Free thought is not just thought itself in the narrow sense – it has many components, such as free inquiry, free exploration, free speculation, free discussion, and so on. One important part of free thought is free joking. Laugh if you like, but I’m serious. An idea or institution or ruler we’re forbidden to joke about is one that’s protected from certain kinds of dissent, even in our own minds.
The people of Turkey are in an awful plight then, given President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s way with comedians and other critics, at home and even abroad. A couple of weeks ago the Turkish government demanded the prosecution of a German comedian for performing a satirical poem about Erdogan on German television. The Guardian reported:
In a short clip from a late-night programme screened on the German state broadcaster ZDF at the end of last month, comedian Jan Böhmermann sits in front of a Turkish flag beneath a small, framed portrait of Erdogan, reading out a poem that accuses the Turkish president of, among other things, ‘repressing minorities, kicking Kurds and slapping Christians while watching child porn’.
That can be prosecuted? It’s staggering for people lucky enough to live in countries where robust satire of powerful people is commonplace. Germany’s law dates from 1871, the New York Times explains, and came in handy “to silence critics of the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran and the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet”. Well no wonder Erdogan was happy to avail himself of it.
Human Rights Watch appealed to Erdogan a year ago to stop prosecutions for insulting him.
Turkish government figures regularly contend that insulting words are not free speech. Bodies including the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and human rights groups in Turkey and internationally have repeatedly criticized this position and Turkey’s regular restriction of freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has repeatedly issued rulings on Turkey, finding violations of freedom of expression protected under article 10 of the European Convention.
Turkey wants to join the European Union, but it doesn’t want to abide by EU Conventions and conventions on freedom of speech. That’s a bit like wanting to drive a car but not wanting to stop at traffic lights.
HRW reports a sample of other prosecutions.
Where I live that’s just common-or-garden political dissent. Prosecuting a 16-year-old for it seems not only tyrannical but also an absurd conflict of interest – Erdogan punishing people for being rude about Erdogan – well at least we can be sure he’s entirely objective.
On December 23, police detained a 16-year-old student in Konya the day after he made a speech at a political meeting. The boy is alleged to have said, ‘As Halkci Lysee students, we say that we don’t see Erdogan, the chief of corruption, bribery and theft, as this country’s president but rather as thief Tayyip of the illegal palace.’ A court placed him in pretrial detention but released him on appeal on December 26. His trial before the Konya Juvenile Court began in March 2015, then was postponed until September.
Police detained Kadir Yavas, 22, a university student, in Edirne on February 13 and another student, Safak Kurt, 24, in Akhisar on February 14 for insulting the president. Yavas spent 3 days, and Kurt 11 days, in pretrial detention before they were released on appeal. Kurt’s trial began on April 7 and has been postponed to July. Yavas’ trial is to start on April 30.
What happened at those trials? I couldn’t find more on Kurt, but Deutsche Welle reported last October that Yavas got an eleven month suspended sentence.
If he criticizes the president again during that time, he faces imprisonment. Despite the great risk of being convicted again, he’s not giving up. He and a group of other students are continuing to fight for a freer, more democratic Turkey.
Catch-22, isn’t it. If you fight for a freer, more democratic Turkey you’re likely to be arrested for fighting for a freer, more democratic Turkey, which is exactly why you need to keep doing it, only if you get arrested and sentenced, you can’t.
The BBC provided some more facts and figures:
• Between August 2014 and March 2015, 236 people investigated for “insulting the head of state”; 105 indicted; eight formally arrested
• Between July and December 2014 (Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidency), Turkey filed 477 requests to Twitter for removal of content, over five times more than any other country and an increase of 156% on the first half of the year
• Reporters Without Borders places Turkey 149th of 180 countries in the press freedom index
• During Mr Erdogan’s time in office (Prime Minister 2003-14, President from 2014), 63 journalists have been sentenced to a total of 32 years in prison, with collective fines of $128,000
• Article 299 of the Turkish penal code states that anybody who insults the president of the republic can face a prison term of up to four years. This sentence can be increased by a sixth if committed publicly; and a third if committed by press or media
There are worse places, with harsher punishments, but Turkey is more than bad enough.