He’s a prickly customer, that Tayyip Erdoğan! You’d better watch you don’t say anything critical about him or you might find yourself slapped with a charge of ‘insulting his dignity’,and face, along with a growing queue of others, the possibility of a hefty jail sentence.
I was lucky enough to escape the latter when I was charged with insulting the man by displaying a collage caricature of him as America’s pet dog at an anti-war exhibition in Istanbul in 2006. Erdogan was a mere Prime Minister at the time, but nevertheless, my punishment seemed a little excessive.
After being held in brutal police custody for two weeks, two years of undecided trials resulted in an aquittal. The aquittal was quashed by the Turkish government, and at the final trial, with a new judge, I was found guilty of ‘insulting’ Erdogan and given a suspended prison sentence of 14 months. In the meantime I had lost my university job and been put on a teaching blacklist, even though I’d been working in the country for 25 years. Eventally, almost destitute, I began to earn my living by telling fortunes with rune stones in the streets of Istanbul, until I was arrested again in 2013 and deported. But that’s another story…
No slouch at taking offense as PM, Erdoğan has recently upped his umbrage and become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of criticism. Since becoming President of Turkey in 2015 the number of people taken into custody over charges of ‘insulting’him have risen to over 60. The number of individuals successfully prosecuted for insulting him over the past 10 years has reached 110.
But first the good news – Charges have been dropped against veteran journalist Can Dündar who was facing an insult investigation for having said in an interview that, while he was Prime Minister, Mr Erdoğan knew and approved of a chain of corrupt dealings between several ministers and Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab. Erdoğan’s lawyer, who demanded a prison term of up to 9 years for the ‘slander’, said that Dündar had “attempted to portray Erdoğan as the leader of a criminal organization.” According to the Public prosecutor in charge of the investigation, “the elements of the crime of insult are not present.” Phew!
Meanwhile, Dr. Ahmet Koyuncu, an expert on social anxiety disorders, faces trial this month for a thesis he posted online in 2014, in which he said that Erdoğan boasts about his devotion to religion but at the same time does not refrain from discriminating against and swearing at those who don’t support him. Therefore, he argued, his religiousness and vindictiveness reflect the ‘average Anatolian religiousness and vindictiveness’. This was considered an insult. Koyuncu explained that he had written it in the wake of Turkey’s biggest mining tragedy in which 301 workers died in Soma in May 2014, and a visit by Erdoğan to the grief-stricken town that had formed the basis for his thesis. Footage emerged during the visit showing an Erdoğan aide kicking a mourner and Erdoğan punching a protester himself amid demonstrations against the government.
Former Miss Turkey, beauty queen Merve Buyuksarac, faces charges of insulting Erdogan after sharing ‘The Master’s Poem’ on her Instagram, a poem about the President with verses adapted from the Turkish national anthem. Erdogan is often dubbed “Buyuk Usta” (the Big Master). Merve said she shared the poem, from the satirical magazine ‘Uykusuz’, because she found it funny.
“If you google the poem I shared you will see 960,000 more people shared it… it’s interesting, isn’t it?” (It’s also interesting to see that the poem has since disappeared…)
Teenage schoolboy Mehmet Emin Altunses will go on trial in March on charges of insulting the president in a speech in the conservative Anatolian city of Konya during a student protest in which he reportedly said Erdoğan was the “thieving owner of the illegal palace”. (A reference to a government corruption scandal as well as a controversial 1,150-room presidential palace Erdoğan inaugurated in October last year.)
A few months ago, one of Turkey’s main TV stations, Haberturk TV, began running some unflattering headlines about Erdogan and his government, calling him a fool and a vindictive idiot, questioning his competence and even his sanity. Erdogan snapped. From his private office, he picked up the phone and called the head of the media outlet and asked him to take the offending headlines down. They obeyed. “Yes, I made the call,” he admitted later , “Because there were insults against us. We have to teach the media things.”
This week, in an extraordinary touch of irony, President Erdoğan was found guilty of the charge of ‘insult’ himself! In 2011, speaking about the “Monument to Humanity”, a statue of two 30-meter-high concrete figures reaching out to each other on a hill in the eastern province of Kars near the Armenian border, Erdoğan said: “They put a monstrosity next to the tomb of [Muslim scholar] Hasan Harakani. It is impossible to think that such a thing should exist next to fundamental works of art.”
The Monument to Humanity.
A few months later the municipality took the statue down. Sculptor Mehmet Aksoy who had created it in 2008, strongly criticized Erdoğan’s comment, saying that his work carried anti-war themes and was also meant to symbolize the friendship between Turkey and Armenia. He filed a lawsuit against Erdoğan for insulting him through his work, seeking TL 100,000 in compensation for psychological damage sustained. Amazingly, Aksoy has won the case, but he was only awarded TL 10, 000 damages (a pittance) and Erdoğan’s lawyer said they will appeal against the court decision.
Most of the latest arrests on the charge of ‘insulting Erdoğan’ are related to nationwide demonstrations last week when secular Turks boycotted schools and took to the streets to demand a religion-free secular education. Many of those arrested were students, charged with chanting: “THIEF MURDERER ERDOĞAN.”
One, Yavaş Kılıç, a 25 year old boycott organizer in the western province of Izmir ,said: “I was told that I had been arrested for insulting the President, but I haven’t insulted anyone. I was just telling the truth.”
Telling the truth can be a dangerous pastime these days, especially in Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey.
Michael Dickinson can be contacted at email@example.com