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Handing its 10-month jail sentence to Turkish pianist Fazıl Say on April 15, the Istanbul court stated that Say was guilty of “denigrating the religious beliefs held by a section of society” and had thus violated Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). Although “blasphemy laws” still officially remain in many states, they are now almost completely dormant in most democracies. The rare prosecutions that are attempted based on them almost always fail, either because of sensible legal interpretation or the fact that a guilty verdict would clash with legally enshrined principles of freedom of expression.

Say’s prosecution was based on his retweeting of couplets attributed to medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam last year, including lines such as: “You say its rivers will flow with wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?” He also posted a personal tweet, stating: “I don’t know whether you have noticed or not, but wherever there is a stupid person or a thief, they are believers in God. Is this a paradox?” However misguided Article 216 may be, there can be little doubt that Say deliberately intended to “denigrate the religious beliefs held by a section of society.” Of course, deliberate insult should never be criminalized, but as it is considered legitimate grounds for prosecution in Turkey it’s worth asking why cases aren’t regularly opened against material published in certain Turkish newspapers. The fact is that there are a number of Turkish dailies with considerable reputations for directing abuse at religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

Yeni Akit has a considerable track record of targeting respected journalists for aggressive and persistent smear campaigns, including Cengiz Çandar, Hasan Cemal, Ahmet Altan, and Amberin Zaman. It has even recently been waging a bizarre campaign against the “deviant spirituality” of yoga. Although it and fellow hard-line Islamist newspaper Milli Gazete (affiliated to the minor Felicity Party) have both been fined on numerous occasions for slander and libel, they have never to my knowledge been prosecuted for “insulting a section of society.” That may seem odd after considering the following examples, dredged up on their websites by a simple search of the words “Christian,” “Jew,” “Alevi,” and “homosexual”:

– Milli Gazete’s April 18 front page headline focused on the “scandal” that the EU was “making the Turkish state pay” the costs for lighting non-Muslim places of worship “such as churches and synagogues.”

– On the same front page, it was also disbelievingly reported that New Zealand had become the latest country to legalise gay marriage. The article was headlined, “Your destruction is near,” and was accompanied on the printed page by a picture of two fossilised victims from Pompeii.

– The same paper also carried a headline story in January warning about the dangers of “Zoroastrian missionaries” spreading “terrorist propaganda” in Turkey’s southeast.

– Again Milli Gazete, this time declaring as its Jan. 8 front page: “Here’s the Jewish mind.” The story was about Jewish religious jewellery being sold by a U.S.-based company, which donated some of its profits to the Israeli army.

Milli Gazete, Jan. 1, 2013: 'Here's the Jewish mind'

Milli Gazete, Jan. 8, 2013: ‘Here’s the Jewish mind’

– On the same day that Milli Gazete was warning about “the Jewish mind,” Yeni Akit reported news of an old church in the Black Sea province of Giresun making “Christian propaganda.” Despite the fact that the church had been converted into a library in 2001, the article bemoaned that crosses and Stars of David were still to be found inside the building, “blurring young minds.”

– Yeni Akit on Feb. 3: “Support for perverts from the CHP and BDP,” regarding attempts in January by opposition deputies to reform the law stating that “dirty” and “deviant” homosexuality is legitimate justification for expulsion from the Turkish military.

– Yeni Akit:The 19 Year Lie,” in which a host of slanderous claims were made about the massacre of over 30 Alevis in the central Anatolian town of Sivas in 1993.

On any given day you can open either Milli Gazete or Yeni Akit and be sure to find similar stories, written in the most unpleasant, insulting language. Should it really be surprising that Article 216 isn’t extended to these cases?

Even if the necessary sections of the Turkish penal code were reformed, they would still undoubtedly be liable to misuse through selective interpretation. However decent a country’s set of laws may be, and however enshrined they are in decent-sounding constitutions, problems generally come from the interpretation of those laws. If Article 216 was always applied as rigorously as it was against Say, then all the above examples would be investigated. In the end, the most important factor behind scandals such as the Say case is the mentality behind them, which is not something that can be transformed by a simple change in legal language.

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Having lead a government that has spent much of the last 10 years in a bitter tug-of-war for power with the military establishment, it has recently become clear that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now attempting to secure rapprochement with the Turkish armed forces. The latest indication came with his visit on Feb. 9 to the hospital bedside of retired general Ergin Saygun, whose 18-year prison sentence in the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) coup plot trial was suspended on Feb. 7 following a medical report. Saygun is now undergoing critical heart treatment in Istanbul.

The hospital visit was just the latest in a series of moves that indicate Erdoğan’s changed approach. In recent months, he has repeatedly expressed frustration at the long detention times of military officers and even at the alleged excesses in the ongoing Ergenekon coup plot investigation. Two weeks ago he complained in a live television interview: “There are currently 400 retired commissioned or non-commissioned officers. Most of them are detained … If the evidence is indisputable, give a verdict. If you consider hundreds of officers and the [former] chief of staff to be members of an illegal organization this would destroy the morale of the armed forces. How will these people be able to fight terrorism?” Indeed, with so many detained or facing trial, there have also been rumours of growing organisational chaos inside the armed forces due to the lack of staff; as many as a fifth of Turkey’s top military chiefs are currently languishing behind bars. (In an unfortunate gaff, one opposition deputy recently bemoaned the lack of serving generals currently available to conduct a military coup.)

The Fethullah Gülen religious movement (cemaat) is the strongest and most powerful advocate of the ongoing coup plot trials. As Dani Rodrik, a fierce critic of the Ergenekon/Balyoz cases, has written: “[Erdoğan’s] Gülenist allies … have been the key driving force behind the sham trials. It is Gülen’s disciples in the police, judiciary and media who have launched and stage-managed these trials and bear the lion’s share of responsibility.” Below the surface, it is therefore becoming clear that Erdoğan’s recent moves to normalise relations  with the military constitute the latest steps in the power struggle between himself and the cemaat. As a leader with impeccable political antennae, Erdoğan also probably recognises the political importance of “moving on” with the military. Despite all the reputational damage it has suffered over the last 10 years, the national armed forces still retain considerable loyalty among the Turkish public.

As the newspaper most closely affiliated with the Gülen movement, it is thus interesting to observe how daily Zaman is reporting Erdoğan’s search for a settlement. On the day after Erdoğan’s hospital visit to Saygun, the paper’s front page carried a picture of him standing at the former general’s bedside, with an innocuous story inside titled “Surprising visit to Ergin Saygun.” However, it is also worth noting that Zaman’s front page headline on the same day focused on the recent three-day summit of the (Gülen-affiliated) “Abant Platform,” which came out in strong support for Turkey’s continued EU membership negotiations. The piece mentioned the “hardening attitude” within the EU and unfair visa restrictions, but also included criticism of the recent public declarations of some Turkish officials, which it said “lead the way to opposition to EU membership among the public.” Erdoğan has been leading the charge in negative statements about the EU process in recent weeks, so Zaman’s emphasis was perhaps not without significance, hinting cryptically at the growing Gülen-Erdoğan split.

zaman_2013-02-10

Zaman headline Feb. 10: ‘Support to EU process from the Abant Platform’

 

Peace talks are still ongoing between the Turkish state, representatives of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. It is likely that for any kind of peace to be secured they will have to go on for quite a while longer. Looking at the attitudes adopted by the Turkish media over the course of the “İmralı process” has been illuminating, particularly the reporting of the Jan. 17 funeral ceremonies in Diyarbakır of the three female Kurdish activists who were recently shot dead in Paris.

The government’s previous “Kurdish Opening” in 2009 came to an abrupt end after the controversy that followed the release of a group of PKK militants at the Habur border crossing and their welcoming back by huge crowds in Diyarbakır. Any comparable scenes carried the danger of enflaming Turkish nationalist sentiments and posed a risk to the latest dialogue process. Thus, in the lead up to the funerals most in the mainstream media were in agreement that they represented a significant test. On the morning of the ceremonies, dailies Vatan, Yeni Şafak, and Yeni Asya all featured front page headlines quoting the words of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying that the day would be a “Samimiyet sınavı,” or “Sincerity test.”

The ongoing process is extremely delicate. It’s easy to forget that although public support for the current PKK talks is significantly higher than it was in 2009, suspicion of the talks is still widespread. It was therefore interesting to observe how none of the major TV stations covered the ceremonies live in any detail on the day, despite the fact that they were attended by tens of thousands of people. As with much coverage of the Kurdish issue, (the Uludere/Roboski massacre in December 2011, for example), it is likely that this low key coverage had been “suggested” to the major media organizations by the government, acutely aware of the need to avoid scenes similar to those in Habur in 2009. Tellingly, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç had the following to say at a media event on Thursday: “The media’s support is so pleasing for us. I know and I see this support. … Eighty percent of media groups are lending their support. They are conducting positive broadcasts and contributing to the process. I hope this continues.” Still, in a column the next day titled “Peace is difficult with this media,” daily Vatan’s Rüşen Çakır had some critical things to say about this mentality:

“Television stations who didn’t show the ceremony yesterday failed the ‘sincerity test.’ In fact, they didn’t even sit the test … In the name of not making mistakes, or avoiding possible crises, or not annoying the government, they chose not to do anything at all … During the latest İmralı process, our media sees only one side as having to take steps – and all of these steps set according to what the government wishes – which itself sabotages the road to peace.”

In the event, Jan. 18’s newspapers exhaled an audible sigh of relief that the day passed without “provocation or sabotage” from either the mourners or the Turkish security forces. In contrast to the relative silence of the TV stations, the majority of the next day’s papers featured the funerals as front page headline stories, showing pictures of the crowds gathered in Diyarbakır and striking a noticeably optimistic tone. Many focused on a makeshift sign that one man was carrying at the ceremonies: “There is no winner from war; there is no loser from peace.

The front page of Milliyet on Jan. 18: ‘Diyarbakır said peace’

The front page of Milliyet on Jan. 18: ‘Diyarbakır said peace’

That the funerals passed peacefully was a relief not only for the government but also for the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which shares grassroots with the PKK. At the moment, both the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the BDP have a common interest in continuing the talks. For the process to come to a successful conclusion – still a long way off – this shared interest will need to persist for a while yet.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has just released its annual report on the number of journalists imprisoned globally – a gloomy read. This year, the global tally reached its highest point since the CPJ began surveys in 1990, with a total of 232 individuals counted as being behind bars, an increase of 53 since 2011. Unsurprising to most in the country, Turkey tops the list this year – followed by Iran and China – with the CPJ counting 49 currently in Turkish prisons for their journalistic activity, (still lower than its last count of 61). A complete list featuring detailed accounts of all imprisoned journalists worldwide is available to view via the CPJ here, while a “path forward” for Turkey, drawn by CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, can be read here. The CPJ recently focused on the situation in Turkey in a detailed report released in October, which I wrote about on this blog at the time.

In Turkey, most of the newspapers hostile to the government included pieces on the report, with the reliably bellicose Sözcü referring ironically to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in its Nov. 12 front page headline: “THE MASTER BREAKS THE RECORD: Turkey is the world champion in imprisoned journalists.” Also tongue-in-cheek, daily Taraf dolefully headlined its article on the report: “Again we’re the world’s first!” However, news of the CPJ report was conspicuous by its absence in the Pollyannaish pro-government press – nowhere to be found in Zaman, Sabah, Bugün, Türkiye, Yeni Asya, Yeni Şafak, or Star. Bearing in mind the Doğan Group’s history with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, it is also perhaps worth mentioning that neither of its remaining Turkish-language titles, Hürriyet and Radikal, mentioned the report in their print versions either (although both did feature online articles).

Of course, the October CPJ report on Turkey was far more detailed than this latest one, which focused only on the global numbers of journalists in jail. Indeed, the real question of press freedom in the country is rather more complicated than simply a headline figure alone, as I have written before, both here and here. Still, however hypocritical many of the protests on the issue coming from the direction of newspapers like Sözcü are, the situation is certainly deplorable. Complicated as the issue may be, comparing the coverage (or non-coverage) of the CPJ report in the Turkish press at least gives some impression of quite how polarized the media in Turkey really is. Looking at some of the newspapers here, it’s often hard to believe they can be describing the same country.

It’s been a while since I last wrote about my favourite hard-line Islamic newspaper, Yeni Akit. It would be wrong to overemphasize Akit’s significance in the overall scheme of things, but a couple of its recent news items are certainly worth mentioning, and indicate that it might have rather more influence than many give it credit for(!)

On Nov. 22, Akit published a story headlined, “Immorality at High School,” containing photographs that it said showed teachers drinking alcohol with their students at a picnic. This photos were taken in the southern province of Antalya, (“known as a castle of the secularists,” according to the article), and were apparently uploaded to Facebook by one of the teachers. “It has been claimed that the teachers are members of the ‘Eğitim Sen’ union, which opposes the headscarf as well as classes on the Quran and the life of the Prophet,” Akit helpfully stated. The Antalya branch of the National Education Directorate opened an investigation into the 11 teachers upon the publishing of the story, but this was quickly dropped after it was established that the photos were in fact taken by a teacher at a family picnic three years ago, and that no students were present. Unbowed, on Dec. 2 Akit went on to publish a photo of a female teacher at the same Antalya school, part of a group at a bar celebrating a friends’ birthday (with glasses of beer on the table). “Do these photographs suit a teacher?” said the headline. However, rather than the Education Directorate setting up an inquiry, the teacher in question is now opening a legal case against Akit.

 

 

It’s worth mentioning these “photo scandals” because very recently Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used similarly tendentious photographs published in Akit to attack his political opponents. The pictures used by Erdoğan showed deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) sitting around a table eating kebab, despite the fact that over 600 Kurdish prisoners were entering their 49th day on hunger fasts: “Lamb kebab for us, death fasts for you,” read Akit’s headline. On the same day (Oct. 30) Erdoğan told a meeting of his parliamentary party: “On one hand [they] are eating lamb kebab, on the other [they] are telling those in prison, ‘Die on hunger strike.’” In fact, it soon emerged that the photos had been taken two months before at the wedding of a BDP member in the southeastern province of Mardin.

Erdoğan’s harsh words got a lot of coverage at the time, (here’s the Reuters story on it), but the fact that his source was Yeni Akit obviously received rather less attention. Commentary suggesting that the prime minister is turning Turkey into an “Islamic state” is simplistic and misguided, (a piece in the Wall Street Journal last month claimed that he was “ramming Shariah law into practice.”), but it can’t be a good sign that he’s turning to Yeni Akit for rhetorical fodder to use against his opponents.

On Monday (Oct. 22), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a detailed report on the state of press freedom in Turkey, under the gloomy title: “Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis – The Dark Days of Jailing Journalists and Criminalizing Dissent.” Although it seems like reports on the subject are released every month, this one received a huge amount of attention, both domestically and internationally. It describes the numerous instances of restrictions on media freedom, citing the familiar examples of the Ergenekon case, the endless prosecutions of journalists writing on Kurdish matters, the increasingly widespread practices of intimidation and self-censorship, as well as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s rising intolerance of dissent.

Bloomberg published a sensible commentary on the same day that the CPJ report was released:

“The committee had come under fire for reporting lower estimates of the number of jailed journalists than other human rights organizations. Turkey’s government has long maintained that only a handful of the journalists were charged with offenses related to their jobs, and because the CPJ hadn’t read all the indictments, it had erred on the side of caution.

“Now it has read the indictments and determined that 61 of the reporters and editors in detention are there because of things they wrote or said in the course of their work. In letters accompanying the report, the Turkish government disputes that characterization and asserts that it is striving to balance the need to prevent ‘the praising of violence and terrorist propaganda, and the need to expand freedom of speech.’

“What’s becoming all too clear during the Justice and Development Party’s third term in office is that despite its claims that the government is now liberalizing press laws and continuing the country’s march toward a European-style democracy, the opposite is happening. …

“Instead of fixing the legal system, the government has used it to repress opponents and intimidate the media. The “insult” laws, as well as the special anti-terrorism courts and laws, should be repealed. They are not worthy of a modern democracy, and they shouldn’t be a model for anyone.”

The report was widely covered in the Turkish media. The Oct. 23 edition of daily Taraf featured the report as its front page headline. It included an interview with Ragıp Zarakolu, a legendary figure in Turkish publishing, who has long written and published bravely on subjects that many others wouldn’t touch. He has spent a significant amount of time in prison over the years for things written or published, and he had some predictably doleful things to say:

“The fact that Turkey is found on these kinds of lists saddens me greatly. Turkey has to go beyond this, but in order to do this a change in mentality is necessary … In the existing system the state’s interests are always seen as more important than the citizen’s interests. For this reason, I don’t believe any changes can come in the end without a process of change in mentality. …

“I’ve been writing in the Kurdish press for 20 years. I witnessed the killing of a 72-year-old editor. Such things aren’t experienced any more. But should we be thankful simply for the fact that we’re not killed, or like Uğur Mumcu we’re not assassinated? Turkey is currently at the end of a 10 year process. But despite constant reforms and improvements being spoken of for 10 years, journalists are still in jail for political reasons, and there are still people who have been in prison for 30 years for political reasons. We have to examine this.”

While it’s imperative to identify the areas in which the current government has attacked press freedom, it’s also important to identify the deeper structural problems undermining freedom of expression in Turkey, too. (I touched on the issue a couple of months ago on this blog.) Also included in the CPJ report is an interview with journalist Yavuz Baydar, in which he discusses some of these problems:

“While the rules of the game in the media landscape remain unchanged, unreformed, what changes are the actors, new proprietors. Turkey’s media owners are – like drug addicts – dependent on the powers in Ankara because they are in all sorts of businesses, need approvals for growth and investments, etc., and therefore keep their media outlets either as weapons for extortion or, at best, at the service of governments. …

“The media owners of these outlets acting as ‘the coalition of the willing’ that openly act submissively to the government and security bureaucracy. I can only refer to a key meeting between the PM and all the media proprietors last autumn, during which media owners went as far as proposing themselves to the PM that they can build a “censor commission” among themselves, to be chaired by a cabinet minister. The PM declined the offer, but the message was taken well. In the case of Uludere, where 34 Kurdish smugglers were bombed to death due to a tragic mistake, there was a full blackout in that media for 17 hours while the news flow was instant and heavy in social media. This pattern of blocking is now the norm.”

A related piece by Baydar, called “Another Gloomy Report,” was published in Today’s Zaman on Oct. 21:

“The greatest source of censorship and increasing self-censorship today [is] the ‘unholy alliance’ between the proprietors of big media groups and the powers in Ankara – a deal that connects mutual greed in terms of money and propaganda. This [will] continue to pollute the climate of good journalism, and even if the government resolved the issue of ‘jailed journalists’ it would leave journalism under huge pressure …

“Turkey’s media, vibrant, diverse, still bold, keen on struggling for its independence, will remain easy prey for those with money and political power.”

Nevertheless, the most immediate threat to freedom of expression still comes directly from the government. Ali Özkaya, a lawyer for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was quoted in daily Akşam on Oct. 23, and his words should be alarming to any sentient observer:

“We have to underline that cases we’ve opened against press have been quite a deterrent; the wording of columnists has noticeably changed especially since 2003. Reporters and columnists do not exceed the dose when making criticisms anymore; insulting comments or columns have been reduced to minimum.”

I’ve written about “liberal disillusionment” in Turkey through the example of Taraf newspaper before. At that time, (as now), there was much talk about the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government moving away from its reformist impulses and regressing into an increasingly authoritarian conservative nationalism. Taraf had previously been known as a supporter of the government’s anti-military crusade during its first two terms in office, but this support has evidently been waning in recent times, with increasingly strident criticism sent in the direction of the government by editor Ahmet Altan.

Apparently, not everybody at the newspaper is pleased with this new tone, and a heated discussion has recently broken out on its pages. The debate is essentially between those who believe that the AKP government can be redirected back to its previous reformist zeal, and those who think it is beyond saving. Taraf is often seen – by both its critics and its supporters – as being somehow “different” to other Turkish newspapers. However, as Altan writes ironically, there is another difference that has distinguished it of late: “In other newspapers, editors tell their writers: ‘Don’t criticise the government too harshly.’ In our newspaper, the writers tell the editor ‘Don’t criticise the government too harshly.’ I must confess that I don’t enjoy this difference.”

The three main players in the dispute are editor Altan, sub-editor Yıldıray Oğur, and columnist Alper Görmüş. In his criticism of Altan, Görmüş drew a distinction between “critical” and “opposition” journalism, suggesting that what makes Taraf ethically distinct from other newspapers critical of the government was its measured and reasoned criticism, which never veered into automatic “opposition for the sake of opposition.”

Meanwhile, in his own column, Oğur shared Görmüş’s criticisms of Altan, but emphasized a longer view. Mostly focusing on the Kurdish question, Oğur made quite an interesting argument, essentially saying that a bit of tough authoritarianism was necessary in the current situation, and that in the long term a more democratic and palatable system would hopefully emerge. A few eggs have got to be cracked to make an omelette, etc:

“The problem can only be solved by a party like the AK Party, which enjoys the support of 50 percent of society, and by a leader like Erdoğan, who has the broad support of the masses …

“It’s difficult to accept, but the Kurdish question cannot be solved by the Norwegian social democrat prime minister of our dreams. This problem can be solved by a leader who enjoys the support of 50 percent of the population, who Turks still trust even when a new funeral comes every day, and even when he mentions opening new talks with İmralı [referring to Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK].”

There is a certain amount of onanism to all of this; but, of course, there is a fair amount of onanism to the whole institution of “köşe yazarlık” (column writing) that fills up every Turkish newspaper. Unfortunately, as  Justin Vela pointed out recently on Eurasia.org, for many in Turkey: “Having an opinion that you express regularly in a media outlet is enough to make you a journalist.” As I have previously written in a piece on press freedom, although newspaper columnists do perform a certain important function, many in Turkey mistakenly believe that they alone make for an effective forth estate.

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