censorship in Turkey: freedom of expression

Turkey has one or two other problems apart from ultranationalist terrorist propaganda.  @brennawalks heard that, “really? Apparently Chuck Palahniuk is now on Turkey’s list of ‘suspect’ authors. Suspected of what?”  That reminded me to blog about censorship and freedom of expression in Turkey; they are issues that worry and alarm the Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights (CECHR) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Like my last blog on propaganda websites, this is probably tl;dr too – but once I’ve done the next blog on access to information, I’ll try to bring the three together in a shorter, more readable post.  Here, I review Hrant Dink’s work and murder; review the prosecutions of investigative journalists Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık; note the persecution of Andrew Finkel, Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak; and summarise a failed attempt to sue academics for warning their students off genocide-denying sources.

Hrant Dink

Hrant Dink was a Turkish Armenian journalist and editor; he was the winner of the Turkish Human Rights Association’s (fn1) 2005 Ayşenur Zarakolu Award for Freedom of Thought and Expression.  Dink published, edited and wrote for the only bilingual (Turkish and Armenian) newspaper in Turkey, Agos, until he was assassinated on 19th January 2007.

That newspaper’s creation was a reaction to Turkish nationalist lies: Sabah used fabricated news to accuse the Armenian community of supporting the Kurdish autonomist paramilitary PKK.  Agos examines: the public representation of the Armenian community; democratisation and human rights (violations) in Turkey; Armenian-Turkish state relations; Armenian cultural heritage and history; and the administration of Turkish Armenian community institutions.

Dink was prosecuted for insulting Turkishness three times (the first time, under the old penal code’s Article 159; the second and third times, under the new penal code’s notorious Article 301):

  1. At a 2002 meeting of the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity with Oppressed People (fn2), Dink expressed discomfort with the ethnic content of the national anthem. He said he would prefer to sing about a ‘hard-working people’ rather than a ‘heroic race’, and that he tried ‘to understand the “I am a Turk” part by singing it as “I am Turkish”‘ (fn3). He was acquitted in 2006.
  2. In a 2004 Agos article, Dink advised Armenians to get rid of their hatred of Turks, which came from their memory of genocide. Because there is a saying that something painful to you poisons your blood, Dink told Armenians to ‘replace the poisoned blood associated with the Turk’. He was convicted (in 2005, his appeal rejected) in 2006, and given a six months’ suspended sentence.  This statement became an ultranationalist motive for murder.
  3. In a 2006 Reuters interview – about his previous conviction and sentence – Dink stated that Armenians had been ‘exterminated’ in a ‘genocide’. The case was unfinished when Dink was murdered.

Internet propaganda as a motive for murder

Ogün Samast shot Dink in the head outside Agos‘s office.  Notably, in his first police statement, Samast claimed that ‘I read the news on the internet. I saw that he said, “I’m from Turkey, but Turkish blood is dirty”. That is why I decided to kill him. I do not regret it.’  Naturally, Dink had not said that; and Samast had not really acted spontaneously and individually.

But Samast may really have read that propaganda on the internet.  Or he may have been shown that propaganda by his deep state masters.  Furthermore, ultranationalist Turks will have believed his claim, which affirmed their prejudices.  And impressionable Turks will have searched the internet, found a webpage repeating Dink’s alleged statement (‘Ben Türkiyeliyim. Ama Türk kanı pis kandır‘), accepted Samast’s claim and turned against the apparently racist Armenian community.

Hepimiz Hrant'iz! Hepimiz Ermeni'yiz! (We Are All Hrant! We Are All Armenian!)

Hepimiz Hrant'iz! Hepimiz Ermeni'yiz! (We Are All Hrant! We Are All Armenian!)

The long arm of the deep state

There are some suggestions that public prosecutor Hikmet Usta has found ‘no connections between [the] Dink murder and Ergenekon’.  That seems a little unlikely.

According to one source, Istanbul police testified that Ergenekon suspects – Gendarmerie Brigadier General, and (illegal paramilitary intelligence organisation) JİTEM founder, Veli Küçük; lawyer Kemal Kerinçsiz, who had accused Dink of insulting Turkishness; Army Colonel Mustafa Levent Göktaş; Army Captain Muzaffer Tekin; and Navy Major Erbay Çolakoğlu – ‘spoke on the phone to the suspects in Dink’s murder‘.

According to another source, Istanbul police testified that ‘no direct telephone conversations had been registered’; but that the Ergenekonists had talked to ultranationalist Alperen Ocakları (Fighter Hearths) in Trabzon, where gunman Ogün Samast was a member.

(And Samast was a seventeen-year-old kid, living in a provincial town more than a thousand kilometres from Istanbul.  Even Samast’s confession suggested that someone else, police informer Erhan Tuncel, had planned the assassination.  Then Tuncel stated that the murder investigation was ‘being limited to three to five people’, and that Istanbul anti-terrorism and intelligence officers had ‘induced’ him ‘not to give a statement’.)

The Trabzon Gendarmerie commander, who was in ‘very close contact’ with Brig. Gen. Küçük, ‘hid intelligence reports that… Dink would be killed’.

Regardless, Ergenekon’s Cage Operation Action Plan explicitly identified Dink’s murder as an ‘operation’.

After Dink’s assassination

Furthermore, Ergenekon suspect Bedirhan Şinal, who attacked Cumhuriyet with Molotov cocktails, testified that Ergenekon ‘had been planning to attackAgos‘s staff and office building; but after Dink’s assassination, the security was so high that the attacks were impossible.

Markar Esayan has a really informed, fair assessment of the Dink case and the Ergenekon plot.  Maureen Freely has a beautiful account of Dink and others’ work towards Turkish-Armenian truth and reconciliation, and of the tragic conflicts within Turkey that cost Dink his life.

Hrant Dink's funeral procession, 23rd January 2007

Hrant Dink's funeral procession, 23rd January 2007

Nedim Şener

In 2007, Nokta magazine broke the story of Ergenekon’s Sarıkız (Blonde Girl), Ayışığı (Moonlight), Yakamoz (Sea Sparkle) and Eldiven (Glove) coup plans. (Controversially, Sarıkız has been split off from the Ergenekon investigation.)  One of its editors was Turkish journalist Nedim Şener.

Within a month, prosecutors and police had ‘harass[ed]‘ the magazine so much – including using a search warrant ‘for anything or everything’, raiding and occupying the offices for days, and copying every document on every computer – that the owner, Ayhan Durgun, closed Nokta down.

The International Press Institute’s (IPI) World Press Freedom Hero of 2010, Nedim Şener wrote the Dink Murder and Intelligence Lies (or Dink’s Murder and the Intelligence [Service]’s Lies (fn4)). Dink had been the (posthumous) World Press Freedom Hero of 2007.

Şener ‘showed that [Dink’s] murder had been professionally planned well in advance’, identified ‘the officials at the National Intelligence Organization who threatened Dink‘, ‘exposed the negligence and attempts to cover up the negligent police investigation of Dink’s murder’, and revealed that ‘the head of the General Directorate of Security Affairs had deliberately attempted to conceal evidence’.

On account of Trabzon police intelligence’s allegations, Şener was prosecuted for ‘insulting governmental institutions’; ‘obtaining and declaring secret information that is forbidden to be declared’; ‘violating the secrecy of communication’ (fn5); ‘making targets of people who took part in the fight against terrorism’ (fn6); and ‘attempting to bias a fair trial’/’attempting to influence/interfere with the fairness of a trial’ (fn7).

He was threatened with 28 years in prison. To put that in context, the conspiracy’s gunman, Ogün Samast, was sentenced to 22 years and 10 months. In the end, Şener was acquitted, because the “secret” information had in fact been made public already, by Istanbul’s 14th High Criminal Court.

Ahmet Şık

Fellow journalist Ahmet Şık was arrested on the same day as Nedim Şener, 3rd March 2011. He had published a book, İmamın Ordusu (the Imam’s Army), which documented how the Islamist Gülen Movement’s followers had ‘infiltrated the Turkish police‘.

The book has been banned, confiscated and destroyed; possession of the book is a crime. When he was arrested, Şık said that ‘whoever touches it [the Gülen Movement] gets burned’.

Still, journalists and others have insisted that ‘[e]ven if we get burned, we will touch it’. I have seen “reprints” available in copy shops in Turkey; İmamın Ordusu is online; and (because of the public outcry) the public prosecutors have stated that they will not prosecute its downloaders.  Supporters have a Facebook group, I’ve Got Ahmet Şık’s Book Too (Ahmet Şık’ın Kitabı Bende Var), which has more than a hundred thousand members. The Ankara Bar Association considered the vague search warrants illegal.

The police allege that Ergenekon ordered and edited the book. The AK Party’s political opponents perceive a ‘deep state of the AKP‘, fabricating evidence in order to establish its own dictatorship.  There may be an explanation. A founder member of Amnesty International Turkey, lawyer and journalist Orhan Kemal Cengiz, commented that,

I believe some parts of it were written by members of the police force; it aims to create a sensation, rather than provide objective information, etc. But none of these make a person a member of an illegal organization, even if he may have been used by them in a sophisticated manner.

Indeed, in one draft of the book, in a discussion of Ankara Police Chief Cevdet Saral and Assistant Chief Osman Ak’s report on Gülenists in the Police Force, there is a note: ‘Since the report was made up, the figures kept changing all the time; there was nothing credible about them…. What truth will you be able to find in a report of lies and convey it to your readers?’  There is no note in the online draft.

So perhaps Şık was unprofessional, rather than criminal; and perhaps Şık accidentally published disinformation, rather than secrets; but that should be exposed by journalists and academics, rather than suppressed by the state.

Andrew Finkel

In 1998, American Sabah journalist Andrew Finkel wrote about the Turkish Armed Forces’ destruction of civilian property in Şırnak during an attack on the Kurdish nationalist paramilitary PKK.  Finkel also cited another journalist who had ‘accused the state of having organised the death squad‘ that killed Kurdish intellectual Musa Anter.  (In fact, new evidence suggests that an illegal Gendarmerie paramilitary intelligence unit, JİTEM, and the PKK collaborated to assassinate the mutually inconvenient Anter.)

Because Finkel told these inconvenient truths, he was charged with ‘insulting state institutions’ under Article 159; and the National Security Council pressured Sabah into firing him.  (In 1999, the case against Finkel was not thrown out, but it was suspended.)

In 2011, columnist Finkel – by then, writing for the overwhelmingly Gülenist Today’s Zaman – accused Islamist democrats struggling against the secularist deep state’s anti-democratic activity of using ‘anti-democratic methods‘.  He also pointed out that even writing ‘malicious falsehood[s]’ was not a crime; and that those who banned book in an internet age were ‘extremely foolish’.  So, Today’s Zaman proclaimed that Finkel was ‘under the influence of… propaganda’ – and, perhaps more importantly, continued to ‘contradict the paper’s editorial line‘ – and they fired him.

(I found some of these sources through media scientist Erkan Saka‘s blog.)

Orhan Pamuk, Elif Şafak, and so many others

A Turkish ultranationalist ‘opponent of free speech‘, lawyer Kemal Kerinçsiz, established the Great Jurists’ Union (fn8). His union has been behind nearly all of 301 trials’; and Kerinçsiz has personally prosecuted at least 40 writers for insulting Turkishness, including Hrant Dink, Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak.

And he prosecuted Şafak for imagining how a fictional character might understand and describe historical events. (One of the characters in one of her novels, the Bastard of Istanbul (fn9), recognised the Armenian Genocide as a ‘genocide’.)  Kerinçsiz prosecuted Pamuk for telling Swiss das Magazin that ‘30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and almost nobody but me dares to talk about it [Man hat hier 30 000 Kurden umgebracht, und eine Million Armenier, und fast niemand traut sich, das zu erwähnen]’.  (Contrary to some reports, Pamuk did not say “(absolutely) nobody”.)

Kerinçsiz also got a conference on the Ottoman Armenians in the Period of the Declining Empire banned (though the conference organisers found a way around the ban at the last minute).

Freedom, denial and defamation

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS) published a list of ‘unreliable websites‘, and included the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA) for its Armenian Genocide denial.  So the TCA and one of the CHGS’s Turkish students, Sinan Çingilli, sued the university and some of its CHGS staff for defamation. The court dismissed the case “with prejudice”, which means that the argument is so egregious (so extraordinarily bad) that the plaintiff is banned from making it ever again.

Currently, Çingilli is appealing that the CHGS violated his academic freedom by giving their expert opinion on sources’ reliability.

In my next blog on access to information, I will explore what the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights calls ‘systematic Internet censorship and the blocking of websites’.


fn1: İnsan Hakları Derneği (İHD).

fn2: İnsan Hakları ve Mazlumlar İçin Dayanışma Derneği (MAZLUMDER).


Çocukluğumdan beri sizlerle birlikte İstiklal Marşı söylüyorum. Son zamanlarda bir noktası var, oraya geliyorum ve susuyorum. Sizler söylüyorsunuz, ben sonra katılıyorum. ‘Kahraman ırkıma bir gül’ Neresi kahraman ya. Yurttaşlık kavramını ulusal bir bütünlük ve kahraman bir ırkla sağlamaya çalışıyoruz. Mesela laf ‘çalışkan bir halkıma bir gül’ olsa hepinizden daha fazla söylerim ama öyle değil. ‘Türküm, doğruyum, çalışkanım‘ söyleminin ‘doğruyum ve çalışkanım’ yanını çok seviyorum, bağıra bağıra söylüyorum. ‘Türküm’ bölümünü de ‘Türkiyeliyim’ diye söyleyerek algılamaya çalışıyorum.

[Since my childhood, I have been singing the Independence March (national anthem) together with you. Recently, there is a point, I come to it and I go quiet. You sing, I join later. ‘Smile at my heroic race.’ Where is the heroism, eh? We are trying to secure the concept of citizenship with national unity and a heroic race. For example, say, if it was ‘smile at my hard-working people’, I would sing it louder than all of you, but it is not so. I love the ‘I am Turkish, honest and hard-working’ line’s ‘honest and hard-working’ part, and I sing it from my heart. I try to understand the ‘I am a Turk’ part by singing it as ‘I am Turkish’.]

fn4: Dink Cinayeti ve İstihbarat Yalanları.

fn5: ‘haberleşmenin gizliliğini ihlal etmek‘.

fn6: ‘Terörle mücadelede görev almış kişileri hedef gösterdiği‘.

fn7: ‘adil yargılamayı etkilemeye teşebbüs etmek‘.

fn8: Büyük Hukukçular Birliği.

fn9: in Turkey, it was published as Baba ve Piç (Father and Bastard).

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