How multi-faceted are the problems of freedom of opinion and expression in Turkey?


The views of freedom of opinion and expression in Turkey seems “inexplicable” to outsiders. On the surface, there are lively social interactions in newspapers, books, television channels, radio stations, films, associations, trade unions and foundations. In the media, you can come across criticisms as harsh as in Western countries. If you look only at that side, you may say, “Turkey is a truly democratic country in terms of freedom of expression.”

However, expressions, articles, songs, and plays including perhaps much lighter criticisms may be banned; their writers, singers and actors may be prosecuted and threatened with long terms of imprisonment. The Prime Minister may bring a case against a cartoonist for depicting him as a cat entangled in a ball of yarn. While the official “TRT 6” channel broadcasts in Kurdish, a mayor may well find himself in prison for printing a health brochure in Kurdish.

Which is the real Turkey, what does this dilemma mean? “The moment we realize that the State is an oligarchy, a structure lined up with military at the centre, surrounded by judiciary, academy and high bureaucracy influencing all laws and practices and in Turkey it is not the government that governs the State, the knots start to sever...” At least it was like that until very recently.

The relentless conflict between the “appointed” and “elected” that has left its mark on the last 10 years seems to favour the latter, but it is not over yet. After the military had to withdraw and was substituted by the judiciary, constitutional amendments, including essential reforms were introduced. These amendments targeting the “impartiality” of the judiciary are criticized with the claim that they impair the independence of the courts. 

Problems of freedom of expression in Turkey are still multi-faceted. Laws are still problematic: The Penal Code has been entirely amended; however, the articles criminalizing opinion are maintained by changing the article numbers. Many provisions, including Articles 125, 288, 301 and 318 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and Articles 6 and 7 of the Law on the Fight Against Terrorism (TMK) are able to send people expressing their opinions first to the courts and afterwards to prison. With the involvement and approval of the Minister of Justice to the implementation of the infamous Article 301, the number of cases under this Article has decreased, but a more absurd situation has arisen. If the acts referred to in Article 301 are valid, then aren’t we committing a crime “under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice” now?

The practice is problematic: The prosecutors and judges who think that “When you talk about guarding the state, the law is just a minor detail” may blatantly adopt the most arbitrary practices. Sometimes they create legal scandals as if to hinder the EU-accession of Turkey by strengthening the hand of conservative European parties.

The general perception is problematic: The unresponsiveness of society towards all these matters is an important factor in the continuity of these incidences. This unlawfulness also feeds from the fear experienced by the majority of society from the state and the “vassal” mentality inherited from the Sultanate era.

Now the question is: Would a truthfully independent and impartial judiciary emerge eventually after the amendments made and to be made by AKP in the judicial system, or would it be just a change of “master”, which means that the prosecutors and judges guarding the “State” yesterday would guard the “government” with the same enthusiasm today? While the Prime Minister suggests that monuments be demolished by calling them “freaky” and threatening actors with “prioritizing their theatres” after accusing them of looking down on society, it is terribly hard to be optimistic about the future.

The Freedom of Expression in Turkey; How Broad is it? (*)

In April 2012, 100 journalists and 35 newspaper distributors were in prison. Largely, they are accused of “committing crimes on behalf of an illegal organization without being a member of that organization or assisting an illegal organization.”

Within the first three months of  2012, 21 people, including 12 journalists, were tried and received sentences of imprisonment for 254 years in total under the allegations of “propaganda for an illegal organization”, according to Article 7/2 of the TMK. 7 people, including 4 journalists, were sentenced to 16 years and 11 months imprisonment on the grounds of TMK 7/2.

120 summaries of proceedings were prepared for 24 out of 29 deputies of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in three months.

Seven journalists were sentenced to imprisonment for 9 months and fines of TL 13,500 in total and six people were sentenced to imprisonment of 2 years, 2 months  and 20 days and fines of TL 8,480 by reasons of an alleged “insult”. A newspaper was sentenced to fines of TL 4,000.

Özgür Gündem, At›l›m, Demokratik Vatan, Demokratik Ulus, Yeni Demokratik Yaflam newspapers were seized, suspended and banned. The Newroz poster of BDP and concert posters of Grup Yorum were banned and confiscated. An investigation was initiated on 10 books published by Aram Publishing.

The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) interrupted the broadcasting of 2 programs, gave 327 warnings and 94 fines to radio and television institutions during the period of January-March 2012.

(*) Source: Independent Communication Network (B‹A) Media Monitoring Network and Freedom of Expression Report 2012 January-February-March