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Free speech in Turkey is in crisis. Take urgent action.

Written by Barbara Lodge, Country Coordinator for Turkey

If Prime Minister Thatcher had had the thin skin of Turkey’s President Erdoğan, political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe would have been in and out of prison. 

Despite cartooning her as a chicken, a shark, a sharp-nosed Torydactyl, and the 'top bitch' at Crufts, he remained free to produce his bloody lampoons.

Compare this with President Erdoğan: Over 100 people face legal action for insulting him since he became president last August.

This isn’t new. In 2004, a picture of Prime Minister Erdoğan as a cat entangled in string did not amuse. Cartoonist Musa Kart paid him £1,000 damages.

Satirical magazine Penguen responded with Erdoğan as frog, camel, monkey, snake, duck and elephant. It was a message that cartoonists cannot be silenced. Erdoğan sued again – this time unsuccessfully.

From teenagers to beauty queens – free speech restricted for all

Take the 13 year-old boy hauled out of school for questioning about a Facebook post. Or M.E.A., a 16-year-old boy at a student protest – now on trial for allegedly calling the president the 'thieving owner of the illegal palace.'

He meant Erdoğan’s new White Palace in Ankara, larger than the White House with over 1,000 rooms and trees from Italy costing £2-6,000 each.

Gonca Vuslateri, TV actress and supporter of Turkey’s LGBTI community, risks a two year prison sentence for allegedly insulting the president – she’d re-tweeted (you’ve guessed) a cartoon.

Then there is Miss Turkey 2006, Merve Buyuksarac, in court for re-tweeting a poem about someone boasting of getting away with theft. Its title was 'The Master’s Poem'. Erdoğan’s supporters commonly call him 'The Master'. 

Ironic, isn’t it, that Erdoğan, when mayor of Istanbul, was jailed himself in 1998 for reciting an Islamic poem deemed subversive to the secular Turkish state. He even became an Amnesty prisoner of conscience.

Hasan Herken, dean of a medical school also fell foul of Erdoğan’s sensitivity about his White Palace. At a reception for the Palestinian president in January, guardsmen were decked out as warriors of Turkey’s empires over the last 2,500 years. They caught Herken’s eye and he tweeted, 'Who’s the warrior in the bathrobe?' He deleted the tweet but not soon enough. Within days the pressure on him was such that he resigned from his university post.

An entrenched human rights problem

That’s Amnesty’s description of the attack on freedom of expression in Turkey. And a further tightening of the screw came in a judgement against another academic in December last year.  

Elifhan Köse was given 11 months in prison. She’d taken part in a demonstration following the death of fifteen-year old Berkin Elvan. 

In 2013, during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, a tear-gas canister hit Berkin on the head when he was on his way to buy bread. He fell into a coma and died in 2014. Elifan’s offence was defamation of the then Prime Minister Erdoğan for allegedly chanting 'Thief' and 'Murderer'.  

We know from M.E.A.’s case that name calling is risky.  But it’s the court’s judgement that is telling: Insults do not fall under the right to freedom of expression.  Criticism is not acceptable when it goes against the personal right to honour and respect.

This is a massive change. Traditionally, Turkish leaders’ main targets were critical journalists. Now with social media, President Erdoğan and colleagues are targeting wider society.  

Hasim Kilic, former President of the Constitutional Court, used to oppose the government’s more contentious measures – for example, in 2014 he lifted the ban on Twitter and Facebook. His protection is gone. He retired in February, regretting in his farewell speech “problems with the independence of the Turkish judiciary”.

President Erdoğan says he is exercising his “right to self-defence” through these trials. Prime Minister Davutoglu supports him.  He defended the prosecution of M.E.A., blaming the opposition: He was sad it was a child but insulting the president had reached such a point by the opposition that they were becoming a bad example for children.

M.E.A. disagrees: 'We want a free Turkey. I want to be acquitted. I'm sure that’s what most people hope'.

There are hundreds of prosecutions against activists, journalists, writers, lawyers and now “ordinary people' in Turkey. In 2014 Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 154th out of 180 countries for press freedom –a fall from 99th in 2002 when Erdoğan became Prime Minister.

Amnesty is observing some of these trials for insulting President Erdoğan. It makes you wonder how many state employees spend their time monitoring Twitter and Facebook on his behalf.

Onur Kılıç is one of many facing prison for 'insulting the President'. Download the document below to see you how can help demand Onur's release, and campaign against the crackdown on free speech in Turkey.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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