Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, left, looks at a cell phone during a meeting in 2013. Since Erdoğan became president there has been an increase in insult charges filed against Turkey's press. (AP/Abdeljalil Bounhar)
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, left, looks at a cell phone during a meeting in 2013. Since Erdoğan became president there has been an increase in insult charges filed against Turkey's press. (AP/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

Erdoğan vs the press: Insult law used to silence president’s critics

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is known for being intolerant of critics. During his third term as prime minister, Turkey was the leading jailer of journalists in the world with more than 60 behind bars at the height of the crackdown in 2012. Most of those have been released, but the press faces another threat–Article 299 of the penal code, “Insulting the President,” which carries a prison term of more than four years if content deemed to be offensive is published in the press.

In the first seven months of Erdoğan’s presidency, 236 people were investigated for allegedly insulting the president, with 105 indicted, according to a BBC report that cited Turkey’s Justice Ministry statistics. The defendants have included journalists as well as students, civil activists, scholars, artists, even a former Miss Turkey.

When we met in Istanbul in May, media scholar Ceren Sözeri told me that Article 299 has been part of the country’s criminal code for a long time–1926 to be exact–but that none of Erdoğan’s predecessors had made such ample use of it.

CPJ was given a first-hand glimpse of Erdoğan’s sensitivity about criticism in the press when we met him in Ankara last October. “Media should never have been given the liberty to insult,” he told us, without clarifying who should have the authority to determine what falls under criticism or insult.

CPJ is aware of at least 20 cases of journalists on trial in Turkey under Article 299 or other laws for allegedly insulting Erdoğan in articles, columns, posts on social media, and even a defense delivered in court.

Can Dündar, is one of those facing charges under Article 299. The chief editor of the center-left daily Cumhuriyet has been on trial since February for allegedly insulting Erdogan in a series of articles about a 2013 scandal that alleged the Turkish government was involved in corruption, according to local press reports. Dündar is charged with defamation and violation of privacy, according to reports. If convicted, he faces up to four and a half years in prison. The next hearing is scheduled for September.

In another Article 299 case, Tolga Tanış, a U.S.-based correspondent for the daily Hürriyet, told the news agency Reuters on June 21 that he was under investigation for insulting the Turkish president in his book POTUS and the Gentleman. The book, which was published in March, explores diplomatic relations between Washington and Ankara, with a focus on President Barack Obama. But, Reuters said, it was Erdoğan’s lawyers who filed a complaint against Tanış, alleging that his book eroded the reputation of the Turkish president. (Reuters reported that it had been unable to reach the prosecutor’s office or Erdoğan for comment.)

“I am critical of both Erdoğan and Obama on several issues,” Tanış told Reuters “Though I don’t think that Obama is considering suing me for this book.”

Sometimes, even a journalist’s defense in court can result in further charges. When I met with Barış İnce, editor-in-chief of the leftist daily BirGün, in Istanbul in May he was preparing for his defamation trial over an acrostic–in which the first letter of each line spells a phrase. It was included in the defense he submitted to court on October 21, 2014 and then printed in his paper. The print version revealed that the first letter of each line in his defense spelled “Thief Tayyip,” a common chant of protesters, according to reports.

The defense–and column–were in response to defamation charges brought by then-Prime Minister Erdoğan over BirGün s 2014 coverage of leaked files on corruption allegations against Erdogan and his family, Today’s Zaman reported.

Those charges resulted in a fine for İnce–but the charges related to the acrostic may result in a prison term because they were filed under Article 299. İnce faces up to five and a half years in prison if convicted, he told me. His next hearing is due to be held in October, according to local reports. “I hope that the world will watch my case closely,” İnce told me. “Writing a defense is not a crime. And Turkey has a tradition of using acrostics to convey political criticism.”

While their charges were not brought under Article 299, CPJ has documented the cases of two other Turkish journalists convicted recently for insulting Erdoğan on Twitter. Bülent Keneş, editor of the privately owned English-language daily Today’s Zaman, was convicted on June 17 of insulting Erdoğan in a July 2014 tweet and handed a 21-month suspended prison sentenced. A judge said the sentence would be enforced if Keneş repeated the offense in the next five years, according to reports.

On June 30, Mehmet Baransu, a correspondent for the privately owned daily Taraf, was handed a 10-month jail sentence by an Istanbul court for insulting Erdoğan in a series of tweets, according to reports. The journalist is already in jail while authorities investigate him in two further cases related to his work.

Such cases, even when they do not result in imprisonment, take a toll on journalists. Constantly appearing in court and defending the right to report or express an opinion amounts to obstruction of professional activities. “For us [journalists], this is part of the job now,” Dündar told the producers of “Personal non Grata,” a documentary shown for World Press Freedom Day and available on YouTube. “We have a president that regards every criticism as defamation. … Effectively, half our lives are wasted in courtrooms.”