Turkey silencing the guns – and critics
May 29th, 2013
10:40 AM ET

Turkey silencing the guns – and critics

By Emma Sinclair-Webb, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Emma Sinclair-Webb is a senior Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on Turkey. The views expressed are her own.

Sevan Nişanyan, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, wrote a blog entry last September stating that critical comments about religion don’t constitute hate speech. “Making fun of an Arab leader who claimed he contacted God hundreds of years ago and received political, financial and sexual benefits is not hate speech,” he said. “It is an almost kindergarten-level test of what is called freedom of expression.”

An Istanbul court disagreed and on May 22 – for these very words – sentenced him to 13 months in prison for “insulting the religious values of one section of the population.” What makes his prosecution even more chilling is the fact that it followed public comments by Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ recommending that Nişanyan should be prosecuted.

There have been dramatic developments in Turkey in recent months as the government embarks on a bold attempt to end the entrenched conflict with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and to start down the long road to peace with the Kurdish minority. While the sight of uniformed and armed PKK fighters – male and female – retreating to camps over the border in Iraqi Kurdistan is tangible evidence of progress toward peace, the Turkish authorities and judiciary are still cracking down on people who express dissent in words rather than with an AK47.

One of Turkey’s most fundamental human rights problems is in fact intolerance of free speech. Politicians regularly sue journalists for defamation.  Editors and publishers are mostly unwilling to permit much criticism of the government for fear of harming their bosses’ other business interests.

The largest group of people being prosecuted for criticizing the government are accused of illegal political activism.  The police, prosecutors and courts label their activities “terrorism,” despite scant evidence of involvement in violence or material support to armed resistance. A couple of thousand local Kurdish activists are in jail. These are people who opted for non-violent political struggle in the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has members in parliament. Among them are elected mayors, journalists, students and human rights defenders, and many lawyers.

But not all of those targeted are even accused of terrorism. The targets of this clampdown include people who offend the government with satirical and even trivial criticisms.

Nişanyan’s conviction, which he has appealed, followed the conviction on April 15 of the well-known pianist Fazil Say, who received a 10-month suspended sentence on the same charge for several tweets and retweets poking fun at Islam. The public was divided, as it was in  Nişanyan’s case, but the real discussion should have been about whether what either of the two men said actually threatened the public order, amounted to hate speech or  deserved to be restricted on those grounds.

The European Court of Human Rights has found over and over that Turkey has violated free speech. But prosecutors, courts, and government figures are still applying different standards to Turkey, muzzling views they don’t want to hear. Most recently, there has been the spate of cases against people deemed to have denigrated the religious sentiments of the Sunni Muslim majority.

On May 30, the feminist lawyer Canan Arin faces a trial hearing for critical comments she made to lawyers at a meeting of the Antalya Bar Association in 2011 on the subject of violence against women. She homed in on the problem of early and forced marriage. After Arin cited the Prophet Muhammad and President Abdullah Gul as examples of men who married child brides, she was prosecuted both for “insulting religious values” and “insulting the president.” She faces a possible five year prison sentence.

It is unlikely that any of these three will go to prison in the end, but the fact that they were prosecuted at all demonstrates that the political transformation of Turkey to a rights-respecting democracy over the past decade is incomplete. The authorities have used the criminal justice system to muzzle or punish criticism of the state and official history throughout the republic. Rather than moving away from this model, the present government seems to be happy to continue the tradition by using the courts to fight a battle with anyone who touches on the subject of religion in ways they don’t like.

The political breakthrough with the PKK offers an important chance of securing progress on human rights for all of Turkey’s people. But as jailed Kurdish political activists and critics facing charges for offending someone in government have found out, that’s only part of what’s needed to secure progress on human rights for everyone. Moving toward a tolerant and democratic society also means that the authorities and the courts need to stop trying to silence their unarmed critics.

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Topics: Human Rights • Media • Turkey

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soundoff (72 Responses)
  1. rightospeak

    Human Rights Watch is just another Globalist "foundation" that pushes Globalist propaganda. They need to check human rights in Iraq and Libya. What a joke !!

    May 29, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      I think you are right! They are no doubts about them being politically motivated. It is like EU-serving Hague Tribunal: sometimes I think they are the same people!

      May 30, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Well said, rightospeak. Thank you.

      May 31, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  2. 100 % ETHIO

    Sentencing Turkish-Armenian for 13 Months.

    Last time, I was reading the original half-leather cover, 'MEIN KAMPF'.
    "Adolf Hitler was sentenced for 13 Months in Prison, for his trouble insulting Jew".

    Armenians claimed, the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against Armenians, 15 Million People.

    The Turkish Government prosecuting Journalists, because of criticism. This is pure barbaric.

    May 29, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Reply
    • elifarikan95

      Uh, we love the things that hate us. Remember The Turks and Armenians lived together peacefully for centuries in the region. we were like sisters and brother in the past now why are you being a toy in the hands of western politicians. The Western leaders censor Western media to only report news they want the world to hear and Western media knows how to put it across nations of the earth fancifully and convincingly with no regards for psychological damage to people. Old English propaganda is a propaganda that sounds musty and out of date, a left-over from the struggles with fascism.

      May 31, 2013 at 10:39 am | Reply
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One

        And why should we beleive you over them? Are you suggesting you have no agenda of your own?

        May 31, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
      • Nats

        First of all, she is so right and second of all... I think what is happening there right now is a big deal! If you guys can stop stirring things between Turkey and other countries it used to have problems with, it would tremendously help. I lived there for 16 years and I remember having Armenian and Greek friends and it was just fine

        May 31, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
    • Alex120

      The Armenian Algorithm:

      1- Search news on internet about Turkey
      2- Post some comments about Armenian genocide (preferably copy-paste) without reading the news.
      3- Go to 1.

      See also the Greek algorithm, Kurdish algorithm,..., etc.

      June 1, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  3. deniz boro

    🙂 You have to look at it from the sunny side. This was exactly what some other power groups wished for Turkey. If it gets a bit off hand now and than and the 54% minority ot "ELITE" of Turkey suffers a bit...Well let's wait and see...After all all natural powers come to an equilibrium at the end. That is if you do not push it unnaturally.
    Again let me remind you that when millions of people were on the streets for ATATURK GATHERINGS the world made fun of us for being a MINORITY and celebrated DEMOCRACY in Turkey.

    May 29, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  4. deniz boro

    Turkey's economy , public health, development etcetera is great. There are some gossips on the Islam fund of "No unreligious interest paid on credits". Instead it's profit distribution...So it is still religiously correct.
    But as one face of Turkey is bright and sunny another deep down trend is changing. Not underground but as slime. And this is all done under the name of achieving EU standards. At least it was so in the beginning.
    But the latest restrictions on alcohol was done mostly for the sake of religion.

    May 29, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  5. deniz boro

    The minority which represents 56% of the Turkish people who did not vote for AKP is more or less repressed. Press and media is controlled anyway. But say..that is normal in any democracy.
    Frankly I was one of those who said "Give the guys a chance"...But I eventually came to see that their way of thinking can not allow for a law oher than the Islam law.
    However the poor democratic record and experiance of Turkey calls for such hard lessons for the Turkish people and the powers abroad. So next time maybe an adjusment can be done on naming people.

    May 29, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  6. paem

    It a disgrace that the court in Turkey arrested this man for 13 month for free of the press. Their law is base on the muslin religion (ala) I want to ask the Turkish courts why do men from Turkey and the middle east divorce themselves when they come to America? They come with goals to marry American women to become citizens. They get married with american women have babies. Now they are able to get credit cards buy business and have babies with american women. When they make the money they sell the business without the american wife knowing. They max their american credit and they tell the american wife they are going home to introduce the children to their family and never return to america. In turkey the wife raise the american children.The children in Turkey and all middle east country belong to the father because of the "muslin law". If the women divorce the the children belong to the father. I demand that the American government to start investigation. Take their citizenship and have the return all the money they owe the women and credit cards in america. Demand the different government to return all the american children. They better return all the money the owe america and the women and children. These men are evil and they laugh at the american women and america,They consider stupid and they laugh all the way to the bank. Wake up America!

    May 29, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Reply
  7. deniz boro

    Turkey has been silencing more than guns recently. Check your hisory.

    May 29, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  8. Ferhat Balkan

    So it is ok for European Union countries such as Germany, Greece, Italy etc. to have blasphemy laws, but not for Turkey? When you have an individual who disturbs the peace by breaking a blasphemy law or incites a riot, they break the law and are put in jail. It's that simple folks. It happens all over the world. Turkey is no exception. This article is nothing but propaganda.

    May 29, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      In Germany, blasphemy is covered by Article 166. In Greece articles 198, 199, and 201 of the Greek Penal Code create offences which involve blasphemy. In Israel, blasphemy is covered by Articles 170 and 173 of the penal code. In Italy, under the article 724 of the penal Code.

      May 29, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Reply
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      The European “blasphemy” laws are meant to protect a RACE of people from persecution. In Turkey blasphemy laws are meant to hold religion beyond reproach. If you can’t see the difference between the two then you justify the stereotypes.

      May 31, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Reply
      • Ferhat Balkan

        I see the difference very clearly. Actually, Muslims respect Christianity, they accept Jesus as a prophet and the Bible as a holy book. On the other hand, Christians in many cases, have very little respect for Islam and the Koran. As such, you don't see Muslims blaming Christianity, but on the other hand, you see Christians blaming Islam.

        May 31, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  9. Ferhat Balkan

    Islamophobia and the Armenian Diaspora at work.

    May 29, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Reply
    • Henry

      Oh, poor turks. Such nice people! Never done anything wrong and those bad Armenians constantly blaming them for things that they have never done.

      May 30, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Reply
      • Ferhat Balkan

        No nation or group is without flaws including Turkey, but this senseless propaganda is quite frankly, getting old and annoying. It's time to move on and stop dwelling in the past like so many Armenians do.

        May 30, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
  10. j. von hettlingen

    For journalists in Turkey, the military, Kurds and political Islam are highly-sensitive topics, coverage of which can lead to arrest and prosecution. The country has more journalists in prison than any other country, Dozens of Kurdish reporters had been held on terrorism-related charges, while other detained journalists were accused of plotting against the Islamist-leaning government. It is a crime to insult the Turkish nation.

    May 30, 2013 at 9:32 am | Reply
    • deniz boro

      I did not Know that. I was aware there was some kind of filtering but that is gross.

      May 31, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Reply
  11. Nobama

    Americans should pay attention to their homefront. Obama is letting people suffer in Quantanomo prison.
    so if anything resembles the Nazi Germany it is the current administration of Obama. and somany gun restrictions in the name of serving the people as they are taking somany rights away from americans yet. the American Media keeps you guys busy with whats going on in Turkey. wow im applauding the media well done! keep de people like donkeys hit them and make them look elsewhere!!!!

    May 30, 2013 at 10:09 am | Reply
    • felipe

      First of all, last I checked, Guantanamo Bay (please, If you're going to try to act smart, at least use spell-check) holds foreign armed combatants accused pf terrorism, not any American citizens and it supposedly is closing within the next year. Second of all, there are no federal gun restrictions. Last I checked, AR-15s are legal in many of the states, as are large magazines for said rifles. The only thing amounting "near" to a restriction are background checks and if that is a restriction, you sir, are retarded.

      May 30, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Reply
      • Jackie Treehorn

        Plus the only reason Obama didn't close the Guantanamo prison is because he was blocked by Congress when he tried, so Nobama is not just retarded but also ignorant.

        May 30, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  12. Complimentary Cigar

    @CNN's Jason Mike – Nice article.

    May 31, 2013 at 12:27 am | Reply
  13. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    More proof religion is a disease.

    May 31, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  14. deniz boro

    None Ferhat, I have been through a bit of Islama-reality lately. I have also suffered from communication problems. Most probably because of the geology. However, there is this group of people who can not think beyond their 5 times of preyer per day. Shape their lives accordingly. And wait for the God to give the rest...They still advise this as the true way to be a Muslim.
    Worst of all they have the same vote as me on the polls.
    Say...That is democracy.

    May 31, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      I agree there are elements within the government in Turkey who seek to create Islamic law. I know most of them are in the AK Party. I have secular beliefs myself. I know that the press has been heavily scrutinized and some media has been controlled. This happens in most countries (including the US). Most intelligent people rely on more than just the local media such as Fox News and turn to the Internet to get a better perspective. The difference in Turkey is the fact that there are also many far Left elements that seek to promote violence and unrest. We have seen it too many times. Unfortunately, many are heavily involved in the local media such as journalism. Their criticism goes beyond simple complaint of the current system. The unrest in Eastern Turkey and the recent bombing of the US Embassy proves that. Sometimes you have to go to extreme measures to maintain peace, we don't need a Arab Spring in Turkey. I am a Turk and proud to be one. If these journalists want to talk trash about Turkey, they can do it somewhere else, or they can go to jail as far as I'm concerned.

      May 31, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  15. deniz boro

    On the other hand you have a kind of sansure that blocks your communications, A general sizing of media channels. You can not put your finger on it. But it is there. Mostly done by some financially strong goup.

    May 31, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      Well, sometimes you have crazy people who make mistakes (such as the ones who made the movie "Innocence of Muslims") who have a political agenda to incite riots. Turkey sought to block the video, but ultimately it was not. But I understand why they'd seek to block it.

      May 31, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Reply
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  16. Sean


    May 31, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  17. Sean

    One man's trash is another man's call for change. Better to allow trash than to allow only what one thinks is not trash.

    May 31, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      One man's trash can spill over and create a stink that upsets the neighborhood. Sometimes you have to clean the trash.

      May 31, 2013 at 9:46 pm | Reply
  18. Sean

    What's really at stake in Turkey is whether secularism, which is founded on the notion that vital laws governing society carry more weight than those inspired by texts that purport to be divine. Turkey is moving away from the West in its belief that religious texts are the sole guide to human conduct, public and private. This is the real battle, as evidence by the governments determination to jail dissenters.

    May 31, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      It's not so much Turkey moving away from the West, rather it's the West moving away from Turkey. One only has to look at Turkey's bid for EU membership. Corrupt countries like Bulgaria get EU membership, while Turkey is on hold by the wayside. If you close the door too often, one will naturally seek another door.

      May 31, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  19. deniz boro

    Say breakeing even point fo the well versed,...caviar for the general..

    May 31, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  20. ali

    The so called Kurdish political activists were prisoned because they openly supported and encouraged membership at PKK terorist organization that killed 10.000 people and disabled thousands.Even in courtrooms they did not denied their support of PKK.If Americans have no problem muslims make propaganda for al-kaide and apploud Bin Ladin in US, writer has some point, but westerners both complain radical imams, even demand muslims to inform police for their imams activities, same time support teror in muslim countries, since good muslim is dead muslim for Americans.

    June 1, 2013 at 12:09 am | Reply
  21. Benjamin Goulart

    This is what these protests are about, not barracks. Stick to the root cause, CNN.

    June 1, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  22. Rick McDaniel

    Turkey s becoming Islamic, and as such, the freedoms once felt by its citizens are coming to an end.

    June 1, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  23. deniz boro

    There is a total black out of social media and broadcasting in Turkey right now.

    June 2, 2013 at 5:03 am | Reply
  24. deniz boro

    Things are now getting deadly dirty before the internet lines are too loaded to communicate again. There is a gossip saying that pro-government groups are on the streets carrying clubs. The injuries may well decrease. Some are told to have found police uniforms somehow.

    June 2, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Reply
  25. deniz boro

    Did I say decrease. That was wishful thinking.

    June 2, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Reply
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      July 25, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Reply
  26. deniz boro

    did I say decrease....That was wishful thinking.

    June 2, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Reply
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