Sultans, Noses and the Internet: Censorship and the Freedom of Speech

In politics, many favour a leader that exercises real power. Turkey has always been a country in which a strong leader figure has been at the centre of politics – from Ottoman Sultans to Republican Prime Ministers and Army Chiefs of Staff. Current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan loves emphasizing his “Ottoman Heritage” to tell people that he is riding the wave of history. Due to his obsession with “Ottoman Heritage” and his increasingly authoritarian style, commentators often compare him to the sultans of old. The recent controversy over censorship in Turkey provides another opportunity to make the comparison. 

The “last” Ottoman Emperor, Abdulhamit II was essentially a despotic modernizer. The Sultan created the elite cadres that shaped the fate of both the Ottoman Empire and Turkey and he reformed the military and civil higher-education with the intention of providing better services for the state. He also reorganized a fledgling constitutional monarchy into an absolute monarchy through extensive use of the secret police, intelligence services and censorship. Revolutionary Les Jeunes Turcs and Armenian political networks retreated underground, resorting to terrorism at times; newspapers appeared in the public wholly blank due to the extent of power exercised by the censorship office. The most extreme instance occurred when the word burun (nose) was banned from use in newspapers. This was due to the idea that since the Sultan had an exceptionally large nose, the use of the word “nose” in public could be used as an implicit personification of the Sultan and the existing establishment, which could easily be utilized as a means of critique.

The censorship-based regime was not a unique characteristic of the 19th century state, within the Ottoman Empire. German and Austro-Hungarian Empires were notorious for their police surveillance of the public. The Russian Empire was shaking under the extremely harsh and conservative rule of the Tsars, forcing even its most famous authors to accept editorial censorship rather than to publish.  France on the other hand, has seen constantly shifting censorship regimes due to repeated instances of social upheaval caused by the revolutions and the Paris Commune. In Britain, the freedom of expression was aligned with the establishment of the liberal movement and the radical counter-movement. In 19th century civilization, freedom of speech was at large.

Parallels can be drawn to the present. On the morning of the 17th of December 2013, Turkey was shaken with the news of a corruption scandal of enormous scale. Several top businessmen and the head of one of the largest public banks (Halkbank) were arrested based on allegations of bribery and corruption. Along with them, sons of three key government ministers (Ministries of Interior, Environment and Urban Planning, Economy) were arrested. These sons allegedly organized bribes using government contracts in various sectors. The arrests were televised widely; videos of large sums of money concealed in shoe-boxes, safe boxes and currency counting machines were distributed in the media. Social media helped to spread the news, whereas, the mainstream media, which supported the government, argued the allegations were false and part of a larger and “darker” plan by enemies of the Justice and Development Party government. The Government suppressed the allegations by taking them to court on the basis of an “infringement of private life”. Despite this, both the Turkish public and international circles have started raising serious questions on about thıs particular case and the freedom of speech in Turkey more generally.

As well as damaging the image of the Turkish government in foreign circles the scandal had two further effects: It made the “war”, between Fettullah Gulen society and the Justice and Development Party, for more power and legitimacy, apparent. Secondly, it provided the government a casus belli to extend its control over the legal system, the internet and the Turkish social media, on which individuals were constantly trolling and criticising government members. Soon after December 17th, a set of changes in the law regarding internet freedom were soon introduced and approved on February 18; giving absolute power to bureaucratic and government actors to prohibit access to media regarding the “private life of individuals”. The opposing actors to this package of bills argued, that the new laws would cover up corruption allegations from the public eye, and criticised the Turkish government heavily. One event during these discussions was striking: A leaked telephone conversation which took place during the Gezi Protests in May/June 2013, between Prime Minister Erdogan and a media executive revealed that Erdogan called the executive and requested removal of critical remarks by one of the opposition parties on Erdogan’s actions and calling President Abdullah Gul to intervene, from their news programs. Erdogan told the media that he made the call, because he thought that the remarks by the opposition were insults in the face of public uproar due to open censorship. Freedom House lists intimidation, mass firings, buying off or forcing out media moguls, wiretapping, and imprisonment as the main techniques used to exert media control in Turkey.

However, just as in the past, freedom of speech is under threat in other parts of the world too. The United States is continuing its hunt for the whistleblowers who made the extent of government’s surveillance visible, Russia’s allergy of journalistic freedom is made worse during the Sochi games, China disregards freedom of expression in return for commercial interests, and Continental Europe faces problems with it “pristine record”. How will freedom of speech weather the 21st century?


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