkey in October 2020 to assess the deepening human rights crisis in the country. The delegation issued grave concerns about press freedom in Turkey, stating, “Turkey’s press freedom crisis is worsening amid growing state capture of media, the lack of independence of regulatory institutions, and a new social media law designed to clamp down on the remaining spaces for free comment.”
Whether women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the rights of Kurdish people and other ethnicities and religions, or the right to freedom of expression, Turkey is trying to silence anyone who does not follow their narrow path.
What Turkey cannot accept is that humanity will always be a broad mosaic with many components. Within Turkish borders, there are Kurds, Syriacs, and Arabs, and so many other ethnicities, not only Turks. There are practitioners of every religion on earth.
It is the right of everyone to live in a free, open, and democratic society. That means respecting freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Turkey’s democracy has become a broken temple with cracked pillars.