Orhan Kemal Cengiz

Orhan Kemal Cengiz

How can we be free in Turkey?

“We cannot solve any substantial problem of this country without having freedom of expression.”

Writing and being a dissenter in Turkey has always been hard. There is no serious writer or columnist who has not been imprisoned in this country in the 1950s, '60s or '70s. This has been the case since the time of the prominent names of Turkish novel literature like Kemal Tahir and Orhan Kemal (whose name I share), as well as Cetin Altan and Nazim Hikmet. In Turkey, dissidents and opposition figures have been regularly imprisoned.
Of course, imprisonment was not the only way to silence writers; hundreds of intellectuals have been abducted and assassinated in this country. Even as late as the 1990s, pro-Kurdish papers were bombed in Turkey.
We no longer live in a Turkey where papers are bombed, and journalists are assassinated (however, they are beaten severely sometimes). But it is still a courageous endeavor to write or say anything substantial in this country.
There is tremendous pressure upon writers in Turkey. This is a very pro-communal country. Everyone lives within a certain community. Raising an argument contrary to the priorities and agendas of that community always requires courage. This applies to somebody who lives in a Kemalist community and those who live in a socialist community or in a pro-Kurdish group or a religious entity. In our culture, the individual is sacrificed for the group, and for this reason, individuals are not allowed to say anything that goes against the values of the group; otherwise, they'll face the danger of exclusion or expulsion from their respective communities.
In addition, Turkey is a country of taboos. We hold many kinds of taboos. We have made a taboo out of religion; Ataturk is still a taboo for some people of this country; it is still impossible to talk about the Armenian genocide freely. When you attempt to talk about the great lies in our history, this causes a frenzy and a reaction. For some, the foundation of the republic is a taboo; and others do not want to see the Ottoman heritage touched or criticized. Religion is a taboo. Making a joke about religion or religious values may send you to prison. It is hard to believe, but a Pegasus employee was given prison sentence for posting a picture on Kadir Gecesi (Lailat al Kadir) and writing that they were drinking to honor that night.
The obstacles to free thought are countless. Any column you write may become a reason for you to be summoned to the office of the prosecutor. There are many articles in the criminal code that can restrict freedom of expression; you may step on one of these mines at any time. Some of these articles has already been reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights and not only their application but also the very article itself found to be problematic. ECtHR said in Şorli v. Turkey case that article 299 penalizing so called “insults” to president and in Taner Akçam v. Turkey case article 301 which penalizes insulting the Turkish nation, state, parliament and others are problematic since they are vaguely written and could easily be interpreted in a way in which the judiciary could curtail most basic freedoms. Unexpectedly, for an article you may be prosecuted for an alleged attempt to obstruct fair justice or an attempt to acquire information and documents pertinent to national security. I think it is not even necessary to talk about the Counterterrorism Law (TMK).

I mentioned in this column before that tens of thousands of people have been prosecuted for allegedly insulting the president and we are very concerned about the so called “disinformation law” now. Most probably we will witness a tsunami of cases under these provisions, as well.

Nowadays, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu is on trial for allegedly insulting the members of the Supreme Election Board (YSK). If he gets a prison sentence, he may lose office and get toppled from his position. Once upon a time Erdogan was the Istanbul Mayor and he went to prison for citing a poem that was allegedly inciting people to violence, which was not actually the case.

There are countless obstacles before free debate in Turkey. Anyone who really wishes to see a substantial change in this country for better democracy, rule of law and governance first needs to focus on this problem. We cannot solve any substantial problem of this country without having freedom of expression.

Opposition, which claims to bring democracy to Turkey, needs to focus on this problem before anything else. How could Turkey be a free country unless anyone can speak and write freely without the fear of being punished, condemned or attacked by this or that group? These are the key questions for any substantial solution to the deep and unsolved problems of this country.

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