Turkey : A Month Behind Bars Under “Lèse-Majesté" Law
Sedef Kabaş, the latest journalist victim of Turkey's "Lèse-Majesté" law, Article 299, has been in prison for nearly a month. Following the rejection of the second application for Kabaş's release, RSF urges Turkish authorities to immediately release Kabaş, respect ECtHR rulings in terms of freedom of expression and abolish article 299 of Turkish Criminal Code.
No mercy was shown to journalist and independent presenter Sedef Kabaş... She will continue to be kept in prison until her trial begins on March 11. On February 15, the judiciary rejected the application of Kabaş’s lawyers for her release. After being accused of Insulting the President in a program she joined on Tele 1 television, Sedef Kabaş was detained on 22 January and sent to Istanbul Bakırköy Women's Prison. The journalist faces 12 years and 10 months in prison for this lèse-majesté law, which is used to mute critical voices.
“This anti-democratic lèse-majesté legislation became a repression tool illustrating authoritarian political governance. It should be abolished and Turkey should comply with international law,” RSF Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu said. “Article 299, which was recently confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights to be contrary to freedom of expression, is constantly being misused with the aim of suppressing the freedom to inform and all criticism of President Erdogan."
While Sedef Kabaş was still questioned, the declarations of the Minister of Justice, Abdülhamit Gül, assuring that “the ugly words which target our president (…) will find the response they deserve in the conscience of the people and before justice” were perceived as an attempt to influence the judiciary.
In the past month, two applications made by her lawyers for Kabaş's release have been rejected. TELE 1, which broadcast Kabaş's statements, was also investigated by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), and the channel was given an administrative fine of 5 percent of its annual advertising revenue and a five-time program suspension.
200 journalists prosecuted in 8 years, 70 convicted
Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code, which is widely used against journalists and what they write in newspaper reports, articles and books, regulates the crime of insulting the President and provides for a prison sentence of one to four years.
Since Erdogan became president in August 2014, 70 media professionals have been sentenced to prison terms (sometimes suspended) or fines under Article 299, according to reports by the RSF representative in Turkey, who has attended at least 200 trials of media professionals over the past eight years.
Journalists are not the only ones whose freedom of expression is restricted by Article 299. According to the latest data gathered from the Turkish Ministry of Justice, between 2014-2020, 160,169 investigations were opened under Article 299, and 35,507 of these turned into lawsuits. 38,608 people, 1107 of whom were under the age of 18, were tried and 12,881 people (including 10 children) were given various sentences -3625 of them imprisonment.
Violation of freedom of expression
In October 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in the Vedat Şorli & Turkey case that article 299 violated freedom of expression. ECHR stated, "Affording increased protection by means of a special law on insult would not, as a rule, be in keeping with the spirit of the Convention or with a State’s interest in protecting the reputation of its head of State."
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.
Turkey is ranked 153th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.