Freedom of Expression is Indivisible
Safiye Ince, a stupid young women in a hijab, has gotten herself into hot water for likening Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the venerated founder of our Republic, to excrement in a selfie video she recorded at Ataturk’s Mausoleum in Ankara and posted on social media.
The outcry from secular quarters was immediate, as was to be expected. Calls for her to be arrested and thrown into prison were also fast in coming. Given the public outcry, the authorities acted and arrested her. She now faces a trial and a possible prison sentence.
Her release, on the other hand, will also raise an outcry if it comes early, and she is let off in a manner that people believe amounts to a slap on the wrist.
Complicating the matter is the recent arrest of students from one of Turkey’s most respected institutions of higher education, namely the Middle Eastern Technical University (METU) in Ankara.
They are accused of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their recent graduation ceremony, after they unfurled a banner caricaturizing him as various wild animals.
The outcry on that occasion was from Turkey’s conservative and Islamist quarters, who demanded that the students be taken into custody and tried. Needless to say it did not take long for that to happen.
No doubt Donald Trump would love to have a judiciary that protects him in this manner. If Turkish laws applied in the U.K. prosecutors would be opening cases against British papers on a daily basis for the often insulting manner in which they caricaturize Theresa May.
Hurriyet’s popular columnist Ahmet Hakan hit the nail on the head in his column recently when he suggested that if you supported the arrest of the METU students then you have to tolerate the arrest of Safiye Ince, and vice versa.
This does not mean that leaders or ordinary people, who feel they, or those they venerate, have been insulted cannot open individual libel or slander cases. That is everyone’s right.
Erdogan’s lawyers do so on a daily basis against people for their insulting posts on social media or remarks elsewhere.
This is a mark of individual tolerance, or the lack of it, depending on the perceived insult.
It does not look good for our democracy, though, when prosecutors take the initiative and start proceedings in such cases that leave the country looking bad in terms of freedom of expression.
Turkey’s problem is that the interpretation of freedom of expression of one portion of the population is not necessarily shared by another portion. Turkey has always been marked by a serious tolerance deficit that you do not see in more advanced democratic cultures in this regard.
For example, many castigate, and rightly so, the fact that Wikipedia is blocked under the present administration, which in the past has also pulled the plug on You Tube, and tried to do the same for Twitter.
Few remember, however, that the first time You Tube was blocked in this country was on the initiative of a staunchly secularist and Kemalist group set up to protect and preserve Ataturk’s reputation.
Tolerance cuts both ways, even in the face of things that make people wince. This is also the measure of the degree to which democratic culture has taken hold in a society.
Turkey clearly has some way to go yet before everyone understands that freedom of expression is indivisible, even if what is expressed is idiotic and in bad taste.