ECHR Finds Violations of Liberty and Freedom of Expression in Detention of Cumhuriyet Journalists

By: Tiffany Love

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

STRASBOURG, France – On November 11th, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights issued a non-final Chamber judgment in the case of Sabuncu and Others v. Turkey (application no. 23199/17). The case concerned ten Turkish nationals who were either journalists for the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, or managers of the newspaper’s principal shareholder, the Cumhuriyet Foundation.

The Cumhuriyet is One of Turkey’s Oldest Daily Newspapers. Photo Courtesy of Media Defence.

Following Turkey’s attempted coup d’état on July 15th, 2016, the individuals had been detained in November 2016 by a magistrate judge who alleged there was strong suspicion that they had been involved in dissemination of propaganda on behalf of terrorist organizations. The detainees were indicted in April 2017 and each applied to the Turkish Constitutional Court in December 2016 and to the European Court of Human Rights on March 12th, 2017, alleging in both complaints, violations of their right to liberty and security of person, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press. They had been sentenced to lengthy prison terms by the Turkish Court.

The Court released the following holdings regarding the European Convention on Human Rights:

First, via unanimous decision, there were violations of Article 5 § 1, the right to liberty and security, and of Article 10, freedom of expression. The Court found that the applicants’ detention was arbitrary and based upon ‘mere suspicion,’ lacking enough evidence to rise to the required level of ‘reasonable suspicion.’ In fact, the detention was in violation of evidentiary requirements of the Turkish Code of Criminal Procedure, which required a showing of ‘strong suspicion.’ Further, the published articles and editorials did not incite violence nor show support of or contribution to terrorist organizations; they represented public debate of already known facts and fell within the exercise of freedoms outlined by the Convention.

Also unanimously, there was no violation of Article 5 § 4, the right to speedy review of the lawfulness of detention. Despite the fact that applicants faced continued rejection of their applications to the Turkish Court, and that the indictment and sentencing process took many months, the Court did not find the time unreasonable in light of the circumstances.

By majority decision, there was no violation of Article 18, limitation on use of restrictions on rights. The Court did not find any indication that Turkish authorities had pursued any ulterior purpose in the pre-trial detention of the ten individuals. However, the applicants contend that their detention was targeted retaliation and punishment for their unfavorable reporting of government actions. Judge Kuris dissented to this holding, stating that Turkey’s pre-trial detention of the journalists amounted to “political persecution of the media” and revealed a pattern of behavior that demonstrated a clear intent to silence the media in the wake of the attempted coup.

Following the coup of 2016, the Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began to target and arrest service personnel, judges, school teachers, university leaders, and journalists. The government declared a state of emergency, which allowed the president to promulgate new laws without the consent of parliament and to curb personal rights and freedoms with lawful justification. Journalists found themselves sentenced to lengthy prison terms and Amnesty International received credible reports of beatings, torture, and rape of government detainees. Some journalists applied to the European Court of Human Rights for relief, and several third-party free expression organizations intervened and submitted briefs on their behalf, urging the Court to take a strong stance against the unlawful detention of journalists.

In the aftermath of the 2016 coup, the Committee to Protect Journalists estimated that as many as 140 journalists were imprisoned in Turkey; other reports estimate that number to be 150. The Court’s decision in Sabuncu is promising for detained journalists. However, some support organizations, such as Media Defence, wonder whether the Court will be willing to engage beyond the instant case and act in the face of the larger crisis in Turkey. Clearly, the Court believes that without the necessary evidence, detention of journalists is unlawful and in violation of their rights to liberty and freedom of expression. Further decisions may illuminate the Court’s willingness to play an active role in the protection of journalists in Turkey.

For further information, please see:

Article 19 – Free Expression Organisations Intervene on Cases of Detained Turkish Journalists Before the European Court of Human Rights – 26 Oct. 2017

BBC – Turkey Coup Attempt: ‘Arrest Warrants Issued’ for Journalists – 25 Jul. 2016

BBC – Turkey Sentences 25 Journalists to Jail for ‘Coup Links’ – 9 Mar. 2018  

European Court of Human Rights – Case of Sabuncu and Others v. Turkey, Second Section – 10 Nov. 2020

European Court of Human Rights – Press Release: Judgment Sabuncu and Others v. Turkey – Pre-Trial Detention of Ten Journalists and/or Managers of the Newspaper Cumhuriyet – 10 Nov. 2020

Media Defence – European Court Finds Turkey Violated Cumhuriyet Journalists’ Rights to Liberty and Security, Freedom of Expression, Detained in the Crackdown Following July 2016 Coup – 11 Nov. 2020

The Guardian – Record Number of Journalists in Jail Globally After Turkey Crackdown – 13 Dec. 2016  

Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project – Commentary on the May 2019 Judgments Adopted by the Turkish Constitutional Court on the Detention of Journalists and a Civil Society Leader – 2 Aug. 2019

Author: Nadia Abed