Insulting Turkishness

Jeffrey Rosen’s article “Google’s Gatekeepers” in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is an interesting read. Seems that Google has to employ a gaggle of YouTube censors to make sure it complies with laws in every jurisdiction it reaches. Laws that have not only civil but oftentimes criminal penalties:

[A] Turkish judge had ordered the nation’s telecom providers to block access to the site in response to videos that insulted the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which is a crime under Turkish law.

Which law exactly is this? Why it’s Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which prohibits insulting Turkey, Turkish ethnicity and even government institutions. And it was originally punishable by up to 3 years in the pokey. And it’s no Club Fed either. From Wikipedia:

 

   Before amendments were made to Article 301 on April 30, 2008, the article stated the following:

 

  1. A person who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.
  2. A person who publicly denigrates the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security organizations shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years.
  3. In cases where denigration of Turkishness is committed by a Turkish citizen in another country the punishment shall be increased by one third.
  4. Expressions of thought intended to criticize shall not constitute a crime.

Prison is not necessarily a requirement. Noted Turkish journalist Hrant Dink received a suspended sentence in 2006 when convicted for his statements about the Armenian genocide . This apparently didn’t strike some as just punishment, so they murdered him. So what happened next? In January 2007:

 

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, on his way yesterday to Paris to participate in a conference on Lebanon, told reporters that there are "certain problems with article 301." The controversial article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code is the one which was used by nationalist lawyers to bring recently slain journalist Hrant Dink to court on charges of "insulting Turkey."

 

“Certain problems” indeed. The solution? Reduce the maximum punishment to two years, replace the words “Turkishness” with “Turkish Nation”, and require the Ministry of Justice to review and approve prosecutions.

 

Acess to YouTube – owned by Google - is still completely blocked in Turkey to this day.

 

Update: My two marketing experts, Scott and Mark, have simultaneously alerted me that by virtue of writing this post I should now make the following statement: If you or a loved one live in Austin, Texas and have been charged with violating Turkish Penal Code 301, please contact my office for immediate assistance.

 

Some in the legal blogosphere may complain about the propriety of the above statement, but I pay my marketers a ton of money to help me write this stuff. Not that I care about the cost; I just pass it along to the consumer.

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Ashley - December 5, 2008 10:39 AM

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Gritsforbreakfast - December 23, 2008 7:56 AM

Under Ottoman rule, the Turks nearly lost their nationalist culture after centuries of deference to a theocratic empire, so when the pendelum swung the other way, it did so quite extremely. The history behind those laws about defaming "Turkishness" are fascinating, and Ataturk (who spawned them) was a truly remarkable, historic figure.

After the Ottoman Empire fell it was not at all clear Turkey would become an independent country, their national identity was so subsumed by the Arabesque theocracy. Even their writing was in Arabic, though Turkish words don't translate because not all the sounds are represented. As a result, the Turks actually have the only language in actual use that was designed in the 20th century by modern linguists, sculpted (with a few variations) from a western alphabet to match the Turkish usage. This had the brilliant result of re-popularizing the written word by making it relevant to the general public. Today, literacy is high and Turkish popular culture is thriving largely because of those culturally nationalist initiatives by Ataturk. Now the pendelum is heading back, though, as the mostly Muslim population has rebelled against overtly anti-religious laws from the same period aimed at secularizing society and disrupting the culture that had propped up the Ottomans.

None of that justifies the ridiculous laws about "Turkishness" today, or even after WWI when they were created, but there are historical reasons for them that go to the heart of Turkey's national identity.

It's actually a wonderful place to visit - some of my favorite spots on the planet are in Turkey.

Jamie - December 23, 2008 9:15 AM

Thanks Scott. Sometimes I think I should have majored in History. It's always fascinating stuff.

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