ISTANBUL - The Turkish government is using a state of emergency to silence opposition ahead of a referendum on constitutional changes to expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, writers' group and free speech campaigner PEN said Friday.
The Turkish government imposed a state of emergency in the wake of the botched July 15 coup attempt, which critics say has been used for a massive clampdown on Erdogan's opponents and not merely suspected coup plotters.
"We feel that the government is using the state of emergency to silence the opposition," Jennifer Clement, president of PEN International, said in an interview during a visit to Istanbul.
She warned that the referendum risked lacking legitimacy if the campaign did not enjoy full freedom of speech.
"To do this referendum and the change of the constitution without any opposition or discussion or debate within the country is profoundly anti-democratic," Clement said.
"So if he (Erdogan) wins, it won't be legitimate and if he wins he will be on the road to a real totalitarian dictatorship and this is deeply, deeply worrying."
The parliament last week passed an 18-article constitution package which would create an executive presidency along the lines of France or in the United States.
A simple majority in the popular vote planned in April is needed for the changes to be legalised.
- 'Very urgent' -
During a week long visit, the top level delegation from PEN International met with Turkish officials, including culture minister Nabi Avci, and visited opposition media outlets as well as imprisoned writers.
Clement said PEN International passed on their message to government officials in the talks in the capital Ankara.
"We definitely gave them this message," she said, adding that passing a major change in the country's basic law without any debate means "it is going to fail."
Close to 150 writers and journalists are behind bars in Turkey, making the European Union candidate country the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, surpassing China, Eritrea and Egypt, according to the advocacy group.
Turkish authorities however insist that those detained were not engaged in journalism activity.
John Ralston Saul, president emeritus at PEN International, called the situation "very urgent."
"And all the press organisations that are closed means that we lost -- in one of the most culturally rich countries of the world -- the critical mass of the people that don't agree," he said.
The government dismisses any concerns over free speech and says Turkey has vibrant opposition media.