Top human rights official urges Turkey to 'change course'

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In this Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015 file photo, a protester holding a placard demonstrates across the street from the headquarters of a media company that owns opposition television stations Bugun TV and Kanal Turk, the Bugun and Millet newspapers and other business interests, after was seized by the government, in Istanbul. Council of Europe, the continent's top human rights institution urged Turkey's leaders Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017 to "urgently change course" and reverse violations of media freedoms and the rule of law, voicing alarm over democracy in the country. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Europe's top human rights institution on Wednesday urged Turkey's leaders to "urgently change course" and reverse violations of media freedoms and the rule of law, voicing alarm over democracy in the country.

The call comes as Turkey is set to hold a referendum on April 16 on switching to a presidential system — a move critics fear will concentrate too many powers in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan whom they accuse of increasingly authoritarian behavior.

In a 25-page report released Wednesday, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, said that Turkey's already worrisome lack of media freedoms and freedom of expression had reached "seriously alarming" levels since the government declared a state of emergency after a failed military coup attempt in July.

The commissioner also expressed concerns over constitutional amendments that will be voted on in the referendum, saying they "foresee a significant further diminution of the autonomy of the Turkish judiciary vis-a-vis the executive and legislative branches."

Among other issues, Muiznieks criticized Turkey's broad definition of terrorism and terrorist propaganda that include statements that do not incite violence, the imprisonment of dozens of journalists, the erosion of the independence of the judiciary, the abundant use of defamation laws used to silence critics, censorship on the internet and the use of state resources to favor pro-government media.

"The commissioner urges the Turkish political leaders in the strongest possible terms to change course and start separating what is a terrorist action from criticism and dissent, and to display the responsibility and tolerance expected in a democratic society. They must redevelop the political will necessary to tackle the very long-standing systemic issues suppressing freedom of expression, including on the internet," the report said.

Turkey denounced Muiznieks' criticisms over the erosion of the judiciary's independence as "inadmissible." It accused the commissioner of exceeding "the scope of his mandate" by claiming that judicial authorities and the national legislation were "an instrument of judicial harassment."

The government said actions were being taken "within the limits of the rule of law and international obligations," adding that the measures taken under the state of emergency were constantly being reviewed.

It also rejected the accusations about press freedoms, saying the media outlets were "ceased due to their links with terrorism and terror organizations." The journalists who have been imprisoned were "charged with serious crimes — such as being a member of, or supporting an illegal or armed terrorist organization."

Muiznieks said the attempted coup and the terror threats cannot justify "measures that infringe media freedom and disavow the rule of law to such an extent."

Turkey declared a state of emergency to deal with the perpetrators of the failed coup as well as a spate of deadly attacks carried out by the Islamic State group or Kurdish militants. Critics say the government has used the emergency powers to go after all opponents.

Around 41,000 people have been arrested since then, while more than 100,000 people have been dismissed from government jobs. In addition, hundreds of media companies and civil society groups have been closed down while around 150 journalists and a dozen pro-Kurdish legislators have been jailed.

The report was based on Muiznieks' visits to Turkey in April and September 2016.