Voices on social media now in the crosshair for Turkey’s Erdoğan
Photo: Fredrik Fahlman
Legal proceedings for opinions expressed on social media have become commonplace in Turkey. The number of prosecution charges for the crime Presidential insult has increased sixty-fold since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became president of the country. Some have been silenced, others continue their struggle for freedom of expression.
In eastern Istanbul, on a wooden bench at the campus for Özyeğin University, a 26 year old student is sitting and chain smoking. His grandmother passed away this morning. In half an hour he has to rush to the mosque in Kadıköy to prepare her funeral, but he insists on telling his story.
“It is important that people know what is happening in Turkey,” he says.
The student’s name is Buğra Doğruyol and he studies a master’s program in mechanical engineering. His story begins in 2014, when he shares on Twitter a picture of the country’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the then newly built palace in Ankara. Wearing a black suit, the president stands at the foot of a grand staircase, which with a dose of creativity can be likened to a toilet ring.
“He goes down the toilet like a little shit,” Buğra writes next to the picture before clicking publish. The post quickly goes viral and receives close to ten thousand retweets.
“I was young and had fairly immature humor, but never thought it would have any legal consequences” he says.
An afternoon a year and a half later there are bangs on his front door. “Police! Open up!” someone shouts outside. Buğra is convinced that his friends are messing with him and opens the door, prepared for a bad joke.
He is met by two uniformed officers from the Istanbul Police cybercrime unit. They inform Buğra that he is charged with insulting the President of Turkey and should appear in court in Çağlayan for questioning.
According to the independent human rights organization Human Rights Watch, the number of prosecutions for presidential insults in Turkey has increased by staggering proportions since 2014 – the same year that Erdoğan switched office from prime minister to president. That year a bit over a hundred people faced prosecution – three years later the number was more than six thousand.
Çağlayan Justice Palace, in Istanbul, where most cases related to the presidential insult crime takes place. It is the largest courthouse in Europe. Photo: Fredrik Fahlman
One of the biggest legal processes right now in the country is the one against Barış İçin Akademisyenler – Academics For Peace. It is a loosely based group of more than two thousand academics, formed in 2015 after the ceasefire between the Turkish state and the Kurdish guerrilla movement PKK was broken. They have all signed a petition appealing for a resumption of peace talks in eastern Turkey, where PKK mainly is active.
Alper Açık, a Psychology professor at Özyeğin University, leans forward in his desk chair. His eyes are fixated at his laptop screen. The last few days have been intense: In addition to planning for the new semester with his psychology students, he is also closely following the ongoing legal process against him and his colleagues in Academics for Peace. For him, the decision to sign the petition was clear.
“Almost every single media outlet in Turkey is biased in Erdoğan’s favor. Very little information about what is happening in eastern Turkey reaches the public – there were just a few brave activists that went there and exposed about how civilians were not allowed to leave their homes and were killed if they did. We felt that we had to do something.”
Alper Açık in his office. Photo: Fredrik Fahlman
According to Alper, the entire conflict is based on the AKP, Erdogan’s party, losing its majority in the parliamentary elections in June 2015. To win back votes, they canceled the ceasefire against the PKK and attacked group in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. There is a split opinion if it was an intended strategy – but in the November election that year, the AKP won back its own majority in parliament.
“We expected some kind of legal process. Turkey has always been this way – when Turks in the West talk about events against Kurds in the East, reprisals will come,” he says.
But Alper was unprepared for the extent of the government’s reaction. Erdoğan took a very hard stance against the academics in a speech and called them pseudo-intellectual traitors. As with Buğra, Alper was ordered to appear in the Çağlayan court for questioning.
The same was true of more than eight hundred of his academic colleagues. At present, a quarter of them have received their verdict, which despite the same offense varies widely. The majority of them received a suspended sentence of five years, while 36 academics were sentenced to prison for between fifteen months and three years. All trials are done individually.
“According to Turkish law, crimes committed together must also be convicted together. Why are we sentenced separately?”
Alper, who has so far flickered his eyes back and forth to his laptop, shines up when he gives the answer.
“Because then they would have to use a whole stadium to seat us all. Imagine how that would portray Turkey,” he says.
Academics have not only suffered legal penalties. According to Alper they have been threatened repeatedly on social media, most recently by a well-known mob boss who wrote to his two hundred thousand Twitter followers that he would “shower in the blood of academics.” Several have also had red crosses spray-painted on their doors.
Alper explains that all investigations have been closed due to a lack of evidence.
CHP’s head office in Istanbul. Photo: Fredrik Fahlman
Several opposition politicians have also objected to the developments in eastern Turkey. Canan Kaftancıoğlu, Istanbul provincia leader for the secular, social democratic party CHP, has repeatedly criticized the government on Twitter – not only for cancelling the ceasefire, but also for killing protesters during demonstrations, imprisoning Kurdish opposition politicians, and for gradually making way for anti-democratic reforms.
Berkin Elvan, a 15 year old boy that died after being hit by a tear gas canister fired by the police, engraved at a wall at Özyeğin University. Canan Kaftancıoğlu often tweeted about his death, in one post calling the Turkish government “serial killers”. Photo: Fredrik Fahlman
Those tweets were the basis of a lawsuit against Kaftancıoğlu. At the beginning of September this year, she was sentenced to nine years and eight months in prison for, among other charges, presidential insult and making propaganda for a terrorist organization. Despite the long prison sentence she is still active on social media and has promised to continue her political trajectory after the sentence.
But not everyone does.
Ayşe* is a former retired local politician for CHP, who after a long political career reached a senior position within the party. Instead of Twitter, she mainly expressed her views on Facebook to her five thousand followers.
In the summer of 2017, after a long day at the party’s office, she, like so many other days, comes home and logs on Facebook. She finds a cartoonish joke depicting an airplane, a control tower and a mosque. I a speech bubble, the planet begins to land, but instead of getting a response from the tower, it is coming from the mosque. “My dear, we are now in control, and you have our permission to land,” the minaret replies. Ayşe shares it.
The photo gets a high amount of likes and comments, and Ayşe logs out of Facebook. In the upcoming days CHP will elect a new party leader and Ayşe has organized and campaigned for a candidate within the party, so she continues to work until it is sent in the evening.
A few days later, her phone rings. “This is the police. We have proof that you have insulted the President of Turkey, and want you to appear in our police station for questioning” says the voice at the other end.
Her formerly confident voice begins to tremble.
“It put a whole new perspective to my life. Is this really worth it? What would happen to my child if I end up in prison?”
At the police station, she is told that she has been reported through CIMER – a governmental telephone line where, among other services, state dissidents can be reported to authorities. She is far from the only one reported through that service and the police tell her that the trial may be delayed. They have another hundred and twenty thousand cases to look through.
Then and there Ayşe decides that it is not worth it. She continues her campaign for the party candidate that she supports, but immediately afterwards closes her Facebook account and leaves CHP.
In May 2019 Ayşe gets her verdict: she is acquitted on all counts. Nevertheless, her voice is more filled with disappointment than relief.
“They are just out for revenge and now they got it. The verdict would be very different if I was still a politician,” she says.
Photo: Fredrik Fahlman
Back at the University campus in eastern Istanbul, Buğra describes the day his dad drove him to Çağlayan. It is the first time in his life that he has set foot in a court, and now he is there with his lawyer accused of a crime that can land him more than twelve years in prison.
In the first hearing his lawyer advises him to be interrogated alone – that way that the whole incident could be seen as a spontaneous prank he undoubtedly regrets.
Regardless of that he learns that the prosecutor is seeking eleven months in prison for the crime.
Buğra stops and reaches for his pack of smokes. He lights another cigarette and inhales deeply.
“My family was very worried during these times but they also supported me a lot. Especially my dad. “It is important that you learn how the Turkish justice system works” was the last thing he told me before the trial started,” he says.
Buğra hears from his lawyer that the burden of proof lies on him to show that it was not he who published the post. In addition, by the framework of the Turkish judiciary system, the prosecutor had overwhelming evidence that his actions were criminal.
In hope of a more lenient sentence Buğra admits to the crime. As Ayşe did, he also closes down all of his social media.
Buğra breathes a sigh of relief in the courtroom as the verdict falls. He is sentenced to eleven months in prison, but it is directly replaced by a five year suspended sentence.
A student demonstration at Özyeğin’s campus, protesting the recent rise of femicides and the lack of punishment for its perpetrators. Photo: Fredrik Fahlman
Today, Buğra is active on social media with an anonymous Twitter account. He has, according to himself, changed his way of writing and also from sharing jokes to highlighting the democratic deficiencies in his country by facts.
He has also become politically involved. Prior to Istanbul’s mayoral election last spring, he volunteered for CHP as a vote counter in the conservative district of Umraniye. CHP won the election by just an 18,000 votes margin. The ruling AKP party, however, claimed that there had been irregularities in the voting and demanded a re-election. That happened – and when the voting count was complete, and Buğra and thousands of other volunteers had double-checked the results, CHP could proclaim themselves as the victor with 800,000 more votes than the AKP.
“Something changed in that moment. I felt hope for the future that I had not felt before. I especially remember hugging several AKP supporters. We had no resentment at all and talked about how we are all citizens of the same country and have the same future. We understood that we needed to be able to collaborate and talk to each other” he says.
Photo: Fredrik Fahlman
Buğra puts out his cigarette. He stands up and collects himself, preparing to go to the university’s garage to drive to Kadıköy and bury his grandmother. He starts walking, but before leaving Özyeğin’s campus he turns around.
“I hope that more people will understand how bad the situation in Turkey is. The upcoming years will be absolutely crucial for our future as a democratic country.”
* Ayşe has requested to remain anonymous and is called something else.
** The Perspective reached out to AKP’s and President Erdoğan’s spokespersons but did not receive a reply.
Long Read from The Perspective Magazine – Fredrik Fahlman