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Turkish journalist faces prison over 'insults'

Jacob ResneckMarch 23, 2016

Journalist Onur Erem faces over two years in jail for allegedly insulting Turkish leaders. The "insults" were other people's words. He is only one of numerous Turkish reporters facing similar charges, he told DW.

Journalist Onur Erem in front of the Deriner Dam in Turkey's northeastern Artvin province
Image: privat

Onur Erem, a 28-year-old reporter in Istanbul, has covered a wide range of controversial topics from environmental destruction to social movements. He also interviews foreign academics and journalists. Last year, he published an interview with British writer Tariq Ali. In an interview with DW, Erem says Ali's criticism of Turkish leaders has caused prosecutors to open a criminal case against him. He faces up to 28 months in prison.

Deutsche Welle: Let's start with the facts. There are now two cases pending against you. What are you being accused of exactly?

Onur Erem: I'm accused of 'insulting' the prime minister. Our interview followed the first Ankara bombing on October 10, 2015, and I asked Tariq Ali about the scandalous statements given by the government. Prime Minister Davutoglu had said: "We are a state of law. Although we have the names of the potential suicide bombers of [the "Islamic State" group], we can't arrest them before they take action." Another shocking declaration came from [then-] Interior Minister [Selami] Altinok. He had said: "No security lapse contributed to the Ankara bombing." So when I asked Ali about his thoughts on these two official statements, Ali replied: "This is such incoherent rubbish that I'm amazed these two jokers are still in the government."

Because of the use of the word "joker" the prosecutor has demanded a prison sentence for the "insult" ranging from 14 to 28 months.

The other case is maybe even more absurd. Around a year ago, I was typing the words "hirsiz katil" - Turkish for "thief" and "murderer" - into Google. I saw that Google's autocomplete brought up "Erdogan" and "AKP" - the president and ruling party - as the first two suggestions. "Thief and murderer Erdogan!" and "Thief and murderer AKP!" are popular slogans chanted during protests against the government; Erdogan has been accused of corruption and responsibility for massacres/killings in Turkey.

It's a newsworthy thing in every single country in this world, when you see that Google autocomplete associates the president and government party with the words "thief and murderer." So I wrote a short news article about my search result. What I got in return was a court case for "insulting the president" demanding a sentence of one to five years in prison.

Turkish President Erdogan with Premier Davutoglu
Turkish prosecutors are quick to pursue journalists for 'insulting' President Erdogan (right)Image: AFP/Getty ImagesA. Altan

An "insult" is a very subjective term. How does the president prove he's been insulted? And how does one defend against such a charge?

Of course it is very subjective. President Erdogan is trying to silence criticism in the media with such court cases over "insults." This penal code article was rarely used until he started his term as president.

He doesn't really have to prove anything because in Turkey the judiciary is under such tight control of the executive, they openly violate Turkish law. In January, I made a news report about a conscientious objector who was charged with "alienating the public from military service" over some articles published on a website. In the decision, the judge ruled that, "although freedom of thought is guaranteed, we couldn't see thoughts in these articles. There were no thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. What was in the article was raw information, not thought. Thus, the person can't benefit from freedom of thought."

So the courts in Turkey now even rule on what are legally thoughts and what aren't. There are many other examples in which the courts are doing their best to sentence the people who express their thoughts. This is why Turkey is the second country, after Russia, in the judgments against them in cases heard by the [European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)].

I'll defend myself by saying words like "joker, murderer, thief" are political criticisms, according to ECHR decisions. I'll also say that I can't be held responsible for a search result of Google or comments by Tariq Ali.

Why do you think the prosecutors are targeting you? Is it a message to other journalists in Turkey?

They want to silence us with these decisions. They want us to censor our thoughts, our interviews and our news reports. But we won't stop telling the truth or expressing our thoughts. The government is attacking all oppositional media in different ways. Kurdish journalists are beaten and arrested all the time with the accusations like "She was looking excited." The government seized control of pro-Gulen right-wing opposition newspapers in one night; accreditation of foreign journalists has also been revoked.

They're targeting all the critical journalists to silence the population and manufacture consent with their own propaganda newspapers. And they're targeting not only the journalists but also critical academics too. After more than 2,000 academics - including foreign academics like Noam Chomsky - signed a petition which addresses the human rights violations of the government in the war against [the Kurdistan Workers' Party] PKK, all of them came under prosecution, and now some of them are in prison.

And this will get worse in the near future. Now President Erdogan is asking the government to amend the anti-terror law in a broad way and defining "terrorists without weapons" or "terrorists with pens," which will enable government to accuse all the critical voices with terrorism.

Final thoughts?

I remember when I told my mother about the court case against me. I couldn't guess how she would react. But when I told her, she replied by saying: "I'm proud of you, son. This court case shows that you're doing a good job. This is how they reward good journalism in Turkey."

Onur Erem is a reporter for the Turkish daily newspaper BirGun. He is due to appear in court on May 24.