Turkish journalist Sedef Kabaş begins her second month in detention on Tuesday for “insulting the president,” an increasingly common offence which observers believe is stifling critical voices 16 months before the presidential election.
The 52-year-old has already spent longer in jail than any other journalist for this alleged offence, according to the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
During a television interview on January 14, Kabaş quoted an old proverb affirming that a crowned head generally becomes wiser, and added: “but we see it is not true.”
She repeated the line, deemed to be derogatory to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his regime, on her Twitter account which has more than 900,000 followers.
Three weeks later, Kabaş was formally charged. Her request for bail was rejected and President Erdoğan, the head of state, filed a claim for 250,000 Turkish liras (around $18,300, 16,100 euros) in damages.
She will be tried on March 11 and risks a total of 12 years and 10 months in prison for insulting the president and two of his ministers.
“This anti-democratic ‘lese-majeste’ law has become a tool of repression which illustrates the authoritarian policy of the government,” said Erol Önderoğlu, RSF’s representative in Turkey.
Önderoğlu believes the offence of insulting the president — article 299 of the penal code — allows the government “to silence critics and weaken the media”, prompting RSF to call for its repeal.
Turkey is ranked 153rd in RSF’s world press freedom index.
In November the European Court of Human Rights concluded that the imprisonment of another Turkish journalist for insulting the president was a violation of his right to freedom of expression.
‘Respect the office’
Erdoğan has also weighed into the Kabaş case, saying she “will not go unpunished” and calling for “respect and protection” of the presidential office.
“It has nothing to do with freedom of expression,” Erdoğan insisted.
Following the Kabaş comment, eight other arrest warrants were issued, including one against Olympic swimmer Derya Büyükuncu, for messages on Twitter making fun of the president’s Covid infection after he and his wife tested positive.
In 2020, more than 31,000 people were indicted for alleged contempt of the president and 36,000 in 2019, according to official judicial statistics.
In 2010, that figure stood at just four.
More generic than the accusation of “terrorism”, which has been used widely since the 2016 coup attempt, that of “insulting the president” spreads the net even further, said Sümbül Kaya, researcher at the Paris Military School’s Institute for Strategic Research.
“This offence makes it possible to attack ordinary citizens”, she said.
With Turkey going through an economic crisis, which is affecting Erdoğan’s popularity ahead of his bid for re-election in 2023, Kaya said she is sensing a “reduction of power in the judiciary.”
The offence of “insulting civil servants” has existed for a long time, but that of insulting the president was created in 2005 by Erdoğan’s AKP party, which has been in power since 2002.
“With the example of the swimmer, President Erdoğan claimed the office was under attack but it was about him as an individual,” she said.
“We are slipping from protection of the office of president towards that of the individual.”
For Ahmet İnsel, an economist and political scientist, “the massive use of article 299 aims to gag any strongly critical expression against the person (of the president)”.
“Many journalists and lawyers are imprisoned under the charge of propaganda of a terrorist organization but when it cannot be applied, as in the case of Sedef Kabaş, Erdoğan’s lawyers file a complaint under section 299.”
İnsel believes the shift is a direct result of the “very autocratic concept of the office of president by Erdoğan”, who in 2018 became head of state, head of government and leader of the ruling party.
Some observers have pointed at the relative youth of the Istanbul prosecutor — who graduated in 2018 — who charged Kabaş.
“More than 4,000 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed since 2016 and replaced by young lawyers close to the AKP, after opaque (recruitment) procedures,” said İnsel, adding that “the orders come… directly from the presidential palace”.
Nearly 30 international organizations defending journalists have demanded the immediate release of Kabaş.