Today, as per usual, while scrolling down my Facebook feed I came face to face with a number of posts denouncing the British government, insulting both individual ministers and the government in general. One in particular caught my eye, this time of Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, depicted as a cat sat on a table, happily swiping a mug labelled ‘NHS’ onto the floor while no one appears to be looking.
We take our freedom to insult the government and just about every individual in the public sphere almost as a duty in the UK. With petitions for a vote of no-confidence in our Prime Minister David Cameron reaching over 198,000 signatures, it is quite clear that the people of Britain do not fear any sort of repercussions from the government when they insult or otherwise berate them.
Sadly, in Turkey, this freedom to insult the state or public figures does not exist.
On Friday last week, 21 academics from the University of Kocaeli, near Istanbul, were arrested as a result of having signed a petition denouncing government operations against Kurdish rebels in the southeast of the country.
Those arrested face charges of “terrorist propaganda”, and far more worryingly, “insulting the government”. This is because under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, it is illegal to insult the Turkish nation, country, or any government institution.
Understandably, this has been condemned strongly by a number of prominent European human rights agencies.
While this group of 21 academics is only a small proportion of the 1,200 individuals from 90 Turkish universities who signed the petition, it is a worrying precedent that is being set here by the Turkish government against freedom of expression.
President Erdogan himself spoke out against the academics who signed the petition, labelling them “traitors” and “fifth columnists” in speeches on Thursday, essentially declaring them enemies of the state purely for speaking out and stating their beliefs and opinions.
Since the government has so far denied that the offensive has caused any threat to civilians in the country, over 170 have been documented as killed and the academics appear to have grounds for their complaints.
This is a worrying development even for Turkey, a country currently well known for its authoritarian stance on the freedom of speech and press. Of 21 journalists killed in Turkey since 1992, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) believes that nine were killed by government officials. As well, journalists are not allowed access to the government run refugee camps, a clear sign that the government does not trust them to report stories as desired.
This is not an isolated case of targeting individuals under Article 301 either. Back in early December, a court case briefly reached global attention and the government was forced to hire an academic panel of experts to determine whether comparing President Erdogan to Gollum from Lord of the Rings should be counted as a crime. While this trial has yet to see a verdict, it is clear that Article 301 most certainly has a bite to match its bark.
It is likely that this is only the first wave of yet another crackdown on freedom of expression in Turkey. When a government prevents academics and journalists from speaking out against them, then it is depriving the public of the opportunity to hold that government to account.
If President Erdogan and the AKP continue down the path that they have embarked upon, then freedom of speech and the freedom of the press will be crushed beneath an authoritarian regime.