Turkey silences critics with law to insult the president

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A picture taken in Istanbul’s Karakoy district on February 16, 2022 shows the Suleymaniye Mosque complex and construction works stopped by the Istanbul Municipality (IBB). (Photo: AFP)

Turkish journalist Sedef Kabas on Tuesday begins her second month in jail for “insulting the president,” a rising crime that observers believe is stifling critical voices 16 months before the presidential election.

According to the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the 52-year-old has been in prison longer than any other journalist for this alleged crime.

During a television interview on Jan. 14, Kabas quoted an old adage that a crowned head generally becomes wiser, adding, “but we see that’s not true.”

She repeated the line, which was seen as derogatory towards President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his regime, on her Twitter account, which has more than 900,000 followers.

Three weeks later, Kabas was officially charged. Her application for bail was denied and the head of state Erdogan demanded 250,000 Turkish lira (about 18,300 US dollars, 16,100 euros) in damages.

She will appear in court on March 11, risking a total of 12 years and 10 months in prison for insulting the President and two of his ministers.

“This anti-democratic lese-majesté law has become a repressive tool that exemplifies the government’s authoritarian policies,” said Erol Onderoglu, RSF representative in Turkey.

Onderoglu believes the offense of insulting the president – Article 299 of the penal code – allows the government to “silence critics and weaken the media”, leading RSF to call for its repeal.

Turkey is ranked 153rd in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.

In November, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that the detention of another Turkish journalist for insulting the president constituted a violation of his right to freedom of expression.

– ‘Respect the office’ –

Erdogan has also weighed in on the Kabas case, saying she “will not go unpunished” and demanding “respect and protection” from the presidential office.

“It has nothing to do with freedom of speech,” Erdogan said.

Following Kabas’ comment, eight more arrest warrants, including one against Olympic swimmer Derya Buyukuncu, were issued over messages on Twitter mocking the president’s Covid infection after he and his wife tested positive.

In 2020, according to official judicial statistics, more than 31,000 people were charged with alleged contempt for the president, up from 36,000 in 2019.

In 2010 there were only four.

More generally than the “terrorism” accusation that has been circulating since the 2016 coup attempt, the accusation of “insulting the president” is spreading the net even further, said Sumbul Kaya, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Research at the Paris Military School.

“This offense makes it possible to attack ordinary citizens,” she said.

With Turkey going through an economic crisis that hurts Erdogan’s popularity ahead of his re-election in 2023, Kaya said she felt a “reduction of power in the judiciary”.

The criminal offense of “insulting officials” has existed for a long time. Insulting the president was created in 2005 by Erdogan’s AKP party, which has been in power since 2002.

“Using the swimmer as an example, President Erdogan claimed that the office had been attacked, but it was about him as an individual,” she said.

“We are slipping from protecting the presidency to protecting the individual.”

– Critics Silenced –

For Ahmet Insel, economist and political scientist, “the massive use of Article 299 aims to gag any strongly critical utterance against the person (of the President).”

“Many journalists and lawyers are detained on charges of propaganda by a terrorist organization, but when it cannot be used, as in the case of Sedef Kabas, Erdogan’s lawyers file a Section 299 complaint.”

Insel sees the change as a direct result of “Erdogan’s very autocratic concept of the presidency,” who became head of state, head of government and head of the ruling party in 2018.

Some observers have pointed to the relative youth of the Istanbul prosecutor, who graduated in 2018 and who has indicted Kabas.

“More than 4,000 judges and prosecutors have been fired since 2016 after opaque (recruitment) procedures and replaced by young AKP-aligned lawyers,” Insel said, adding that “the orders come … straight from the presidential palace.”

Almost 30 international organizations that defend journalists have called for Kabas’ immediate release.

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