February 11, 2016

Free to criticize if ready to be punished

Orhan Kemal Cengiz

The other day, when I heard Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's comment about the level of freedom of the press in Turkey during a joint press conference he held with German Chancellor Minister Angela Merkel, I felt in a position wherein I was listening to someone on TV saying he had never killed anybody whilst I was conducting a forensic check on the body of the victim he killed.

During this press conference, Davutoğlu said journalists in Turkey are free to criticize him. Well, at that exact moment I was reading up on the files of three convicted journalists for Today's Zaman, Sevgi Akarçeşme, Bülent Keneş and Celil Sağır, all of whom received suspended prison sentences for their tweets criticizing Davutoğlu.

I knew that my colleagues had received suspended prison sentences but I did not know how alarming their case was before carefully reviewing it to introduce it to the Constitutional Court as their lawyer.

Seriously, it was hair-raising reading this file. I felt a chill down my neck. I believe that none of their statements would ever be subject to punishment in any democratic country, but the case of Akarçeşme was particularly shocking. This following tweet of Akarçeşme, referred to in the judgement as an insult to Prime Minister Davutoğlu, read: “Davutoğlu, whom we thought was a democrat academic, has taken his place in history as the prime minister who eliminated press freedom of the government that covered up corruption. Bravo.” If this sentence is regarded as an insult to the prime minister and punished with a prison term, any criticism of this government can easily and comfortably be punished.

What was more horrifying was that the court also punished Akarçeşme for a comment written by someone else underneath her original tweet. The comment said: “Of course a big liar puppet of the palace, scumbag. He is supposed to be a professor while he cannot even be himself.” The court joined all these statements together and gave Akarçeşme a 17-month sentence while giving Sağır and Keneş each a 14-month sentence.

After this sentencing, we all need to stay vigilant through the night to check what kind of messages are being written under our tweets, and as soon as we notice any hostile messages we should delete them.

What was also amazing for me was to read the petition of Davutoğlu's lawyer to the court. Akarçeşme, in her statement to the prosecutor, said something like this: “The mere fact that I have to give such a statement just because of a complaint the prime minister made against me is an indication that freedom of the press has been destroyed.” Davutoğlu's lawyer repeated Akarçeşme's words in this statement and said that “she continues to insult the prime minister before judicial organs.” After reading this, I was left speechless.

A prime minister brought accusations against a journalist for criticizing him, his lawyer evaluated everything as an insult to his client and all these turned into an official court judgment, the end. And, after all this, the prime minister says journalists in Turkey are free to criticize him. And at the exact moment he said this, I was reading this file.

Published on Today's Zaman, 11 February 2016, Thursday