How does the state view and relate to civil society in your country?
CSOs as such are either registered as associations or foundations in Turkey, having separate public agencies as interlocutors: the Department of Associations within the Ministry of Interior and the Directorate General of Foundations under the Prime Ministry respectively. Taking into account that there is not a holistic definition which determines the scope and meaning of what a “civil society organisation” is in Turkish legislation, CSOs are governed by separate set of legislations, which are not designed and implemented in a coherent way.
Have there been any significant changes in relations between civil society and the government in your country in the last year?
“From a legal perspective, there have not been major changes in Turkey which affects or regulates the relations between CSOs and the government in Turkey. Turkey still lacks concrete policies legal framework or institutional structures to foster dialogue, collaboration and cooperation with civil society organisations. CSOs’ participation in public policy-making or decisions-making is not encouraged or at many times is not allowed. CSOs are still not seen as a major stakeholder in policy and decision-making.
There have been some attempts from the public sector to initiate dialogue with CSOs such as: The “Dialogue with Civil Society Meetings” organised periodically by the Ministry of EU Affairs, the consultation processes managed by the Constitution Reconciliation Commission, and the Women-Men Equal Opportunities Commission in the Turkish National Assembly, the drafting process of the new Domestic Violence Act and related regulations managed by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, Development Plans facilitated and drafted by the Ministry of Development. During the summer of 2012, the Department of Associations published a “Draft of Proposed Amendments to the Regulation on Associations” on the department’s website which included some improvements in administrative issues, and required feedback from associations. This was an important positive step to open up space for civil society participation. However, other than a few exceptional cases, these attempts lack strategic approach and do not pass beyond mere hearings and consultations. The majority of them fail to initiate effective, constructive dialogue and cooperation between CSOs and the public sector.
In the year 2012, the government certainly adopted a discouraging attitude regarding how it views and relates to CSOs. Human Rights Watch World Report 2012 states that Turkey’s overbroad definition of terrorism restricts freedom of expression and assembly, allowing prosecutors to frequently prosecute any individual engaging in non-violent speeches, protests and writings. The report states that “Turkey’s overbroad definition of terrorism still allows for arbitrary imposition of the harshest terrorism charges against individuals about whom there is little evidence of logistical or material support for terrorism or of involvement in plotting violent activities… Politicians sue their critics for criminal defamation.” Political activists and members of CSOs who are critics of the current government are overwhelmingly affected by this political attitude.
Carnegie Europe’s Press Freedom Analysis on Turkey states that “According to independent estimates, Turkey currently has the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world, but the government and civil society organisations strongly disagree about the exact number. This creates an antagonistic atmosphere that hinders constructive reform.” In order to foster CSOs public sector dialogue this antagonistic atmosphere must be resolved immediately.
Another major problem area in CSOs-government relations is the disparities in having access to information. CSOs in Turkey operate in an environment where access to valuable and critical information is restricted not only through legal means but also through problems in implementation. The amount and quality of information disseminated or made public by government institutions differ to great extent.
Although there is a Right to Access to Information Law, Turkey needs to ensure that the data and information systems of all public institutions are standardised and that they provide comprehensive and up to date information. This is also necessary to build trust between CSOs and public institutions. Government institutions lack an agenda for sustaining effective communication skills. Necessary resources to strengthen their communication infrastructure are also not allocated. Right to Access to Information Law requests are not standardised. Hence, CSOs do not have user friendly and easy access to them through websites of relevant ministries. To illustrate, within the scope of a research TUSEV has been conducting, access to information applications were made to 20 Ministries regarding their cooperation with civil society organisations. 5 Ministries did not respond at all, although bound to respond within 15 days by law. Three other Ministries did not provide information stating that they do not have that information and that they need to conduct additional research. This is very common and the legislation allows state institutions not to provide information based on this ground. Three of the Ministries stated that they have no relations with civil society organisations. The majority of other Ministries responses were quite general and insufficient.
What conditions do you feel need to be in place to allow for a good relationship between the state and civil society at a national level?
In order to establish a thriving relationship between state and the civil society, on a national level two issues must be addressed. First and foremost, the current Constitution, which reflects the post-military coup mentality of the 1980s must be changed immediately. Although, over the years significant reform was undertaken to make the 1982 Constitution more in line with EU standards and personal freedoms, the current constitution is no longer capable of responding to the diverse needs and demands of the broader public.
Are there any particular challenges with the legal and regulatory environment for civil society? (e.g. are the laws outdated / inappropriate / inadequate / over-complex / partial / not properly applied / adequate)?
Turkey enacted the new Associations Law in 2004 and the new Foundations Law in 2008, eliminating notable barriers restricting the autonomy of Turkish CSOs. Since then, the only major improvement was in August 2011 when the Law on Foundations was amended to ensure the return of properties entered in the 1936 declarations of the non-Muslim community foundations that are established before the Republic. The Law on Collection of Aid and the Law on Associations still need to go through serious revision to sustain a more independent environment for CSOs.
Overall, it can be claimed that the Turkish legal framework continues to pose a barrier in creating a more enabling environment for CSOs, mainly due to problems with the implementation of the existing legal framework. Major problems in this respect can be summarised as:
The 2011-2012 period did not witness groundbreaking legislative changes in the legal framework, which directly concerns CSO operations. The legislative changes merely provided some flexibility in the bureaucratic obligations of CSOs. Within this time period, the following changes in laws and regulations took place: In July 2011, the Regulation on the Methods and Principles of Collecting Aid transferred some of the duties regarding the management of receipts and ticket to the DoA, which previously lay in the hands of security institutions. On October 2011, a few amendments were made to certain clauses of the Regulation on Associations that aimed to ease some administrative operations of CSOs
What recent trends do you feel have enabled or restricted the efficiency of civil society?
Turkey witnessed arrests of Kurdish political activists, women rights activists, environmentalist activists and other members of various opposition groups in 2012. The hostile attitude of the government towards the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly, negatively affected the efficiency of civil society organisations. Amnesty International Annual Report 2012 on Turkey states that “Thousands of prosecutions were brought during the year under overly broad and vague anti-terrorism laws, the vast majority for membership of a terrorist organisation, provisions which have led to additional abuses. Many of those prosecuted were political activists, among them students, journalists, writers, lawyers and academics.” Therefore, the current government’s attitude towards political opposition can be regarded as a recent yet on-going trend which has negatively affected the well-functioning of civil society organizations.
Funding environment for CSOs:
What is the reality of funding in your country? (Access to funding/ patterns of donor support/ restrictions on funding etc.)
There is no structured state funding mechanism to CSOs according to Turkish law. There are small public funds allocated to CSOs through ministries but the funds provided remain relatively insignificant. A small number of CSOs receive public funds usually through project partnership mechanisms, rather than grant allocations or service contracts. The public funds are not allocated transparently.
Tax exemption and the public benefit statuses are granted to a very limited number of CSOs through the Council of Ministers decision. Therefore, this decision which must be unbiased and objective in nature becomes extremely political, and the privileges it provides are very limited. The Turkish government has not yet re-evaluated its approach regarding these statuses to promote the development of philanthropy and the financial sustainability of the CSOs.
The current Collection of Aid Law doesn’t allow an enabling environment to liberalize and ease the fundraising activities of CSOs.
Where is money going and for what purposes?
It is not possible to track where money is going and for what purposes due to the fact that most of the time this information is not announced publicly. When public funds are made available for CSOs the eligibility and selection criteria is often not made available. When public funds are allocated to CSOs by ministries, very few of them declare the total budget of the funds. Even in cases where the total budget of the funds is shared with the public, the specifics of the allocations (i.e. how much funding is provided for which NGO, for how long, for what kind of projects) are not made public. Therefore, there is not an overall criterion which allows us to transparently observe where money is spent.
Turkey must ensure a transparent mechanism which eliminates the disparities in sharing information regarding allocated public funds. While some ministries declare on their website the essential information regarding public funds, others do not; due to the lack of a standardized transparent mechanism which regulates applying for and receiving public funds. Most ministries also do not provide the essential information through the applications made under the Access to Information Law, although they are bound to do so by law.
TUSEV, Civil Society Monitoring Report 2012 (will be published)
ECAS, Regional Civil Society Conference: for Europe of the Western Balkans and Turkey (TUSEV Conference Paper)