By Günal Kurşun
January 15, 2015
It is an old but persistent discussion regarding where we should define the border between freedom of expression and hate speech. Some people defend freedom of all kinds of expression without any limitations. Others, however, defend a conception of freedom of expression with limits, citing that it may lead to calls to violence and cause hate speech.
The Charlie Hebdo attack was a barbaric act and the vast majority of the Muslim world condemned it. However, it has triggered another discussion in Turkey about the limits of freedom of expression, with a government that has several problems with this concept. As is known, the group claiming the attack in Paris declared that it was revenge for the publication of caricatures in the magazine depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Is it legal to draw and publish caricatures like these in Europe? The short answer is yes, with reservations.
Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing a lack of reverence for God, religious or holy persons or things, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable. There are still laws in Europe criminalizing blasphemy, although there has been a trend to decriminalize it over the last 40 years. Blasphemy laws are limitations to freedoms of expression relating to blasphemy, hate speech, vilification or religious insults. After the First Amendment to the US Constitution which brought guarantees of freedom of expression, it was agreed that “prosecution for blasphemy would be unconstitutional” after the 1952 Supreme Court case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson.
In the UK, prosecution for blasphemy was abolished by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act of 2008. France has been an abolitionist country for nearly 150 years, while Italy decriminalized it in 1999, making it an administrative offense that deserves a fine. In the Netherlands, it was abolished completely in 2014. In Denmark, Paragraph 140 of the penal code is about blasphemy, and this paragraph has not been used since 1938, when a Nazi group was convicted of anti-Semitic propaganda. The last person sentenced for blasphemy in Norway was in 1912. Similarly, in East Asian democracies like Japan and Taiwan, blasphemy laws are dead letter.
However, there are still some countries in Europe that contain blasphemy laws in their penal codes. In Finland (Section 10 of Chapter 17 of the Criminal Code), in Germany (Article 166 of the Penal Code), in Spain (Article 525 of the Penal Code) and in Greece (Articles 198, 199 and 201), there are concrete provisions that define blasphemy as a criminal offense.
To me, this issue seemed rather like a criminal law discussion, until I saw the news yesterday. The Cumhuriyet daily published a few of Charlie Hebdo magazine’s depictions on its pages as a way of paying respect to the assassinated caricaturists in Paris. For this reason, the daily was besieged by police early last Wednesday morning and their distribution trucks were inspected. In a written statement released on Wednesday afternoon, the Turkish Journalists’ Union (TGC) condemned the police inspection of the Cumhuriyet distribution trucks, claiming that it was a clear form of censorship. The editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet said they decided to publish four pages of Charlie Hebdo caricatures but left out cartoons that Muslims may find offensive.
Two columnists from Cumhuriyet, Hikmet Çetinkaya and Ceyda Karan, put a Charlie Hebdo cover depicting the Prophet Muhammad in their columns and are now facing a smear campaign on social media. Today’s Zaman columnist İhsan Yılmaz expressed his solidarity with the Cumhuriyet columnists, and the ultra-Islamist Akit daily has since targeted him as well. I condemn this censorship and express my solidarity with Çetinkaya, Karan and Yılmaz.
It is highly hypocritical for Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to have participated in a demonstration in Paris only to have a Turkish daily censored the very next day because it published cartoons from Charlie Hebdo. Turkey is far from having a sound discussion as to whether criminalizing blasphemy is right or wrong for now, as we have bigger problems to deal with, like freedom of expression. It remains very hard to decide whether or not to have hate speech laws in countries like Turkey.
Indian novelist Salman Rushdie says, “An attack upon our ability to tell stories is not just censorship — it is a crime against our nature as human beings.”
Source: Today’s Zaman