Activists face prison for ‘insulting’ Turkish President Erdoğan on social media

Three activists, part of an online group called “Anonymous Movement” (İsimsizler Hareketi) that produces content critical of the Turkish government on their Twitter account, were arrested yesterday for insulting Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to Turkish media.

The Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office issued detention warrants on September 25 for the alleged members of the group who produce Twitter content. Police raided several homes in Istanbul and detained 19 suspects including journalist Hakan Gülseven and columnist Temel Demirer. Şehmus Kavak, Misli Cihan Şenleten and Özgür Doğuş Erhan were arrested, while Taylan Kulaçoğlu, the founder of the group, was already in jail for insulting President Erdoğan.

The group was accused of producing provocative content, inciting enmity and hatred, demeaning state officials and attempting to overthrow the elected government. Demirer was released after questioning. “We grow as they try even harder to oppress us. We are right, they are wrong, and we will win this struggle.” he said.

In Turkey, criticizing the president can be subject to criminal investigation if it is perceived as an insult. Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) states that any person who insults the president faces a prison term of up to four years. Criticizing the government on social media platforms is also heavily sanctioned in Turkey, sometimes triggering a counterterrorism investigation.

The sentence can be increased by a sixth if it has national exposure, and by a third if committed by the press or media.

Since Erdoğan assumed office in 2014, thousands of people have received prison sentences for insulting him — 2,046 in 2018 and 3,831 in 2019 alone. In total 9,554 people have been handed down sentences, most of which have been suspended, for insulting the president.

In a 2016 opinion, the Venice Commission had noted with concern the large number of investigations, prosecutions or convictions reported by the press for insulting the president. It had recalled that the European Commission in its 2015 report on Turkey underlined that “there is a widened practice of court cases for alleged insult against the President being launched against journalists, writers, social media users and other members of the public, which may end in prison sentences, suspended sentences or punitive fines.” According to the same report, this intimidating climate has led to increased self-censorship.

According to the Venice Commission, the use of offensive, shocking or disturbing words especially within the context of a debate on matters of public interest are guaranteed by freedom of expression. Expressions that may be perceived in the abstract as denigrating, such as “thief” (in relation to a corruption probe) or “murderer” (in relation to demonstrators who lost their lives during the Gezi protests), “dictator” and the like must be evaluated in their public debate context.

According to human rights lawyer Kerem Altıparmak, more than 100,000 Turkish citizens have been investigated for insulting President Erdoğan and in excess of 30,000 court cases were opened. Altıparmak says Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code on insulting the Turkish president runs against the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a party, and should be annulled. The offense of insulting the head of state has been decriminalized in several European countries, and although it is still part of the penal code of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal, there have been no recent convictions.

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