The pernicious logic of Turkey’s petty charges against free speech

The offending image

The offending image

If the escalating war on the Gülen Movement, dominated recent news from Turkey, it was also marked by lesser items which highlight the dire straits of Turkish human rightsA protester in Samsun was charged with “insulting the Turkish flag” for carrying a banner with a cartoon from the New York Times that showed President Erdogan slicing from a doner emblazoned with the Turkish flag.  A Turkish professor, Elifhan Köse, was sentenced to 11 months for insulting then Prime Minister Erdogan.  In Izmir, the case against Filiz Akıncı, accused of giving Mr. Erdogan the finger, continues.  A lawyer who had – unsuccessfully – attempted to defend two Turkish citizens from defamation charges for insulting Mr. Erdogan is, himself, now facing a probe on the same charges.

These cases are not, of course, new.  In its landmark report on the “criminalization of dissent” in Turkey, Amnesty noted the use of defamation cases as a means of silencing critics and to its opposition to laws criminalizing insults or disrespect to “flags and other [national] symbols:

Article 125 is frequently used to prosecute criticism of the actions of politicians and other public officials, despite authoritative interpretations of international freedom of expression standards that require public officials to withstand greater public criticism than private citizens. Journalists exposing human rights abuses and commenting critically on the actions of public officials are particularly at risk of prosecution.  Prosecutors typically initiate investigations following complaints by public officials, who later bring civil claims for damages in addition to seeking a criminal conviction. The Prime Minister in particular has brought a number of cases under this provision.

What is clear from this vast array of prosecutions, largely petty, and often ending in either acquittal or suspended sentence is that they are meant to stifle dissent in a broad manner.  Anyone – whether a journalist, a protester, or simply a citizen talking politics at a barber shop – can be targeted for a long and costly prosecution.  The very arbitrariness of the prosecutions makes them more pernicious and more damaging to freedom of expression.

Howard Eissenstat
St. Lawrence University

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