By Ani Aroian

The Republic of Turkey

In recent years, Turkey has become the top country of imprisoned journalists—at least 42 people—according to Reporters Without Boarders.1 Under their 2013 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks low in the freedoms of press. Out of 179 countries, Turkey places at 154 primarily because of its proximity to Syria and the outburst of rebellion for equality by the PKK (Parti Karkenani Kurdistan) Kurds.

Apart from the country’s inherent danger to journalists, Turkey has at least a century-long history of governmental censorship for freedoms of speech and press.2 While many writers, artists, historians have taken part in the exposé of governmental oppression, Turkey still stands firm under the Penal Code, Article 301 to restrict press freedoms and public speech.3

The Historical Background

Modern Turkey is demographically linked between Europe and Asia.3 Typically identified as a Middle Eastern country, the countries of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Syria and Greece surround Turkey. Prior to the 20th century, Turkey was an Asia Minor region of Anatolia. The Turkish government ruled as the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire for more than 600 years. During the peak of their reign, the Ottoman Empire was a powerful government force that dictated over 10 countries, including the modern day Syria, Armenia, Egypt, Israel and Iraq.4 Armenia, in particular, has a controversial past with the Turkish government which dates back to the 19th century—the Armenian Genocide.

While under the dictatorship of the Ottoman Empire, starting in 1894, the Armenians were forced into submission to all Turkish laws.5 They were not able to bear arms, testify in court, and had unusually high taxes. By 1908, the tension between the Armenians and Turks became apparent. The consensus amongst the Ottoman Empire was to exterminate the Armenian people. The original leader that plotted the Armenian Genocide was the Young Turkey Party, particularly Talaat Pasha, the Turkish Minister of Interior Affairs. Talaat Pasha’s orders were what Armenians would call “a blood-thirsty Turk” of cruel demands: “‘It is necessary to punish those who wish to ensure the existence of the Armenians, who have for centuries been an element of danger to Turkey…’”.6 From then on, the massacre of one and a half million people carried throughout cities and villages of Armenia and into the Syrian Desert. This ultimate spread of terror, havoc and devastation of the Armenian Genocide was recognized7 on April 24, 1915.

Fast-forward nearly 100 years, modern Turkey still denies the existence of the Armenian Genocide. The rejection of this historical event is the crux of why many Turkish laws regarding speech and press censorship are intact today. Any defamatory or seditious claims that insult “Turkishness” are considered illegal and will be prosecuted according to the Penal Code, Article 301.  Although the government runs under a republic-parliamentary structure with presidential and legislative courts,8 the authoritative nature of the Turkish government remains deficient in the equality and judicial protection for foreign and domestic peoples.9

Freedom of Speech

In regards to the freedoms of speech, and consequently the freedoms of press, the Turkish government has extended the use of censorship to maximum capacity.8 Because of issues from the Armenian Genocide or people speaking out for PKK equality, the Turkish government has referred back to the Penal Code, Article 301, to reiterate their viewpoint. Under this law, any insults to “Turkishness,” whether political or cultural, is criminalized. If the subjects are convicted and found guilty, they are subject to up to three years in prison.

The most recent scenario that insults “Turkishness” was late in 2012. Turkey’s government-supervised radio, television and film10 station, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK), had aired “The Simpsons,” a popular U.S. cartoon comedy. Then one episode of “The Simpsons” portrayed the desecration of bibles and the encouragement of alcohol use for young adults. The Turkish government immediately took the show off the air. They said it mocked God and showed blasphemous acts. Ironically, RTUK is famous for its spurts of rebellious behavior against the Turkish government.11 Many shows like “The Simpsons” often include censored points in each show, including instances of cursing, expressing dissident political views or drinking.

Although Turkey is predominantly a Muslim culture, the country is officially secular. In the attempt for a more democratic government, the Turkish law of “Dress and Appearance” has banned women to wear the Hijab—an Islamic headdress to symbolize religious practices—since the 1980s. According to the law, women are not allowed to enter a public, work or school area with a Hijab because it disrupts the secular nature of Turkey.12 An example of suppressing this political and religious freedom of speech was highlighted during an election for Turkish parliament.15 A woman that ran for the Virtue Party attempted to take office while wearing a Hijab. The punishment was so fierce, the woman was prohibited to participate in her political seat in parliament and was stripped of her citizenship. Consequently, she fled the country.

In 2007, Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish historian and writer, was charged under Article 301 for insulting “Turkishness” based on his advocacy for recognizing the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people13 in the early 1990s. Conversely, by analyzing Pamuk’s charges, Turkey questioned the secular state of the nation and its national identity. The Ministry of Justice questioned whether or not to press charges against Pamuk based on the insulting “Turkishness” standard. The case was ultimately dropped. Eighteen months later, Pamuk was ironically awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, which also recognized his political advocacy. In hindsight, Turkey was facing a greater question of whether they were ready to accept their history of ethnic cleansing. As seen in the next section, Hrant Dink, a famous writer like Pamuk, was charged and prosecuted under Article 301. He, however, did not walk away scot-free.

Freedom of Press

The thoughts and news of the Armenian Genocide have never died away. The U.S President Theodore Roosevelt once wrote:  “the Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and the failure to act against Turkey is to condone it…the failure to deal radically with the Turkish horror means that all talk of guaranteeing the future peace of the world is mischievous nonsense.” 14 Although decades have passed since President Roosevelt’s statement, historical figures, researchers, and organizations brought awareness to the Armenian Genocide. By the beginning of the 21st century, the beacon of hope was passed to the martyr of the Armenian peoples, Hrant Dink.

Dink, a native Turk of Armenian blood, developed his political career by 1980 concerning the Armenian Genocide and human rights for ethnic minorities.15 In 1996, Dink opened his own Armenian and Turkish newspaper, Agos, in the heart of Istanbul, Turkey. Dink’s journal articles and political advocacy eventually led to his conviction under Article 301 for insulting “Turkishness”.16 Turkey believed Dink was a threat to the country. By 2006, he had spent a year in prison. On Jan. 19, 2007, Dink was assassinated outside of the Agos headquarters by 17-year-old Ogun Samast. Because Samast was a minor during that time, his conviction to life-imprisonment was reduced to 23 years in July 2011.17

In March 2010, 59-year old Michael Dickenson walked out of district court in Istanbul a free man.18 Dickenson was among the few artist that openly admitted to being a Stuckist, which meant he was part of an international anti-art movement. The cartoon drawing in question was of the Turkish prime minister’s head placed on the body of a dog, and leashed by an American soldier with a skull head. The title was called “Nuclear.” Dickenson was sentenced to 425 days in prison with a 3,000 Euro fine. According to BBC, the Istanbul court acquitted his case because the judge saw it as an “embarrassing scenario” to place an artist behind bars. This instance is one of the few scenarios, the other by Ohran Pamuk, where the Turkish government dropped their own case.

Another example of recent years can be found on the World Wide Web.  According to Law 5651, censorship is made possible on the Internet, dedicated to suppress the accessibility of different websites.19 Over 7,000 major websites are unaccounted for when using the Internet in Turkey. Although keywords such as “terrorist,” “Armenians,” “Kurds,” have a clear direction in intention of Internet searching, words like “fat”, “pregnant” and the name “Adrianna” are less clear. According to NPR,20 many of the censored websites are based on online journalist publishing. Many organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists of Turkey (CPJ) face extreme charges, such as terrorism, towards 61 of their journalists.

Critical Comparison of Turkey versus United States

Turkey has made little to no progress in allowing the exercise of free speech and press within their country. Whether it is a domestic or foreign resident, the Turkish government has the right to override any action that is incongruent with their ideology. This is the primary distinction that separates governmental policies between Turkey and the United States. Unlike the United States, Turkey has no Bill of Rights or governmental laws to protect the freedoms of speech or press. The United States says, “Congress shall make no law” to protect First Amendment rights. In contrast, Turkish law intentionally suppresses freedom of expression. Turkish law is specifically designed to limit these freedoms and retain governmental censorship.

Over the years, the United States Supreme Court has shown a positive trend in defining and extending First Amendment rights. Within the parameters of each court case, the Supreme Court has addressed hate speech, libel and in favor of free speech and expression. These rulings allow for a more just and progressive government to prevail. New York Times v. United States (1971) and Snyder v. Phelps (2011) are pivotal cases that define the parameters for freedoms of speech and press. Even if the Supreme Court morally disagrees with their rulings, it is their duty to uphold liberty and justice for all.

The first case worth noting is New York Times Company v. United States, which was decided in 1971. The heart of case is marked by the freedoms of press and why the U.S. government cannot punish or censor newspaper articles. The background of this case starts with Daniel Ellsberg. He exposed the public to the Pentagon Papers in a newspaper article. The Pentagon Papers were  classified documents used to record statements from the government that were, in fact, conscious lies about the military progress of the Vietnam War. After the article was released to The New York Times and The Washington Post, the United States government argued that publishing these documents breeched national security and had no justification in freedoms of speech and press. By allowing the Pentagon Papers to float in the public eye, danger within the country was imminent. This, however, was not how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. In fact, it was just the opposite. They upheld the newspapers’ freedoms of speech and press protected by the First Amendment. This landmark case allowed for future newspapers to publish similar articles without government censorship. On the other hand, if the Turkish government had encountered this case with The New York Times, the government would have prevailed. There are no laws to protect freedoms of speech and press from the Turkish government. Article 301 clearly states that the government does not tolerate individuals that question or insult the nation’s integrity. It is seditious behavior, a criminal act against the Turkish government. Like Ellsberg and The New York Times journalists, Ohran Pamuk and Hrant Dink were two journalists were attempting to exercise their freedoms of speech and press by speaking out against the Turkish government. In the end, both of these men were tried under insulting “Turkishness,” which recognized how Turkish laws oppress and reprimand acts that strive for freedoms of speech and press.

Another controversial U.S. Supreme Court case, Snyder v. Phelps, was decided in 2011. The court ruled, once again, that hate speech is protected as free speech under the First Amendment. The Westboro Baptist Church, an evangelist, provocative Christian church, picketed the funeral of the deceased Corporal Matthew Snyder. As a right to their freedom of speech, the Westoboro Baptist Church held signs that said “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for 9/11,” “You’re Going to Hell.” The Supreme Court analyzed a key question: was Westboro’s hate speech protected under the First Amendment? Under this scenario, the court saw no evidence to prevent the Westboro Baptist Church from exercising their freedoms of speech. Thus, the Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church did not violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, even hate speech, and were well within the limits of free expression. The Turkish government, on the contrary, would not likely allow Westboro to continue their behaviors. It would be considered blasphemous. Although Turkey is a secular country, portraying God’s righteousness as disturbing messages and terrorist-like claims like “Thank God for 9/11” is a crime against God and against the Turkish government. In fact, Turkish law, seen in Article 115, prohibits21 hate speech against any religious, political, social or philosophical beliefs approved by the Turkish legal system. A person that even suggests a national threat or attack can be imprisoned up to three years.

The Current Status of Turkey

Although many organizations, both foreign and domestic, have protested against the oppressive nature of Turkish law—in freedoms of speech and press—they are more than likely prosecuted and arrested as a criminal violation for insulting “Turkishness.” With at least 42 known journalists imprisoned and countless others who have died in the name of democracy, it is unfortunate that their grievances to reveal truth are recognized as illegal acts by Turkey. This form of tyranny highlights the flaws and injustice of the Turkish government. Though the United States is a new nation relative to Turkey, American rights are protected under the First Amendment, which allows a delicate balance between government control and the freedoms of expression. Because of Turkey’s heavy regulation and militant interference with freedoms of speech and press, deficiencies are paid at the expense of inequality, oppression and in fear of the government. Will there be a turning point to release the chokehold of injustice? If so, what will it be, and when? Perhaps it is the recognition of the Armenian Genocide or the violent crimes toward the Kurdish people that will bring Turkey into a new era of rule. Whether the decision lies in the hands of the people or the government, there is little evidence that suggests change will come soon. The Turkish government continuously persists to regulate and control what most American citizens consider their unalienable rights to free speech and press.


1. “Turkey – World’s Biggest Prison For Journalists.” 20 Dec. 2012. Reporters Without Borders.  23 Mar. 2013. http://en.rsf.org/turkey-turkey-world-s-biggest-prison-for-19-12-2012,43816.html

2. “2013 World Press Freedom Index: Dashed Hopes After Spring.” 20 Mar. 2013. Reporters Without Borders. http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2013,1054.html

3. “Turkey.” 22 Mar. 2013. Encyclopedia Britannica: Online. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/609790/Turkey

4. “Ottoman Empire.” 22 Mar. 2013. Encyclopedia Britannica: Online. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/434996/Ottoman-Empire

5. Kasbarian, Lucine. Armenia-A Rugged Land, an Enduring People. New Jersey: Dillon Press, 1998.

6. Nazer, James. The Armenian Massacre. New York: T&T Publishing, Inc., 1968.

7. Armenian Genocide. 23 Dec. 2002. BBC News. 13 Mar. 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A884432

8. Coleman, Denise Youngblood. “Turkey: Political Conditions.” Country Watch. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.

9. “Turkey: Executive Summary.” Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011. United States Department of State. Print. 18 Mar. 2013.

10. “TV channel fined over Simpsons ‘blasphemy’ in Turkey.” 4 Dec. 2012. BBC News. 21 Mar. 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-20598262

11. Cleek, Ashley “Why Turkey’s BV Cop Behzat C Makes Censors Uneasy.” 29 Nov. 2012. PRI’s The World. 13 Mar 2013. http://www.theworld.org/2012/11/turkey-behzat

12. Aydin, Hasan. “Headscarf (Hijab) Ban in Turkey: importance of veiling.” 21 Mar. 2013. Online. West Texas A&M University.

13. Goknar, Erdag. Orhan Pamuk, Secularism, and Blasphemy. New York: Taylor and Francis Publishing, 2013.

14. Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States. 11 May 1918. Armenian National Institute. 26 Mar. 2013.  http://www.armenian-genocide.org/roosevelt.html

15. Corley, Felix. “Hrant Dink, Journalist…”. 22 January 2007. The Independent. 6 March 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/hrant-dink-433200.html

16. “Dink, Hrant.” Britannica Book of the Year, 2008. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online School Edition. 30 Jan. 2008. http://school.eb.com/eb/article9437644

17. “Hrant Dink murder: Turk Ogun Samast jailed.” 25 Jul. 2011. BBC News. 22 April. 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14282111

18. Head, Jonathan. “Artist defiant despite fine for Turkish PM ‘mockery’.” 9 Mar. 2010. Web. 21 Mar. 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8558805.stm

19. “Online Censorship Now Bordering on the Ridiculous in Turkey.” 29 April 2011. Reporters Without Borders. 29 April 2011. http://en.rsf.org/turkey-online-censorship-now-bordering-on-29-04-2011,40194.html

20. Kenyon, Peter. “As Turkey Rises, ‘A Real Problem’ With Censorship.” 10 April 2012. National Public Radio: News. 13 Mar. 2013. http://www.npr.org/2012/11/10/164845111/as-turkey-rises-a-real-problem-with-censorship

21. Bayir, Derya. Minorities and Nationalism in Turkish Law. England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2013.

This post was last updated on April 30, 2013.


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