An Istanbul prosecutor has asked for 4 years and 1 month in jail for journalist Mehmet Yılmaz on September 27. The reason was that his question On T24 news site about how ex-Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s children made their fortune was taken as an “insult”. Just a day before, scientist Bülent Şık was sentenced to 15 months in prison, accused of publishing secret documents, because he spoke out about findings of carcinogenic contaminants on agricultural produce. These are the circumstances in which the Parliament which is to kick off its new legislative year on October 1 will begin to discuss the new Judicial Reform.
When I first heard about the sentence asked against Yılmaz, what first came to my mind was the words of Minister of Justice Abdülhamit Gül. He had said, just a while ago, that “criticism should not be cause for imprisonment” in a Hürriyet interview with İpek Özbey. What Yılmaz said was not even a criticism: it was a question. But it looks like Yıldırım took it not as a question but as a criticism, and the prosecutor agreed with him.
I read the Reform draft. I’ll give credit where it’s due, there are a few positive points. These include the affirmation that criticism is not a criminal offence, as well as some increases in the penalty for crimes of sexual violence. But not much has been done to protect and improve judicial independence, freedom of expression or to increase the overall quality of our democracy.
If this draft is to be approved as it is, will the state continue to arrest and imprison journalists, academics, politicians, writers and thinkers accusing them of terrorism or of insulting statesmen? Will the ones who were already in jail remain incarcerated? Or will it all end?
Journalists, politicians in prison
Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chairs Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş have been in prison since November 4, 2016; they were accused of terrorism. Sırrı Süreyya Önder, who has served as a sort of messenger between the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) during the dialogue process, has been in prison since December 6, 2018. Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Eren Erdem was imprisoned on June 29, 2018, and is still behind bars with the same terrorism accusation.
Social activist Osman Kavala, has been in prison, accused of conspiring the Gezi protests in 2013 on his 699th day today, on September 30, 2019.
It has recently surfaced that journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, who was imprisoned due to her alleged connection with the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, had sent a letter to the President Erdoğan a year ago (whom she used to be a staunch defendant of first and then an opponent), and had appealed for mercy, asking to be discharged due to her age (75). Ilıcak is still in prison: it’s been 1155 days, including today.
In a September 13 statement, following the discharge of 5 journalists from the oppositions daily Cumhuriyet, the Journalists’ Association of Turkey (TGC) has stated that 132 journalists and media employees are still imprisoned. The same statement also emphasized that Turkey ranks 157th in the world for freedom of the press.
Even Wikipedia is affected: access to the site has been banned for 884 days as of September 30.
We all need freedom of expression
So what is the thought process here? Is it that, if the court of appeal agrees to ban the circulation of a report that is vital for public health (including the health of the children of AKP politicians) and if Bülent Şık is imprisoned for unveiling such a report, then the information will not reach the public and therefore the carcinogenic contaminants will not affect anyone?
Does the government think that if Mehmet Yılmaz’s questions concerning the fortune of the children of former PM Yıldırımreceives a media ban and if the journalist asking the question is put in prison, then the public will stop thinking or talking about said fortune?
President Erdoğan and the AKP government need to face up to some facts. First, they need to remember that their party came to power in 2002 in spite of a mainstream media that ignored them.
Freedom of expression and the right to have your voice heard is everyone’s necessity: you never know when you might need it. Freedoms are not mere objects that you can simply cover up whenever you don’t think they should be of use. Besides, the bans may be working in the short run but they tend to backfire in the long haul.
There’s one more thing: it’s well known that one of Erdoğan’saims in the Judicial Reform is to warm up, once again, the soured relationship with the European Union (EU) and bridge an ever-widening chasm between the two parties. This legal package is unlikely to produce the desired positive effect when it comes to EU relations. What needs to be done is to improve this Judicial Reform draft and the only way to do it is by adding clauses that ensure freedom of speech and freedom of the press – that much is pretty obvious.