In a trial due to begin tomorrow before an Istanbul criminal court, BirGün newspaper columnist Erk Acarer is facing a possible sentence of four years and eight months in prison for a 2016 column in which he criticized the way article 299 is abused and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to press charges against a young protester. Acarer will be tried in absentia because he lives in self-imposed exile in Europe.
The young protester was himself accused of insulting President Erdogan after protesting about impunity in the case of Berkin Elvan, a teenager fatally injured by police during a wave of anti-government protests in Istanbul in 2013.
Used above all against journalists and what they write in newspaper reports, articles and books, article 299 has been maintained in the criminal code despite the reforms carried out in 2005 with the aim of facilitating Turkey’s admission to the European Union, and despite the call by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for its repeal in 2016.
Since Erdogan became president in 2014, RSF’s Turkey representative has observed more than 100 trials of media representatives, of whom 61 were given prison sentences (sometimes suspended) under article 299 or fines of the equivalent of 1,200 euros.
The latest trials are those of freelance journalist Mustafa Hoş and P24 website columnist Ahmet Sever, in which hearings were held in Istanbul on 15 September. Hoş is charged in connection with his biography of Erdogan, entitled “The Big Boss,” in which he refers to the sentence Erdogan served in 1999 on a charge of inciting hatred. Sever is charged in connection with his book “I had to speak out,” in which he recounts Erdogan’s links with former President Abdullah Gül. The next hearings in their trials, which RSF will continue to observe, will be held on 22 October and 3 December.
“It is time for the Turkish authorities to repeal this repressive and anti-democratic lèse-majesté legislation and comply with international law,” RSF Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu said. “Misuse of article 299 with the aim of suppressing all criticism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan constitutes a serious constraint on the right to inform and the right of access to public interest information.”
During a visit to Turkey by a press freedom NGO delegation from 6 to 9 October, organized by the International Press Institute to discuss press freedom violations with the Turkish media and authorities, Onderoglu questioned representatives of Turkey’s Constitutional Court about its failure to take the opportunity to repeal article 299 in 2016 in response to a request from the Istanbul and Izmir criminal courts. The Constitutional Court argued that the mere fact of keeping the article in the criminal code was not a violation of the constitution.
But, in practice, Turkey’s courts constantly and systematically abuse this article to persecute writers, reporters, columnists and editors. In the past six years, such leading media figures as Sedat Ergin (Hürriyet), Özgür Mumcu (former Cumhuriyet columnist), Can Dündar (former Cumhuriyet editor now living in self-imposed exile in Germany), Barış İnce (BirGün) and Ahmet Altan (former Taraf editor) have all been prosecuted.
Some of them had criticized the president’s authoritarian personality, either directly or quoting other people’s criticism. Milliyet columnist Hasan Cemal, for example, was given a suspended sentence of nearly a year in prison in March 2017 for, inter alia, quoting opposition politician Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s reference to Erdogan as a “dictator.”
Others, such as the former Cumhuriyet editor Can Dündar and the lawyer Abbas Yalçin, were prosecuted for their alleged links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey and is on the European Union’s list of terrorist organizations. Tried over a 2015 editorial quoting a PKK leader, they were acquitted last January on the grounds that the trial had not taken place within the statutory four months. Former Cumhuriyet columnist Özgür Mumcu was also acquitted in connection with his criticism of Erdogan for continuing to accuse a protester in the Hopa region who had died from the effects of police teargas.
Despite all the abusive prosecutions under article 299, President Erdogan boasted of Turkey’s progress with regard to freedom of expression in a speech marking the start of the new judicial year on 2 September. “In our legislation, we have reinforced the right to criticism and to information, a component of freedom of expression,” he claimed.
Turkey is ranked 154th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.