Twenty-First Century Lèse-Majesté?: Erdoğan and Free Speech in Europe

Matthew Petti, JHU, European Horizons:

The trial of Jan Böhmermann sits at the intersection of constitutional law and geopolitics. Böhmermann, a German comedian accused of writing a dirty poem about the president of Turkey, is now on trial for insulting a foreign head of state after Chancellor Merkel allowed the charges to move forwards. The case of Mr. Böhmermann calls into question the validity of lèse-majesté laws in a liberal, democratic society. However, issues beyond civil liberties in Germany are at stake. The controversial migration deal between Turkey and the European Union, ostensibly signed to ease the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis, has made European leadership eager to placate the concerns of the Turkish government. Additionally, the actions of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan toward his critics are a disturbing sign in light of attempts by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to increase the power of the Presidency through constitutional changes.

Böhermann is not the only European to feel the long arm of the Turkish state. Ebru Umar, a Dutch journalist of Turkish background, was detained in Turkey on April 24 for criticizing the government on Twitter. Ironically, Umar’s criticisms involved an alleged email by a Turkish consulate asking Turkish organizations in the Netherlands to report online criticism of Turkey or Erdoğan. Additionally, the Turkish government has attempted to leverage Western political bodies in support of its claim that the 1915 massacre of Armenians and Assyrians does not constitute genocide. The Turkish delegation to the EU allegedly demanded that the European Commission revoke funding for a planned concert in Dresden, Germany commemorating the 1.5 million Armenians killed between 1915 and 1917. Indeed, Turkey’s increased importance to the European project is bringing Turkish domestic policies to the international stage.

The so-called “migrant crisis” currently unfolding in Europe has made the Turkish Republic a key ally for European leadership. Since Chancellor Angela Merkel promised asylum in September of last year to any Syrian who could reach Germany, millions of people have entered Europe seeking refuge. While they come from a variety of countries, the vast majority are in fact Syrians and Iraqis fleeing a civil war which has just entered its fifth year. Germany’s initiative has sparked a backlash across Europe, and right-wing parties have gained much popular support for their anti-immigration platforms. Although the New Years Eve sexual assaults in Cologne were not perpetrated by refugees, the incidents, as well as subsequent police mishandling of the case, amplified the fears of many Europeans. Merkel and her allies have been forced to compromise, promising to limit the flow of asylum-seekers. As crossing the Aegean Sea is by far the most common route for illegal migration, especially from the Middle East, the European Union has turned to Turkey for a solution.

In exchange for allowing Greece to return “irregular” migrants to Turkish soil after March 20, Turkey has been promised significant financial support as well as visa liberalization for Turkish nationals. This deal clearly benefits European leadership; the violence associated with border control can now take place far from the watchful eyes of the Western media, while Germany can nominally keep its promises to asylum seekers already in Europe without overwhelming European institutions or infrastructure. Turkey, which has been scrutinized during repeated Turkish bids for EU membership, now feels that the EU is in debt. Additionally, President Erdoğan has had to fight both domestic and foreign criticism for his policies towards the Syrian Civil War and the Kurdish insurgency in eastern Anatolia. As reducing the number of refugees becomes a Western policy priority, Erdoğan feels empowered to promote his vision for the Middle East. Merkel recently voiced her support for the creation of a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border, a policy Erdoğan has long pushed for against American opposition.

All of this comes as the Turkish state increasingly exerts a heavy hand towards domestic criticism. The past year has seen significant intrusions on the press and academia by the state. The run up to November elections in Turkey saw “the biggest crackdown on press in Turkish history,” with several opposition newspapers and TV stations raided by court order. Two additional journalists were accused of “revealing state secrets” in November, a charge that carries a life sentence, after they revealed weapons shipments from the Turkish military to Islamist organizations in Syria. When a group of academics in January signed a petition denouncing the military crackdown in Kurdish regions, they were charged with “terrorist propaganda.” And just last month, the offices of Zaman were raided by police, who tear-gassed protesters who had massed in defense of the newspaper. Zaman is associated with Hizmet, an influential movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen; the Erdoğan government has been engaged with Hikmet in a struggle for power over the judiciary since at least 2013. Control of the press has become a tool of the Turkish state in furthering its Kurdish, Syrian and legal policies.

The policies of AKP in each of these areas are part of a broader strategy of centralization of power. There has long been a push to rewrite the Turkish constitution, which was last revised in 1982, to centralize power in the Presidency. At the same time, Turkey is beginning to shift its view eastwards. While the Turkish Republic was born in a secularizing movement that looked to Europe, Turkey under the AKP has been reintroducing religion to public life, and looking to be a Middle Eastern power rather than a junior partner to Europe. The refugee deal, however, may allow Erdoğan to “have his cake and eat it too.” Turkey can now become increasingly integrated into Europe while its president continues to act as a strongman at home and in the Middle East, insulted from criticism. To what extent Europe is willing to be complicit in this arrangement is an open question.


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