Fears rise over eroding freedom of speech as cases come before courts.
A Turkish court fined a leading newspaper on Thursday for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while a top model went on trial on similar charges, as controversy grows over eroding freedoms ahead of June elections.
An Ankara court deemed that a column last year by one of the Hurriyet daily’s star commentators, Mehmet Yilmaz, was an “attack on the personal rights” of Erdogan. It ordered the newspaper’s chairwoman and Yilmaz to pay 20,000 lira in damages to Erdogan, whose lawyers had requested 100,000 lira in the civil case, the official Anatolia news agency reported.
The report gave no details on the nature of the column dated Aug. 25, 2014. But on that day, Hurriyet had published a lengthy article by Yilmaz recalling extensive corruption accusations against Erdogan, two weeks after his victory in presidential elections.
The cases come amid growing concern over the numbers of journalists, bloggers and ordinary people who are being taken to court on charges of insulting Erdogan and other top officials. In a case that has become symbolic of such legal proceedings, model and former Miss Turkey beauty queen Merve Buyuksarac went on trial Thursday on charges of insulting Erdogan, the Radikal online newspaper reported.
Erdogan’s legal team had lodged a complaint against Buyuksarac, 26, for posting a satirical poem on her Instagram page. She faces up to two years in jail if found guilty, according to the report.
Buyuksarac was not in court but was represented by her lawyer, who said he would provide a doctor’s report that the model was unwell. The hearing was adjourned.
The co-founder of the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan wants to cement his role as Turkey’s number one with a U.S.-style executive presidency. The AKP in June 7 parliamentary election hopes to gain a clear majority to be able to change the constitution and switch to a presidential system in which the head of state would enjoy full executive powers.
Hurriyet, one of Turkey’s bestselling mainstream dailies, is occasionally critical of Erdogan but generally toes a very careful line.
However, an open conflict has broken out between the paper’s owners, the Dogan Media Group, and Erdogan over the president’s bitter criticism of its coverage of the death sentence handed to Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
Hurriyet’s headline on the verdict, “Death sentence with 52 percent,” was severely criticized by pro-government media and Erdogan himself for allegedly suggesting that the Turkish leader could share the same fate as Morsi.
Erdogan was elected president with 52 percent of the vote in the August 2014 election after more than a decade as prime minister.
Pro-AKP lawyer Rahmi Kurt, known for repeatedly making legal complaints against Erdogan critics, has filed a petition with prosecutors asking for a criminal investigation against the editors of Hurriyet, Turkish media reported. Some commentators have ridiculed Erdogan over the dispute, saying the president himself pointed out that Morsi had been popularly elected with 52 percent in his own first reaction to the news.
Boldly taking on the president, the newspaper on Tuesday published an editorial denouncing his attacks against the publication. “What do you want from us? Why do you attack us with obvious injustices, obvious distortions, and obvious attempts to guess our intentions by reading selectively? Why do you target us?” it asked. It accused the president of making an “unfair and baseless” accusation against the newspaper.
The Turkish Journalists’ Association blasted Kurt’s complaint against the paper as an example of the “media crackdown” prevalent in Turkey.