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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Erdogan’s War Against Free Speech

Erdogan Against Free Speech
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers attends to a press conference at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on January 20, 2022. Adem ALTAN / AFP

Mat Nashed

On January 22, one of Turkey’s most prominent television journalists was detained and charged with insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Sedef Kabas, 53, had angered the president and his Justice and Development Party by citing a palace proverb to describe Erdogan’s leadership. First on television, and then later on twitter, Kabas stated, “When the ox climbs to the palace, he does not become a king, but the palace becomes a barn.”

Now Kabas faces a prison sentence of between one to four years despite an outcry from rights groups in Turkey and abroad. Both say that Turkey’s government is weaponizing Article 299, which was adopted in 1926 to criminalize anyone who insults the president.

Erdogan first became president – then a symbolic post under a parliamentary system – in 2014. But four years later, Erdogan and his party won a referendum to change the country to a presidential system, effectively giving him supreme powers to rule. Since first assuming the presidency eight years ago, there has been a total of 160,169 investigations launched against persons for insulting Erdogan. Out of this number, about 35,507 people were charged, leading to 12,881 convictions.

The troubling trend has continued despite the European Court for Human Rights calling on Ankara in December 2016 to either change or get rid of article 299. The call was significant since Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, meaning that the government of Erdogan is bound under both to respect free speech. The UN has also urged Turkey to scrap any laws that provide special protection for political figures, including the president.

But rather than uphold Turkey’s international obligations, Erdogan has looked for additional methods to censor critics and journalists. Erdogan’s main target appears to be social media companies, which he accuses of spreading disinformation that undermines democracy. While that may be true, critics fear that Erdogan is citing the threat of disinformation to crack down on anyone who criticizes him online.

That was the logic behind Turkey’s new social media law, which came into effect in October 2020. The law criminalizes what the state deems ‘disinformation’ and ‘fake news’ with a jail sentence of up to five years. What’s more, social media platforms with over a million users are required to seek out legal representatives and to store their data in the country. The new legislation forced Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to open up offices in Turkey in order to continue operating in the country. Any company that didn’t comply risked receiving millions of dollars in fines and having their bandwidth reduced.

Despite Erdogan’s panic over disinformation, pro-democracy monitors worldwide say that the biggest threat to Turkey’s democracy is state censorship. Freedom House, a US non-profit, classified Turkey as ‘unfree’ and cited its new social media laws as part of an overall climate of intimidation against political opponents and critics. In particular, the organization’s 2021 report condemned Turkish laws that aimed to punish anyone who leaked or disclosed the actual figures of Covid-19 infections and deaths. The law has targeted medical professionals for releasing independent information, or criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic.

However, journalists and media personalities remain most affected by the law. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey was the sixth highest jailer of journalists in 2021. Social media personalities also aren’t safe. Last December, authorities arrested four local YouTubers in the southern city of Antalya. The crackdown came a few days after International Human Rights Day and a day after Erdogan stressed the need to protect Turks from lies and disinformation.

Beyond Turkey, Erdogan is using article 299 to target critical voices abroad. He has filed lawsuits in Turkish courts against journalists from the Greek daily Dimokratia – including its chief editor – for using a Turkish swear word on its September 18 front page to describe the simmering tensions between Ankara and Athens. Erdogan has also sued three satirists from the controversial French magazine Charlie Hebdo for ‘insulting’ him in a front page caricature that was published in October 2020.

While none of the accused have shown up to court hearings, critics of Erdogan who live in less democratic countries are in more danger. Just take the case of Nishan Der-Haroutounian – a Lebanese Armenian TV personality – who is facing charges in Lebanon for “insulting Turkey” on his local television show. Back in October, Der-Haroutounian called Erdogan obnoxious on air and defended his remark by citing the president’s refusal to acknowledge Ottoman Turkey’s genocide of Armenians in 1915, which is recognized with overwhelming consensus outside of Turkey.

Following online smear campaigns by pro-Turkey Lebanese activists, the Turkish Embassy made a formal complaint to the Lebanese Foreign Ministry against Der-Haroutounian. The embassy argued that the TV host had violated his limits of free expression by insulting Erdogan. A Lebanese lawyer eventually filed an official case on behalf of Turkey, which was accepted by Lebanese prosecutors.

The ordeal of Der-Haroutounian illustrates Turkey’s drive to export its censorship laws outside its borders. However, the Lebanese-Armenian critic still stands a better chance of going free than the countless Turkish citizens whose lives have been upended by article 299. Kabas, for one, is in pre-trial detention which is unconstitutional but hardly surprising. After staffing the judiciary with young supporters for years, Erdogan has ensured that he can wield the law to silence opponents.

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