The Situation of academic freedom in the post-coup era in Turkey

Academics at Risk Platform Report, December 2020

Erdogan Regime declared the state of emergency on 20 July 2016, by accusing the Gülen Movement of being responsible for the coup attempt to be able to effectively fight against Gülen Movement and other opposition groups.

The Turkish Higher Education System is consisting of two main components: State Universities financed by the State and Privately Founded Universities. There are 129 State Universities and 75 Private founded Universities in Turkey. This report reflects the situation of the Universities and Academia in Turkey in the post-coup attempt period.

Statutory Decrees and Dismissals

Only three days after the declaration of a state of emergency on July 20th, 35 health institutions and organizations, 15 Foundation Universities, 1043 private education institutions and dormitories, 1229 foundations and associations, 19 syndicates and syndicate confederations were shut down through no.667 Statutory decree (1). All those institutions were intimate with the Gulen movement. At present, the number of educational institutions including NGOs which have been closed under claims of connections with the Gulen movement has increased. In total, 3003 schools, dormitories, and universities have been shut down.
As it has been simultaneously stated by the regime of Erdogan, the main target was the Gulen Movement, including the affiliated individuals and institutions with the Movement. These dismissals were also targeting different opposition segments of the society.

Dismissals of academicians from the public were started through lists which are publicized by the statutory decree-law no.672.The velocity of the dismissals and the long lists of the people suspended in a quite short period of time, until the September 2016, strengthened the probability of preparation of these dismissal lists before the coup attempt.

At the first step, 2346 academicians were dismissed from 96 different universities. The Gazi University was the second university in dismission of high numbers of academicians. The Rector of the Gazi University pointed out that the criteria for the dismission of the academicians are settled by the government as a ‘possible affiliation with the Gulen movement’.

Then, 1267 on 29 of October, 242 on 22 of November, 631 on 6 of January 2017, 330 on 7 of February in 2017, and 484 academicians on 29 of April 2017 were dismissed.

A small number of Academicians (53 academicians) got back their position through the statutory decrees of no. 677 and 688. Hereby, 5247 academicians from 117 state universities lost their positions through 6 statutory decrees. Besides, according to figures published by Council of Higher Education (YÖK), 2808 lecturers who were working previously in the universities closed after coup attempt lost their positions.
The dismissals of academicians were not limited with the individuals who are accused of being ‘connected with Gulen Movement’. There were also dismissals of academicians who have signed the ‘Declaration of the Academics for Peace’ in January 2016. This declaration was criticizing security operations of the Turkish government made in the southeast part of Turkey. More than 1128 academicians, opponents of the government, human rights defenders were targeted by the government after signing the ‘Declaration of the Academics for Peace’. Most of these academicians were dismissed from the public service.

There was not any concrete evidence requiring dismissal of those academicians from public service. There was not any public investigation process for those academicians before their dismissals from the services. Statutory degrees have only referred to the claim of being in connection with the terrorist organization. However, the were not any legal basis for those dismissals. Government even did not require to have legal evidence for accusing those individuals as ‘being affiliated with the terrorist organization’. The dismissed academicians were not allowed to object their dismissal decision. Although YÖK, the Council of Higher Education, has promised the amendments in the cases of mistakes in dismissal decisions of academicians, there was not any attempt for the establishment of those Councils.

“A lot of academicians were sent to trial in a court because they have been accused of being terrorists.”
Teaching staff training program (OYP) had been applied to provide the need of academicians for universities, which have been established among 2006-2009 by the Higher Education Council. Guarantee of personnel cadres of 15.000 academicians/research assistant, who had been appointed in different universities through teaching staff training program in 2010 (ÖYP), were removed due to statutory decrees in September. However, it was claimed that the objective of the teaching staff training program (ÖYP) is to train academicians being connected with the Gulen Movement, the decision whether to dismiss academicians or not is given the initiative of universities. Many universities decided to dismiss academicians. However, the most useful merit-based program, which used to train academicians in the current system was the teaching staff training program (OYP). Academicians deny that they are not connected with the Gulen movement because of TSTP does not contain written and oral exam. Therefore, there would not be any possibility to cheat. Founder of TSTP and former president of the council of higher education of Turkey, Yusuf Ziya Özcan, said that “we had designed well a system to provide the need of academicians in Turkey. However, we live such bad days. Fortunately, we see good days.” At least, 23427 academicians including the victim of TSTP got influenced badly by the state of emergency. It is a question that how many of those academicians will be able to find or continue their work (2).

“Operations and Lack of Inspections”

A lot of academicians were sent to trial in a court because they have been accused of being terrorists. According to official data, 160.000 people were arrested in the period of state emergency after the botched coup attempt on 15 July 2016. 150.348 people were dismissed from public jobs without appropriate judiciary ways (3). More than 82.000 people have been arrested. The investigation was started by accusing of 155.000 people having a connection with an armed terrorist organization (4). At the present number of people who have been accused of the Gulen Movement reached more than 500.000 (5). Furthermore, those people are labeled by the government that they will not be able to work in a public or the private sector related to security services (6)

The evidence that shown as legal basis for the detentions after 2016 coup attempt were not concrete. The accusation files were accepting legal bank accounts, registration of children to the private schools, trips, academic activities as reasons for detentions.

This case is seriously significant to see how the jurisdiction of the Erdogan regime has become unfunctional. Besides of criminal investigations, there are a lot of disciplinary proceedings going on for academicians as well. The regime of Erdogan through jurisdiction takes advantage of the judiciary which is not independent and a law1 of fighting with terrorism which is enlarged in time of AKP (Justice and Development Party) to punish academy which is the stronghold for freedom of expression and other nonviolence activities. As it has been seen in research of human rights watch, investigations related to terror crimes and other cases in Turkey are made without concrete evidence by breaking laws and constitutions (7). After, the constitutional court of the Republic of Turkey stated that legal decisions related to a state of emergency and applying to cancel it are not possible (8).

The concerns expressed in international arena regarding mass numbers of arrestments in Turkey lead establishment of a temporary committee to evaluate objections for the decisions in the period of state of emergency. This commission started to work in January 2017.

People and academicians who have been dismissed from their job and universities applied for this commission to get back their job. Number of people who have applied is 108.000 in the middle of 2017. However, the commission did not decide about 12.000 of them.

This committee decided the annulment of totally 310 decisions regarding dismissions from the public service.

Although the commission was claimed to be a relief for the injustice decisions of the state of emergency era, the practical situation was far behind this claim. (9,10)

Self-Censorship and Emigration to Safe Countries

Turkey has been experiencing self-censorship due to the authoritarian policies of the Erdogan regime. Academicians are being intervened to ensure that they do not research on critical issues or not participate in conferences by university administrations.

Unfortunately, it seems impossible for academicians to freely decide upon their research topics. Academic freedom is limited by the university administrations. University administrations are interfering with the research topics. Academic staff is warned not to annoy the government and they are required not to organize conferences on sensitive topics.

Senior academicians are hesitating to supervise the thesis concerning those sensitive topics such as Kurdish issue.

This unsecured conditions for the academic freedom decrease the quality of the academic works in various fields of work. The uncertainty creates hesitations for many academicians in expressing freely their views in public spheres.

According to international human rights law, academic freedom is one of the basic rights that should be protected in any condition. However, it is possible to claim that there is a pressure on the academic sphere in Turkey that prevents the exercise of this basic right. (12).

Turkey is a part of the International Civil and Political Rights Agreement which guarantees the freedom of expression of every individual. Additionally, European Convention on Human Rights protects Academic Freedom as a requirement for freedom of expression. (13).

It is now possible to define the post-coup attempt period as a ‘period of loss of academic independence’ in Turkey. The main target of dismissals and detentions were people affiliated or having sympathy for the Gulen movement. However, detentions and dismissals were also targeting people from opposition backgrounds.

The limitations of academic freedoms, dismissals, detentions lead many academicians to search for expatriating possibilities in the countries which ensure freedom of expression for individuals. Not only academicians but also their families severely affected by freedom limitations. Around 200,000 people were barred from traveling abroad and their passports were cancelled with the claim of affiliation of a terrorist organization. (14).

Academicians had to face with a dilemma; they were not allowed to work in Turkey, but they also are not allowed to go abroad. The only way for many is to go abroad in various ways and to apply for asylum in many European countries.

This fact is reflected in various media organs in Europe. Thousands of Turkish nationals have applied for asylum in European countries such as Germany, UK, France, Netherlands, and Norway.
The number of Turkish citizens who applied for asylum in Germany was 5742 in 2016, the year of the coup attempt. This number increased to 8483 in 2017 and the trend of Turkish asylum seekers is on the increase (15).

In Germany, 3248 Turkish citizens applied for asylum between January and August of 2018 (16) and Germany is also an entry port into other European countries.
It is not possible to have an exact number of asylum seekers who are affiliated with the Gulen movement in Canada. According to the State of Canada, the number of asylum applicants from Turkey exceeds those from other countries (17).

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the Netherland (IND) data, 1020 academics and highly educated people from Turkey in the first 11 months of 2018 immigrated to the Netherlands as a brain drain.

According to research done by Dutch Television (NOS) program the ‘Nieuwsu’s (News Time), there is a significant increase in the number of highly educated people who immigrated to the Netherland from Turkey. Furthermore, according to BBC Turkish, numerous academicians and other highly educated people complain about the lack of freedom in Turkey.

According to data published by the Naturalization Service of the Netherland (IND), while in 2016, 540 people immigrated from Turkey to the Netherlands, the number went on to 780 in 2017. 1020 highly educated people applied for a job in Netherland for 11 months of 2018. The official number of immigrants going to abroad from Turkey increased from 69,326 (in 2016) to 253,640 (2018). The IND clarified that 235 people applied for asylum in 2016 and that figure increased to 481 in 2017 (18).

Rapporteur of European Parliament, Kati Piri, stated that “we have already written a lot about the situation of Turkish academics and the European Commission implored Turkey not to punish academicians, due to a coup attempt. “It is emphasized that pressure on academicians increased after “academics for peace” but before the coup attempt of 15 July. Besides, it has been emphasized that President Tayyip Erdogan labeled academicians as “terrorists” and called for an investigation against them. It has been specified that about 100-150 academicians who are signatories to “academics for peace” are in Germany.
The Erdogan regime carried out the mass dismissal of academics without investigation by using suspicious allegations of terrorism and the coup attempt of 15 July 2016.
There is also pressure on both student protests on campus and student activism. Additionally, it is possible to observe a censorship for the academic research on the controversial topics. All those factors create a climate of fear and self-censorship on university campuses and breaching Turkey’s obligations to respect and protect academic freedom and freedom of expression under international human rights law.


The Erdogan regime has realized mass firings of academics without investigation, using doubtful allegations of links to terrorism or the 15th July 2016 coup plot. It is also investigating and prosecuting academics on trumped-up terrorism charges. The authorities are interfering with student protests on campus and prosecuting student activists. And officials are interfering with academic research on controversial topics. Together these actions are creating a climate of fear and self-censorship on campus, and breaching Turkey’s obligations under human rights law to respect and protect academic freedom and freedom of expression (19).

Because of the huge pressure on the academicians in Turkey, it becomes difficult to claim the existence of freedom of expression for academicians. Unfortunately, the situation does not change for years and getting worse by time. Fear of dismissal or arrest is the main determinant preventing independence of the academia. After dismissals from the public services, it becomes impossible for the academicians to find a job in any other institution. Additionally, they are not allowed to travel any other country to be able have an opportunity to start a new life. The blacklisting and detentions are still the problems that academicians in Turkey are required to cope with. The pressure is not limited with the academicians. The family members of academicians are also facing with various difficulties in their working and social life. Although the situation in the academic independence of Turkey is uncertain, the future of the academic freedom in Turkey will be closely related to democratic and political developments in Turkey.
According to Marco Nilsson, one thing is clear: “The violation of academic freedom in Turkey deserves serious attention from the international scholarly community” (20).


4. Interventions and mass-lockout in public which is done by Erdogan regime was qualified as civil coup by opponent parties.

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