More than 36,000 people faced criminal investigation for insulting President Erdoğan in 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

The number of people investigated for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasing every year, with 36,066 people facing criminal investigations in 2019, the Birgün daily reported.

Since Erdoğan assumed the presidential office in 2014, thousands of people have received prison sentences for insulting him — 2,046 in 2018 and 3,831 in 2019. Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) states that any person who insults the president of the republic faces a prison term of up to four years. This sentence can be increased by a sixth if it has national exposure, and by a third if committed by the press or media. In total 9,554 people have been sentenced to prison for insulting the president.

According to these figures, 318 minors between the ages 12 and 17 have faced criminal investigations during the Erdoğan presidency for insulting the head of state, while 30 received prison sentences that are either suspended or under appeal. Four minors were sent to juvenile detention facilities.

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.

In 2019 a bus driver was investigated for allegedly insulting President Erdoğan by putting a newspaper with a full-page photo of the president on the stairs of his bus. The driver was called in to the police station for questioning after a passenger traveling from Ankara to Burdur on February 24 filed a complaint about the driver.

Veteran Turkish actors Metin Akpınar (77) and Müjdat Gezen (75) were charged with the crime of insulting the president in comments made on a television show in December 2018. Akpınar and Gezen face between one year, two months and four years, eight months’ imprisonment if found guilty.

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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