TURKISH BLOGGER FACES 2 YEARS IN JAIL FOR 'INSULTING' PM ERDOĞAN
“A state, before all, should trust its own people, widen freedoms and should not abandon the most fundamental and modern human rights.” -- PM Erdoğan's address to Kyrgyzstan Pmt., Wed. 2 Feb., 2011
IT'S BEEN A BUSY YEAR already for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Strutting around on the world stage, the world leader who was one of the first to tell embattled Egyptian President Mubarak to "take a different step" appears to be doing an entirely different dance at home. The month of January alone saw football fans booing his arrival at a newly opened stadium on the 15th, followed by the PM swiftly staging his own protest and walking out. Around the same time came a very open spat with the editor-in-chief of a usually supportive liberal daily, resulting in an enraged Erdoğan suing said editor. Then on the 21st, the trial of an Istanbul theatre group, mostly students, kicked off with the central complaint revolving around their performance of a song titled "The Tayyip Blues". And now February brings the news, published in leading Turkish daily Radikal on the 5th, that the latest target of Erdoğan's ire appears to be a Turkish blogger; or, more specifically, a post the young blogger wrote last September, which not long ago floated silently around the vastness of the World Wide Web.
According to the Radikal report, headlined "It's okay if the prime minister says it, but a crime if Barış says it", university student Barış Ünver somehow caught Erdoğan's eye -- and so his lawyers' -- for daring to state an opinion in the run up to last year's constitutional referendum on 12 September.
While on the campaign trail for a Yes Vote to amendments to the 1982 military-backed constitution, Erdoğan had stated that all of the differing opposition parties were aligned against the reforms, with a rather poignant dig at the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) being in a "soul threesome with the terrorist organisation". In terms of Turkish political rhetoric that meant -- by favoring a No Vote -- the CHP and the MHP were no different from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
As a retort, the 22-year-old blogger invoked last year's so-called Kurdish Intiative by Erdoğan's government, alluding to reported secret talks with the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan. Playing on the PM's words and charging Erdoğan with the very same, Ünver titled his post on his beyn.org blog, "Soulmates with Öcalan".
In addition, according to Radikal, the student illustrated his blog post with an adapted logo of Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) "made similar" to the PKK flag.
With the 'crime' identified, Ankara Public Prosecutor Osman Atalay duly opened a case against Barış Ünver at the local criminal court of peace, asking for a two-year prison sentence. Furthermore, Radikal stated that indictment also called for the student to be charged under Article 53 of the Turkish Penal Code, whereby Ünver could, among other punishments, lose his right to vote.
Understandably, the youth balked at the charges and has since pulled the offending piece from his blog. In his affidavit to the prosecutor, Ünver said he had not intended to attack or insult the prime minister. His aim, he stated, was just to criticize and he didn't think he had used words that were insulting.
In the customary statement accompanying any litigation, the 56-year-old prime minister argued that these "were insults, extremely heavy and difficult to bear."
Despite the busy start to the year for the PM's legal counsel, they are certainly no stranger to alleviating the democratically elected leader's burden. "He has sued more journalists than any previous leader," wrote Time magazine recently, whereas six years ago, during his first term of office, UK paper The Guardian referred to Erdoğan as a "zealous litigant on matters of free speech". Indeed, Asia Times Online put the toll of defamation cases against Turkish journalists at 71 between 2003 and 2006, with the prime minister winning over half of them as well as 254,000 Turkish lira (approx. UK£99,200 or US$160,600). He also earned himself into the bargain the tag "damages-rich" from a much-scolded Turkish press.
While the latest round of litigation against Ahmet Altan -- prominent Turkish author and chief editor of the hard-hitting liberal paper Taraf -- has caught many by surprise, the latest overreach into the depths of the Turkish blogosphere signifies an even more disturbing twist.
For one, the trend in Turkey when it comes to free speech on the Internet -- and this is no defence of the situation -- is to block the site in question, no further questions asked. The OSCE report on Turkey and Internet Censorship released early last year concluded that "in the majority of cases, no further prosecutions seem to take place with regard to the authors of such publications or owners of such websites." In 2010, the OSCE report put the number of blocked websites in Turkey at a shocking 3,700. Now, one year on, the number of the effectively silenced has reached an epic 8,547 -- that's a jump of nearly five thousand in a year -- with little in the way of chasing the alleged perpetrators through the courts.
So if quietly silencing young Barış wasn't an option, what gives? Apart from a comparatively limited and rather youthful audience, who of any political import even cared that Barış Ünver's blog was there? The post in question was hardly creating a political storm.
It's a far cry from a lively but bipartisan Turkish press adorning the newsstands -- either fervently pro-AKP or viciously against (with Taraf mostly in the former camp, erring on the side of democratic reform) with their circulation figures pointing to a natural voter base of one political stripe or another. If, that is, there was ever a method in Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian madness. For this Turkey-based blogger at least, it points to a new front being opened up in the PM's shameless attempts to manage his image. In short, you need a search engine. And then you need to key in the terms you are searching for.
As Barış Ünver put it in his statement to the public prosecutor, his article should be taken with the level of acceptance of freedom of thought and of expression to be found in democratic systems.
Contrast that with the jailing of a young, popular mayor of Istanbul some 13 years ago. The then 43-year-old mayor's 'crime' was to have read a poem at a public gathering. Facing a possible three years in jail, the mayor said in his testimony that "the words he spoke were from a poem and were aimed at 'no person or target'".
Nonetheless, it didn't wash in this pre-AKP, pre-EU candidate country of 1998. The mayor, one Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was handed down a 10-month prison sentence. He got out in four, but you'd think he'd know better, wouldn't you.
He may talk the talk of a European prime minister, but he's walking like an Egyptian president.
1. ^ In Turkish: "Başbakan söylerse serbest, Barış söylerse suç" -- Although serbest means free or unrestrained, okay makes for a better news headline in English, without losing the meaning.
2. ^ The date of the referendum, 12 Sept. 2010, was symbolic in that it was 30 years since the last direct military coup (there were 4 military interventions in total: 1960 and 1980 by force; 1971 and 1997 by issuing a 'memorandum'). The present Turkish Constitution was drawn up under the military junta that ruled Turkey from 1980 - 83, and voted on by public referendum in '82. Campaigning against the referendum was made illegal by the then-president, General Kenan Evren (source: Pope, Nicole & Hugh. Turkey Unveiled: Atatürk and After. London: John Murray, 1997). For a general round-up of the 2010 amendments, check the BBC Q&A here.
3. ^ In Turkish, Erdoğan's full quote reads: “PKK, BDP, MHP, CHP, YARSAV hepsi aynı cephede, hiçbiri evet demiyor. CHP, MHP terör örgütüyle ruh üçüzü oldu.” The 1st sentence also points the finger at the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the Judges and Prosecutors Association (YARSAV) as being against the reforms. But in the 2nd sentence Erdoğan specifically singles out the CHP and the MHP as being in a 'soul threesome' (i.e., soulmates) with the 'terrorist organization', the PKK -- a particular anathema to the Kemalist CHP, and the ultra-nationalist MHP. Like the Radikal headline says, it's okay for the PM to 'insult' the opposition...
4. ^ In Turkish: "Öcalan’la ruh ikizi". See also note 3.
5. ^ Radikal lists all the punishments as not being able to take up state duties or be a civil servant, and lose the right to vote or to be elected. To be fair, Article 53 states that this disqualification of certain rights (and there are more than Radikal lists) is only applied while the accused is imprisoned, or for a set period if a fine is imposed instead. However, there are extenuating circumstances whereby the court can apply or increase the period of this disqualification. The Radikal article implies he will lose these rights for life.
6. ^ Turkey's own WikiLeaks-on-paper. It's strapline reads: "To think is to take sides" (Taraf means side in English). A series of scoops revealing plans from within the Turkish Armed Forces to overthrow the AKP government have left the rest of the press pack standing since its inception in 2007. Bulging files and data CDs leaked by disaffected officers within the military have also gone onto kick start unprecedented court trials for senior ranking officers, most notably the 'Sledgehammer' plot revealed in Jan. 2010.
7. ^ Some columnists on pro-AKP English-language daily Today's Zaman are finding it hard to reconcile their support for the PM with their respect for Ahmet Altan (see: Freedom of expression, the prime minister, and the silencing of writer Ahmet Altan (1) & (2) by Orhan Kemal Cengiz). Rather ironically, the paper also named Altan 'Person of the Year 2010' (see: Ahmet Altan: taboo-breaking journalist).
8. ^ Accurate at time of writing -- but it's sure to rise. In Internet: Restricted Access by Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altıparmak (pub. Nov. 2008), the authors listed the number of bocked sites at 1,115. They also credited engelliweb.com with identifying 63% of the 1,115 blocked sites. On that basis, the current figure of 8,547 is only two-thirds of the true picture. It could be even higher.
9. ^ With much of the paper's coverage revealing plots from within the military to unseat the AKP government (see note 6), Taraf's critics have accused it of being funded by everyone from the AKP themselves, to exiled Islamic leader Fetullah Gülen, to George Soros, and even the CIA (see: Eye of the storm by Suzy Hansen). However, even before the current fallout between the editor and the PM, there was at least one front page in 2008 calling the PM the military chief's lapdog.
10. ^ The AKP was formed in 2001, and won an outright majority to form a single party government in 2002. In Dec. 2004, the European Union agreed to start accession negotiations with Turkey.
Originally published on >>ISTANBUL DESPATCH