1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Insulting Erdogan is no laughing matter

February 12, 2022

Turkish officials have opened thousands of investigations into alleged insults since Erdogan became president in 2014.The latest high-profile case involves a former Olympic swimmer who posted a comment on social media.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked for prayers when he tested positive for COVID-19Image: Adem Altan/Getty Images/AFP

"He has COVID-19 and wants prayers. We're praying, don't worry. I've started making 20 pots of halva. I'll give some to the entire neighborhood when the time comes."

This is what the former Turkish Olympic swimmer Derya Büyükuncu tweeted after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently tested positive for COVID-19. Now, the swimmer has been charged with insulting the president and a warrant has been issued for his arrest. On Monday, the Chief Public Prosecutor's Office said the tweet was criminal because the swimmer had indirectly wished for the president's death.

What does halva have to do with death? This Anatolian specialty, which is usually prepared from flour or semolina and butter, sweetened with honey and served with caramelized walnuts or pine kernels is part of every celebration in Anatolia, including funerals.

Does the allusion to the health of the president constitute an insult? Is it allowed under freedom of expression laws? This is what Turkish courts will now have to decide. Since Saturday, when news of the president's COVID infection was made public, several complaints have been filed with public prosecutors.Not all citizens, it seems, wanted to pray for the president's health. Some even expressed glee about him catching the virus.

According to public prosecutors in Ankara and Istanbul, at least 36 investigations have been opened. Four people have already been arrested and warrants have been issued for four more, including Derya Buyukuncu.

The former Olympic swimmer is likely to face trial. Meanwhile, he has already been permanently suspended from the Swimming Federation of Turkey.

Former national swimmer Derya Büyükuncu
Former national swimmer Derya Büyükuncu faces at least four years in jailImage: DHA

Thousands of lawsuits

According to the Turkish ministry of justice, more than 31,000 investigations into alleged insults against the president were opened in 2020 alone. Since Erdogan became president in 2014, that figure has totaled 160,000. Nearly 39,000 people have stood trial for the alleged crimes.

According to Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, sentences were handed down in nearly 13,000 cases. Over 3,600 defendants were sentenced to prison and a further 5,500 people were acquitted.

Akdeniz told DW that more than 100 defendants were not yet 18 when they were sentenced. And, 24 were aged between 12 and 14 when they comitted the alleged crime.

Insults against the president were listed as criminal offenses in Turkey's penal code long before Erdogan came to power. However, none of his predecessors made as frequent use of it as he does, notes lawmaker Gülizar Bicer Karaca of the opposition CHP party in a report. According to her investigation, there were only 1,169 complaints  during the combined terms of Presidents Abdullah Gül, Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Süleyman Demirel.

Nobody is safe

Nobody is safe these days: Politicians, artists, scientists, schoolchildren, housewives, street vendors or journalists ⁠— anybody can be accused of insulting the president.The problem is that the definition of the crime is vague.

Turkish journalist Sedef Kabas
Sedef Kabas was arrested after citing a proverbImage: Emrah Gurel/AP Photo/picture alliance

Two weeks ago, well-known journalist Sedef Kabas was arrested in the middle of the night after criticizing the government on television. The 52-year-old blamed the government for polarizing society and for its harsh crackdown on dissent. She also quoted a Circassian proverb: "An ox does not become a king as it ascends to a palace, but the palace becomes a barn." Now she too is in custody on charges of insulting the president.

For human rights campaigners like Yaman Akdeniz, it's an absurd situation. He said that that the words of Kabas had been taken out of context and it no longer mattered whether criticism was based on fact. He spoke of a "system of intimidation" and cited an example dating back to 2015 when the news site Diken published an article about caricatures of Erdogan by German artists. At the time, the editor-in-chief was accused of insulting the president. He was later acquitted but on Monday he found out that the trial is to be reopened. The reviewing judges apparently do not consider the caricatures in question as art. They said the president had been depicted not as fighting terrorists but as working with them.

Turkey sentences DW journalist

'Either you keep quiet or you'll be taken to court'

From Akdeniz's point of view, the laws on insulting the president amount to pure harassment to intimidate people and to silence intelligent, political criticism. He believes that politicians should be able to take criticism even if it is harsh: Those who cannot tolerate it should not be in politics, he said. He added that freedom of expression in Turkey was in grave danger with an increase in attempts at intimidation. "Either you keep quiet or you'll be taken to court," was his sobering conclusion.

The situation is critical not only for Turkish citizens but alsofor German Turks. Increasingly, they too have become the target of Turkey's security officials. Some have been refused entry at the border. Others have been arrested in Turkey for insulting the president and barred from leaving the country.

The long arm of  the Turkish law also stretches as far as Germany. The most notorious case was that of German entertainer Jan Böhmermann. In 2016, Erdogan's lawyers filed a complaint alleging he  had insulted the president.

One-man rule: Can Turkey survive Erdogan?

The German Foreign Office has even issued a travel warning for Turkey regarding insults to the president: "Prison sentences of several years, in certain cases even life, have been handed down for this. For people whose main residence is Germany, the consequences of being barred from leaving [Turkey] can pose an existential threat."

The situation is bleak for former Olympic swimmer, Derya Buyukuncu. He could face four years in prison, or more, if he is found guilty of insulting the president in public. Considering Turkey's sports minister has slammed the swimmer for his comments, things don't look good for him.

This article was translated from German. 

Elmas Topcu, sitting next to a bookcase full of books
Elmas Topcu Stories on Turkey, German-Turkish relations and political and religious groups linked to Turkey.@topcuelmas