A 16-year-old high-school student in Turkey currently faces a maximum sentence of four years in prison for the crime of “insulting” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The young man, so far identified in the media only as M.E.A., did indeed say some things in public about the Turkish leader that could be described as insulting.
The student committed his “crime” at a rally commemorating the 84th anniversary of the death of a pro-secular army officer at the hands of Islamists. The high-schooler read out a statement hailing the principles of secularism as enshrined by the Turkish republic’s founding father, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, and accused Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party of corruption.
So far, the lad might not have been charged with insulting anybody, but merely of reporting the news. Somewhat old news, at that. Over the past year, the media has been brimming with allegations of bribery and influence-peddling against four of Erdogan’s ministers.
That much might have been allowed to pass without reaction. But the intemperate young man went on to attack Erdogan personally as “the thieving owner of the illegal palace.” He was soon thereafter hustled off in police custody. Although released in the media uproar that ensued, M.E.A. is threatened with a significant term in prison.
The aforementioned “illegal palace” was an unkind reference to Erdogan’s new home, the Ak Saray, or “white palace,” where he now resides. The new edifice, unveiled last October, triggered mass protests last year when its construction entailed the destruction of protected forested lands. Its first occupant is understandably touchy about it.
It touches a religious nerve, too. The presidential residence was in the Canakya palace in downtown Ankara, since Ataturk’s founding of the republic. The new palace symbolizes a repudiation of official secularism and a return to Turkey’s former Ottoman splendor — and on a scale befitting a sultan. An insult to the palace is an insult to Islam.
The palace boasts 1,000 rooms and cost about $350 million to build. Its total area is a mind-boggling 2,150,000 square feet. Opposition politicians boycotted its grand opening. One deputy said it made the Kremlin compound look “like an outhouse.” It has almost 50 times the floor space of the White House in Washington.
The treatment of the high-school student has been viewed by Erdogan critics as part of his ongoing crackdown on political rivals and anyone else who protests along his path to imperial power and Islamicization.
Yet, Erdogan denies it. A few days ago, he proclaimed that Turkey has the freest press in the world. “Nowhere in the world is the press freer than it is in Turkey. I’m very sure of myself when I say this,” he said in a speech in Ankara.
“The press is so free in Turkey that one can make insults, slanders, defamation, racism and commit hate crimes that are not tolerated even in democratic countries.”
We saw no mention of an ivory tower in the descriptions of the new palace, but Erdogan sounds like he has been living in one, cut off, unaware of the actual condition of free speech in his country.
Turkey put more journalists behind bars in 2012 and 2013 than any other country, including Iran and China, according to the International Committee to Protect Journalists (before improving to tenth place this year). And his self-congratulatory comment came less than two weeks after police raids on opposition media prompted condemnation from the European Union.
Erdogan’s remarks are themselves an insult to free speech, not to mention the intelligence of his countrymen and foreign observers.
But his conduct is more than insulting; it’s dangerous to the well-being of Turkey and the stability of the entire region. Opposition leaders say they are fearful that Erdogan, in his reach for more power, will soon shut down news outlets that he finds insulting, and that Turkey is on its way to dictatorship.
The anti-democratic trend threatens Turkey’s recent economic strides as well. Under a law passed recently, assets and companies belonging to people under investigation for terrorism can be seized even if those individuals have not been convicted of a crime, as long as there is a “reasonable suspicion” of guilt.
Analysts say the law was aimed at the business interests of Erdogan’s political rivals. But whether that is the case or not, such confiscations, if pursued, could deter foreign investment. In fact, political turbulence has already been blamed in part for sharp drops in the value of the Turkish currency in recent days.
What about the 16-year-old high-school student?
Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, defended his arrest: “The presidential office needs to be shown respect, no matter who he is,” Davutoglu said.
On this we can agree. It’s not right to call the president names. It’s important to maintain a civil discourse, even, or especially, when emotions run high. But to throw people in jail for such things — that’s an insult.