By Sevgi Akarcesme
February 21, 2016
Along with two of my colleagues at Today's Zaman, I received a suspended prison sentence last December for allegedly insulting the prime minister in tweets published on the social media website Twitter.
My case was particularly beyond comprehension because I was convicted to 17.5 months' imprisonment for a comment left under my critical tweet.
In case you are wondering, my tweet said exactly the following: “Davutoğlu, whom we thought of [as] a democrat academic, has turned into the prime minister who eliminated media freedoms of the government which covered up corruption. Bravo.” Probably as a first in the already idiosyncratic history of Turkey's legal system, I was held responsible for a complete stranger's remarks in response to my tweet that I was not even aware of until I saw the indictment.
On Friday, we used our right of appeal to Turkey's top court and we argued that the lower court violated our right to freedom of expression and a fair trial. Given the absurdity of the verdicts given at the lower court, I have little confidence in the legal system in Turkey and rule of law in general. Yet, it is wise to exhaust all legal means possible anyway.
I have yet another “insult” case awaiting me on March 23, this time against the president in my column for the daily Zaman. When I re-read my column, I have a problem seeing anything that is even close to an insulting remark. All I did was to mention corruption investigations in the same column that includes direct quotes from the president. My intention is not to complain about the insult cases that were and continue to be directed against me. After all, I am not an exception. Rather, I am trying to direct attention to a trend that is becoming an even bigger threat to the freedom of expression in Turkey.
In today's Turkey, insult cases against the president and the prime minister have become almost an ordinary news story. There is almost no critical journalist left who has not been sued by either one of them. In some cases, Justice and Development Party (AKP) ministers join the club and also sue journalists. Even though politicians are expected to be more tolerant toward criticism as approved by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Lingens v. Austria, even moderate criticism is not tolerated in Turkey. Indeed, what has come to be considered as an insult by our rulers has turned from anything that mentions corruption to anything that involves basic criticism.
Indeed, as veteran columnist Murat Belge, who is also being sued by the president several times, wrote in the Taraf daily that soon “insult” will be defined in the Turkish lexicon as “words that are not liked by [President Recep] Tayyip Erdoğan.” Belge also says he cannot understand why he is being sued by Erdoğan for a column in which he says Erdoğan has imposed a repeat election on Turkey. According to him, such frequent “insult” cases as have been launched by the president are “unprecedented” in the political history of the nation.
Do jurists acting on behalf of ruling politicians not know the distinction between fair criticism and insult? Or the judges and the courts for that matter? Of course they do, but under the current political climate, “insult” cases are being used as convenient sticks with which to beat down journalists. Each of these cases sends out a message, not only of intimidation to journalists but also to show the whole society what can happen if anyone dares to criticize the rulers. In other words, some people are being granted an “untouchable” status. Given the increasing prevalence of “fear” in society, that target has been achieved to a significant extent.
Then, how are people like me still able to speak our minds? All these criminal cases probably unconsciously lead to some degree of self-censorship, but we still defy authoritarianism since we accept the consequences of punishment from the pressures being placed on us, on advertisers and readers, and from defamation campaigns to compensation claims -- or even imprisonment.
The price of freedom of expression in Turkey is rather heavy under the oppression of the Untouchables.