Victimized, Vulnerable, Hegemonious, Insensitive: Prime Minister and The Pianist

Below is my piece for Huffington Post, (April 17, 2013)
Intensely busy, intellectually engaged and emotionally very tense, Turkey is in the midst of two seemingly parallel and synched reform processes: a new constitution and peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The objective is obvious. To end a harsh, repressive Republican rule with a new social contract, which many hope will bring the country closer to the membership of the European Union (EU), and a “farewell to arms”, by closing a destructive chapter of bloodshed and vendetta, caused by Kurdish uprising, which has lasted almost 30 years.

These processes are vital, not only for Turkey, but also for its key allies, in the EU, NATO — and G20. The success will mark a new era, with the family of democracies being enriched by a powerful, culturally diverse, economically flourishing country.

But, the state of affairs has a downside. As a clear paradox to the nature of the two “grand” processes, there is a growing anxiety and frustration on the fields of freedom of expression and a free, independent media. Without these two basic freedoms, as many argue, chances for lasting settlements on a social contract and peace will remain low.

Freedoms are tightly squeezed in a vicious triangle. Arrogance of administrative power; restrictive spirit and imposition of a “moral majority”, and a vast, deep-rooted “culture of intolerance”, the latter of which is spread across the political and social divides of Turkish society.

The 10-month prison sentence handed over to world-famous claissical pianist, Fazıl Say, for in a series of tweets last year having “denigrated the values of a part of the public” is only a new symptom of the ongoing interaction in that “triangle” of Turkey, keeping it in shackles.

No matter how strongly his defence lawyer have argued that he was retweeting lines, reciting from a 13th-century Sufi poet of Persia, the great Omar Khayyam, the judges were not convinced. The sentence has since been suspended, in a condition that Say may not make a similar offense in the next five years.

The verdict is, to say the least, very unfortunate. It follows an intense domestic debate and series of international reports on freedom of expression, and a media feeling the weight of new “moral values” — dominated by the Sunnite — failing often to challenge them from minority points of view.

No doubt, it will have a long-lasting and venomous effect on the perceptions of where Turkey is heading, and what there is to do with its sticky “culture of intolerance” that has defined its past as well as the present.

On the political and legal level, “The Say Case” immediately evokes a “sigh!-the-same-movie-again!” effect.



It shows how little, if anything, has changed in Turkey’s legal domain since April 1998, when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then mayor of İstanbul, was given a 10-month prison sentence for reciting a poem at an election rally in the town of Siirt.

His fiery speech included verses which translate to “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers!”

He was charged by a special semi-military court and found guilty of “incitement to hatred”. Because of the conviction, Erdoğan was forced to resign from his post as mayor, and he completed his shortened sentence on July 24, 1999, with a temporary ban from politics.

In the very essence, there is absolutely nothing that distinguishes both verdicts, with 15 years in between, from each other. Both he and Say were sentenced by the same article of the Penal Code.

Erdoğan was sentenced under Article # 312, which was converted by his party with the backing of the opposition to the new Turkish Penal Code (TCK), as Article # 216, during the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule in 2004.

It was then defended as a provision to combat hate speech, but was never interpreted by the prosecutors as such. Both 312 and 216 were implemented to defend the views of the establishment and the majority, against the vulnerable social groups, never vice versa.

In a fresh report, titled “Decriminalize Dissent” (March 27, 2013) Amnesty International is spot-on when it says:

“In practice, Article 216 has been used to prosecute criticism of dominant beliefs and power structures and has not, to Amnesty International’s knowledge, been used to prosecute actual incitement to violence or discrimination against at-risk groups.”

A lawyer who had defended Erdoğan the Mayor in 1998, Faik Işık, was harsh in his criticism of those against Say, defending the pianist’s tweets in the name of free speech.

He told Turkish daily Radikal: “I am convinced that Fazıl Say mocks people who change color with every new government: those who become militarists when the army takes over or those who become suddenly religious when a conservative party is elected as the winner. He does not denigrate or mock religion per se.”

Without a doubt, Article # 216 must be lifted and replaced by a clear rule criminalizing hate speech. In clear offenses, (symbolic) fines must replace imprisonment. But it does not mean that the limits and, if necessary, forms of punishment (fines or prison) for ridiculing religion and sacred beliefs should not be debated.

Say’s case has to do that, simply because it looks to me as if it is somewhere in between the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) famous Handyside v. United Kingdom ruling and the Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria case. Did Fazıl Say insult a religion, a religious value, or its believers? I am sure legal and free speech experts will have much to say about that.

Asked about his reaction to prison verdicts on the pianist, Erdoğan was blunt. “Do not bother us with those!” he cut short, when reporters sounded insistent.

This shows, only, that only the victims change, and as they become hegemonious, their insensitivity shows. Culture of intolerance does just that to you.

Turkey’s pursuit for freedom of speech is through a long and winding road indeed.

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About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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