The Cone of Silence: Censorship and Restriction of Expression in Turkey

By Kaitlyn Posa

Turkey has become renowned as a hotbed for censorship and a nightmare for journalists. Although espousing democratic and secular ideals, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has promoted restrictions of freedom of speech throughout its term as the ruling party in Turkey. [1] Such strict censorship is causing problems internally and externally for Turkey. It has led to media protests, international criticism by various human rights and free press groups, and intervention by the European Court. [2] [3] [4] However, the problem appears to be worsening in recent years since the rise to power of the AKP, led by former Prime Minister and current President Recep Erdoğan and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

The most hotly contested laws concerning censorship in Turkey have traditionally been law no. 5651 and article 216 of the penal code. [5] [6] These laws are more commonly known as the Internet censorship law and the blasphemy law. These laws have been used throughout the AKP regime to restrict any perceived criticism or disrespect of AKP policies, high-ranking party officials such as Erdoğan, and the Islamic religion.

Turkey has become world-renowned for its intolerance of critical journalism. [1] In 2005, following violent conflict between the government and Kurdish terror organizations, the Turkish anti-terror laws were amended to state that journalists writing about Kurdish rights could be imprisoned for creating terrorist propaganda. Article 301 of the penal code also states, very subjectively, that any insult of Turkishness can be punished under law. [7] Turkey has become known for its intolerance of critical journalism. According to Reporters Without Borders, an organization that supports international freedom of press, 67 journalists were in prison in just the month of June 2013. [2] Although Turkish officials contest the reasons for imprisoning the journalists, the fact remains that The Committee to Protect Journalists reports Turkey as ahead of Iran and China in the number of journalists jailed in the country, exposing an obvious problem with the country’s policy regarding freedom of the press. [7] Late May of 2013 saw further overt governmental control of expression. The Turkish media entirely avoided coverage of a political protest of thousands in Gezi Park. Following these peaceful protests, the media again attempted to ignore political dissonance when the protests escalated into riots in multiple cities, instead covering such menial topics as penguins. The major news stations included only a few minutes of coverage during the evening of the protests: sound bites from officials and a few flashes of the riots. [2] Instead of learning from the poor handling of this political discord, the government brought to trial 35 people in December 2014 for their involvement in the Gezi protests. [4]

Some of the governmental control over the media is more unofficial. Since the Turkish media is not a very lucrative industry, media tycoons make the majority of their wealth from investing in mining or construction, which is controlled by the government. With the future of their investments on the line, most bosses have little choice but to cater to the desires of the government with regard to the content covered by their media companies. It is an accepted practice in Turkey that another company will not hire anyone who is fired from one media company. Therefore, if a journalist covers a topic that is very contrary to government interests, they are facing indefinite unemployment. This had led to a self-censoring of the media in Turkey coupled with the official laws restricting their freedom of expression. [2] Even if the laws are changed to become more lenient, the problem of self-censorship will need to be addressed.

Despite the fact that Turkey is a secular state, with no official religion, over 90 percent of the Turkish population is Muslim, playing an enormous role in the criminalization of any media perceived as an insult to the Islamic religion. [5] Even though Prime Minister Davutoğlu attended the highly publicized march in Paris in support of those killed in the Charlie Hebdo terror attack, he made it quite clear that he was not there to support their satirical writing and instead publically stated his disapproval. Davutoğlu tellingly said, “Freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to insult,” in reference to the application of the blasphemy law to suppress circulation of Charlie Hebdo and similar publication in Turkey. [5] In a similar vein, President Erdoğan said, “Attacks on holy values and religious beliefs are acts of terror.” [5] Beyond the restrictions of Charlie Hebdo, Sevan Nisanyan was imprisoned for over a year in 2013 after criticizing Muhammad on a blog. Another Turkish citizen was given 15 months in prison for creating the Twitter handle @Allah. The government regulates even indirect criticism of Islam. In 2014, the Diyenet demanded that a television show be taken off the air that portrayed an Islamic religious official in a negative light. [5] Any criticism of the majority religion is considered not only in poor taste, but also immoral and is quickly suppressed.

Some believed that social media would provide an escape from the autocratic government regulation given the initial success of individuals such as Emran Ucar. In 2013 with his Facebook and Twitter pages, “Ötekilerin Postasi” (‘The Other Post’), he acted as a voice for the marginalized in Turkey. [7] However, even social media is not safe from the restrictions of the Turkish government. As recently as early 2014, the already heavily criticized Internet censorship law was amended to become even more comprehensive. These amendments allow the regulatory agency, the TIB, to block any Internet content without prior judicial review, only reviewing the content after it has been blocked. [8] The popular sites YouTube and Twitter were briefly blocked in 2014 after evidence of political corruption was leaked on the websites. [10] More recently, in 2015, government officials summoned a 13-year-old boy to testify over “insulting” President Erdoğan on Facebook in May of 2014. [11]

Critics have remained hopeful for reforms allowing further freedom of expression in Turkey following the media protests and release of 7 journalists in 2013. [2] [7] However, given the direction of current censorship policy, the recent amendments, and reaction of officials to the Charlie Hebdo terror attack, it is unlikely that quick and lasting progress will be made in regard to freedom of expression under the current party. [5] [8] The future of Turkish media control is uncertain, and much rests on the shoulders of the Turkish people. However, hope remains. The people of Turkey will only take so much blatant censorship, as was demonstrated by the picketing of media offices following the 2013 Gezi protests. [2] Only time will tell: will the AKP government be allowed to become even more authoritarian in their policies, or will the people of Turkey stand up for their freedom to express themselves?

[1] “Justice and Development Party.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed March 2 2015.

[2] Zalewski, Piotr. “The Turkish Media’s Darkest Hour.” Foreign Affairs. June 13 2013. Accessed March 2 2015.

[3] Barendt, Eric. Freedom of Speech. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005).

[4] “Turkey: UPR Submission 2014.” Human Rights Watch. December 2014. Accessed March 2 2015.

[5] Zalewski, Piotr. “Turkey’s Blasphemy Barometer.” Foreign Affairs. February 15 2015. Accessed March 2 2015.

[6] Akdeniz, Yaman, and Kerem Altiparmak. “Internet: Restricted Access.” Cyber-Rights & Civil-Liberties. May 5 2008. Accessed March 2 2015.

[7] Kestler-D’Amours, Jillian. “Turkey: ‘World’s Biggest Prison’ for media.” Al Jazeera. February 17 2013. Accessed March 2 2015.

[8] Zeldin, Wendy. “Turkey: Law on Internet Publications Amended.” Library of Congress. February 24 2014. Accessed March 2 2015.

[10] “Turkey moves to block YouTube access after ‘audio leak.’” BBC. March 27 2014. Accessed March 2 2015.

[11] Ayvalik. “13-year-old boy testifies for ‘insulting’ Ergodan on Facebook.” Hurriyet Daily News. 2 March 2015. Accessed 2 March 2015.

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