“When the ox comes to the palace it does not become a king, but the palace becomes a barn,” is a Circassian proverb that was also Turkish journalist Sedef Kabas’s tweet last week, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his stance towards his country since he came to office. The proverb, Kabas also cited it during one of her TV shows on Tele 1 opposition-linked TV channel.
The Turkish journalist, 52, was arrested in Istanbul, in the early hours of Saturday, just few hours after her Twitter post, and was taken to a police station before facing court, and was jailed.
Last October, top European human rights court called on Turkey to change the law regarding insulting the president. The law carries a jail sentence between one to four years.
US State Department made a statement on Monday over the arrest of Kabas: “We regret the arrest of journalist Sedef Kabas. We believe freedom of expression strengthens democracy and it needs to be protected. Even if it involves speech some may find controversial/ uncomfortable. We are aware of and we’re disappointed by the arrest of Kabas.”
In the past seven years, since Erdogan took the presidency, thousands have been charged and sentenced over the crime of insulting the president. According to Justice Ministry figures, 160,169 investigations were launched, 35,507 cases were filed and there were 12,881 convictions.
According to Uzay Bulut, grave violations against freedom of speech and press are not new in Turkey. “Every year, April 6 is commemorated by Turkey’s Journalists Association as the ‘Day of Murdered Journalists’. The reason is 112 journalists and writers were murdered in Turkey between 1909 and 2012, according to the Platform of Solidarity with Arrested Journalists,” the Turkish journalist who was formerly based in Ankara, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Fahrettin Altun, head of Turkey’s Communication Directorate and chief spokesman of the president condemned Kabas’ words and described it as “vulgar”, adding that “the honour of the presidency’s office is the honour of our country.”
In an interview with the Weekly in summer 2018, Human Rights Watch Turkey Director Emma Sinclair-Webb stated that, “in Turkey, there are over 170 journalists and media workers in prison, making it the world leader in jailing reporters. The crackdown on the media is directed at journalists and media outlets critical of the government and the president, and these range across the political spectrum.” At that time, she also stated that “most Turkish television news channels are now owned by government-friendly companies. There are a few independent news websites, but these regularly get closed down or their content blocked.”
Bulut recalled the violent history of Turkish paramilitary groups who targeted journalists in the past, long before Erdogan’s time. The perception of Turkish authorities that journalists should not have the freedom to express dissent is still entrenched in the system, she said.
“And today, critics of the Turkish government are still targeted and accused of being or supporting “terrorists” if they speak out against government policies. In brief, pressures against the freedom of expression and the press are one of the most deeply held traditions of the Turkish state,” stated Bulut. Since the founding of Turkey in 1923, many laws have been adopted criminalising free speech and targeted dissidents.
Bulut remembers, during the anti-Greek pogrom in Istanbul in 1955, Turks attacked and destroyed the offices and printing houses of Greek newspapers. “Today, only one Greek newspaper remains in Istanbul and like other minority newspapers belonging to Assyrians (Syriacs), Armenians and Jews, it is also financially struggling to survive.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 67, served as Turkey’s prime minister since 2003 and then as president since 2014. The 2018 elections took place 16 months earlier than the November 2019 election date originally proposed during a referendum campaign.
According to the newspaper Cumhuriyet, Erdogan also filed a criminal complaint against CHP Party Deputy Chairman Engin Ozkoc and parliament member Aykut Erdogdu, who participated in the televised programme on Tele 1 channel.
On the other hand, Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) had given the ‘Democracy Arena’ programme a five-week suspension and a fine. Ugur Dundar, the host of the programme, will not be able to appear on TV or host any programmes on any other channel during this period, Cumhuriyet stated.
In solidarity with Sedef Kabas, renowned Turkish journalist Can Dundar tweeted, “What we are experiencing these days is only a fragment of the one-man regime. The really scary part of the movie hasn’t even started yet.”
Turkey is a NATO member. NATO claims that it strives to secure a lasting peace in Europe, based on common values of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. “Turkey’s stance on free speech should be one of the key topics the West raises in its dealings with Turkey. A country that targets, physically attacks, arrests, prosecutes and even kills journalists and writers should have no place in Western institutions such as NATO and the EU. The West should stand up to the Turkish government to help protect the right of Turkish citizens to free speech,” Bulut concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.