(The National Post, 10 October 2015)
Turkish political leaders, especially President Recep Erdogan, suffer from wounds to their amour propre. Their pride and their sense of self-esteem make them sensitive, sometimes even hysterical, about every word said against themselves and their country. But in the annals of journalistic freedom they will always be a special case. They want to prevent criticism by making it illegal but at the same time they resent anyone who says they indulge in censorship.
While being interviewed by a Swiss magazine a decade ago, the novelist Orhan Pamuk said, "Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do."
He was trying to draw attention to the need for freedom of speech. He believes Turkey must allow more of it if the Turks are ever to come to terms with their history.
His own case made the point. He was charged under a statute that specified a jail term up to three years for publicly insulting "the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly." That indictment ignited a hate campaign that forced Pamuk to leave Turkey. He returned to face the charge, which had boiled down to "insulting Turkishness."
From the state prosecutor's standpoint, two events interfered with the case. Turkey was hoping to become a full member of the European Union and the EU announced it would send five members of the European Parliament to observe Pamuk's trial. That made it a problem in international relations. The law was changed and Pamuk no longer faced the prospect of jail.
In 2006 he became the first Turk to win the Nobel prize in literature. That placed another rock in any prosecutor's path, making an attack on Pamuk exceptionally embarrassing. Even so, books of his were burned at a nationalist rally. And Kemal Kerinçsiz, a nationalist lawyer who had pressed the original charges, won a civil case against him. Pamuk was ordered to pay 6,000 liras (about $2,000) in compensation to five plaintiffs who claimed their honour had been insulted by his words in the Swiss magazine. Pamuk may have decided he was more comfortable elsewhere. This year he's been teaching at Columbia U niversity in New York, where no one notices professors denigrating the government. A few years ago a Turkish journalist, Burak Bekdil, wrote a lighthearted, satirical piece about the Turkish judiciary for the Turkish Daily News, an English-language paper. He said Turks need close relatives in the judiciary if they want "a peaceful life in Turkey" and offered advice to anyone "brave (or crazy) enough to seek justice at a Turkish court." Never file a complaint against a judge, he advised.
For this piece, Bekdil was charged under the Turkish Penal Code for committing an "insult to the state and its institutions." He received a suspended sentence of 18 months. Bekdil went on to write critically about President Erdogan, publishing sometimes in Hürriyet, a paper that tends to criticize the government.
He's also been known to defend Israel, an unusual stance for a columnist in a Muslim country.
Loathing for Bekdil recently began churning through social media. After a pro-government columnist tweeted that he was a "disgrace to humanity," others joined in. One tweeter said of Bekdil that "Enmity to Islam spills from his face" and someone else suggested he go to Gaza so that he could be shot. "May he and his family be bombed," was one wish. A truly vehement tweeter sent what may be the strongest insult he could imagine: "He must be either Armenian or Jewish." For journalists, Bekdil says, this is the new normal.
One politician found a more direct way to express his rage. On Sept. 6, when hundreds of nationalists gathered to throw rocks at Hürriyet's offices, the mob's leader (identified on a video) turned out to be no less than Abdurrahim Boynukalin, a member of the Turkish parliament from Erdogan's ruling AKP party.
Perhaps he expected to be chastised for this rowdiness, but at the AKP's general convention a few days later he was elevated to the high council of the party. The following week, the government began an investigation into the Dogan Media Group, Hürriyet's parent company, for terrorist propaganda. "An important line has been crossed," said statement from the International Press Institute, "in an already troubling campaign of harassment and intimidation targeting independent media." With Syrian refugees swamping Turkey and the Islamic State not far away, anxiety expresses itself in a lynch-mob attitude to criticism.