Anyway, anywhere, anytime…
The participation of a collection of Western consuls-general at the opening session of the Can Dündar-Erdem Gül court case, which has become a symbol on the limits of press freedom in Turkey, has placed a big question mark on the country’s relations with the West. In many European and American publications there is a search for an answer to a vital question: Can Turkey still be a member of NATO, the hallmark of Western values? There was, of course, exaggeration as well a bit of enmity toward Turkey in such articles. Many people might be more than happy to see Turkey banished by Europe and forced to accept being relegated to the status of a Middle Eastern chador state. Can Turkey be an oppressive, autocratic, Middle Eastern sheikhdom with secluded areas of freedom for the select but the overall autocracy of an absolute ruler?
Many people have started thinking that now that he has cracked down all dissent and effectively silenced his critics in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has turned its attention to finding ways and means to avoid being mocked abroad as well. The Turkish chief executive has considered it his legitimate right to criticize opponents liberally and even ridicule a Constitutional Court ruling that he did not like, leading to situations in which even a 16-year-old boy in Konya can land in prison for yelling in the schoolyard a slogan considered inappropriate by some officious local executives. Under the domestic conjecture of Turkey, such things have long since become “routine.”
When an adaptation of a 1980s song by German pop star Nena, “Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann” (“Anyway, Anywhere, Anytime”), poking fun at the autocratic Turkish president was broadcast on German public TV channel NDR on March 17, the Turkish Foreign Ministry – probably under orders from the president – pursued undiplomatic efforts to silence the Germans as well. The ministry summoned German Ambassador Martin Erdmann to “discuss” the new version of the two-minute remix “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan” – which played on the fact that the German word for “anytime” sounds like the Turkish president’s last name – and received a diplomatic “Off limits, guys” response.
Naturally, the diplomatic code of conduct does not permit the revelation of the content of the discussions between Erdmann and his Turkish hosts, but well-placed friends have stressed that he kindly rejected the request to ban the remix, or to ask YouTube to remove it. Furthermore, he probably reminded something that the Turkish diplomatic corps must have known as well: In democracies, political satire is covered by the freedom of the press and of expression, and the German government, therefore, cannot feel the need or even have the option of taking such an action.
Tragicomedy, is it not? Similarly, in Washington D.C., there was a very sad scene. Bodyguards, diplomats and some allegiant journalists accompanying the president on a visit to the American capital tried to suppress the protests by some critics of Erdoğan by creating noises. Of course there was no chance of liberally using gas or water cannon on the crowd, nor could the offenders be taken into custody. Such actions should not have been allowed by the Americans, Turkish officials complained, but reason prevailed this time as no official complaint could be lodged with the U.S.
The Turkish president has been very sensitive on the issue. In the past 18 months that Erdoğan has been in the presidential office, some 1,900 cases have been brought against Turks, including some children, for insulting the president. Just this month a journalist was sentenced to two years and seven months for criticizing the president. Those charged under the “insulting the president” clause include cartoonists, writers, journalists, and even children. In the previous seven-year tenure of Abdullah Gül as president, the Penal Code Article 299 that regulates the “insult to executives” crime was very rarely put into force.
That contentious article of the Penal Code was referred to the Constitutional Court this month by an Istanbul penal court of first instance on the grounds it contradicted not only the “equality principle” of the Turkish Constitution but also several rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Under Article 90 of the constitution, international law not only supersedes domestic law, but its constitutional compatibility cannot be questioned. Thus, the court decided, the insult to the presidency case it was handling should only be held pending an outcome to an application to annul Penal Code Article 299 at the high court.
That application of the Istanbul court was the first of its kind and it might take months for the Constitutional Court to make a decision – although in recent times on applications that might have a binding effect on pending court processes or issues related to rights and liberties, it has developed a tradition of urgency.
What will happen in the Dündar-Gül case at an Istanbul court today, April 1? Will the court uphold the right to report, or budge to the so-called “vertical structure” in governance? What will be the high court’s ruling on the contentious Penal Code Article 299?
Really, what is insulting the executives: a democratic right or a crime?