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How Turkey's state of emergency drove repression

Hilal Köylü
July 19, 2018

Turkey imposed a state of emergency following a failed coup in 2016. Two years later, the measure has finally been lifted, but critics say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still has the power to silence his opponents.

Turkish special police
Image: Reuters/K. Gurbuz

Why was the state of emergency imposed in Turkey?

When a failed coup attempt took place on July 15, 2016, the Turkish government claimed supporters within the military of exiled Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen were behind it. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labeled the Gulen movement a terrorist organization and declared a three-month state of emergency in order to actively prosecute its members. The state of emergency allowed the government to rule by decree. It, in turn, used the decrees as a means to establish new rules in all of the country's state institutions. The resulting wave of firings and arrests prompted opposition members to deem the state of emergency a "civil coup and a witch hunt against critics," calling for its immediate lifting — to no avail. The state of emergency was extended seven times in all.

How many people were arrested?

Thirty-two decrees were issued during the state of emergency and official statistics claim that some 160,000 people were arrested as a result. Of these, more than 70,000 people were jailed — among them were journalists, human rights activists and opposition politicians. Investigations were initiated against 155,000 people accused of being "members of a terrorist organization." The state of emergency also extended the length of time that a person could be detained to 30 days. That remained the case until the end of 2016. It was not until early last year, when the European Council warned Turkey of its concerns, that the length of detention was reduced to 14 days.

How many people were fired?

Turkey's Ministry of the Interior reports that 121,311 people were fired from civil service posts as a result of the two-year state of emergency. Some 7,000 were fired from universities, of these, roughly 5,700 were removed from academic positions. Schools and private educational centers said to be linked to the Gulen movement were shut down. The government's far-reaching powers were also directed against members of Turkey's various opposition groups. For instance, some 100 mayors were replaced with emergency administrators in Turkey's Kurdish regions. A number of Kurdish opposition politicians were also arrested as a result. International organizations such as the United Nations and the European Council strongly criticized the Turkish government for its approach, calling it an "alarming development."

Erdogan giving a speech
Though the state of emergency is over, Turkey's new presidential system grants Erdogan sweeping powersImage: Reuters/U. Bektas

What happened to freedom of the press during the state of emergency?

Seventy newspapers, 20 magazines, 34 radio stations, 30 publishing houses and 33 television stations were shuttered as a direct result of the decrees issued during the state of emergency. Investigations against media representatives and the arrests of journalists for "spreading propaganda in support of terrorist organizations" or "insulting the president" were registered by organizations in Turkey and abroad.

Read more: Turkey's Gulen movement on the rise in Germany

According to the Turkish Journalists' Association, 143 reporters are currently behind bars in the country. Reporters Without Borders has pointed to the fact that repressive measures undertaken during the state of emergency have brought much of the country's media into line with government policies. In its 2010 World Press Freedom Index, the organization ranked Turkey 138 of 180 countries. It has since slipped to spot 157.

What will happen now that the state of emergency has been lifted?

The state of emergency has been lifted but Erdogan will continue to rule by presidential decree. Turkey's new presidential system grants him the power to regulate any and all parts of the Turkish state with the stroke of a pen. As was the case througout the state of emergency, presidential decrees will be legally binding and go into effect immediately.

Moreover, the government is also hardening its anti-terrorism laws. For instance, a new proposed measure seeks to grant regional governors the power to limit entry and exit from cities for 15 days, as well as give them the power to prohibit assembly. The new law includes a provision that forbids demonstrations and protests that place burdens on "the everyday life of the people." New rules have also been introduced for dealing with terrorism suspects, allowing the state to confiscate and hold the passports of those being investigated for up to three years. The proposed measures, which are expected to pass through the country's parliament, have been criticized as a de facto extension of the state of emergency.