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May 22, 2012, Tuesday

Mr. Öcalan!

The Turkish media long had a habit of talking like state institutions in the news and in the comments they presented.

This has been changing but it is quite a strong tradition. One of the consequences of this “state language” was a certain way to refer to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

Newspapers and television broadcasts are full of derogatory adjectives when reporting news about the PKK and Öcalan. Just a few examples for how Öcalan is referred to in Turkish media are as follows: “baby killer,” “terrorist chieftain,” “leader of a bloody organization” and so on.

To be honest, I could understand if in private an individual used these kinds of derogatory words for the leader of an organization that caused so much pain and suffering in Turkey, but I have always had difficulty in understanding how these kinds of adjectives can be used in news coverage.

While the media always referred to Öcalan and the PKK in derogatory terms, on the other side, the judiciary was also busy throwing people into jail for their alleged use of “praise” for them. If, for example, you referred to Öcalan as “Sayın” in Turkish (which could be translated as “esteemed” or sometimes “Mr.”) you may have been prosecuted for allegedly promoting propaganda of the organization or acting in line with the purposes of a terrorist organization.

The Supreme Court of Appeals has just quashed a verdict regarding this and created a new precedence in favor of freedom of expression. Let’s read the news coverage of Sibel Hürtaş from the Habertürk daily, dated May 21, to learn the details of this recent judgment:

“The Supreme Court of Appeals Penal Chamber gave the green light to the use of the expression ‘Mr. Abdullah Öcalan’ which has been the reason for the imprisonment of several politicians. The court decided that the use of the phrase was covered by the principle of ‘freedom of expression,’ and overruled the punishment of its usage.

“The ruling has ended the debate on the use of ‘Mr.’ which put a firm stamp on a period. The ruling was made in a case about an interview on Roj TV with BDP member Hatip Dicle and Kurdish politician Selim Sadak, who are currently imprisoned under the KCK [Kurdistan Communities Union] probe. Dicle and Sadak referred to Abdullah Öcalan as ‘Mr. Öcalan’ and to PKK members as ‘guerillas.’ Specially authorized prosecutors in Ankara later filed lawsuits against the interviewees. Dicle and Sadak were tried at the Ankara 11th High Criminal Court.

“The court sentenced each of the accused to six years in prison, based on the reason that they ‘praised a crime and criminals in line with the objectives of the terrorist organization, the PKK.’ Following the appeal, the case was moved to the Supreme Court of Appeals, which reversed the verdict.

“The high court called for a holistic interpretation of the interview, and stated that the phrases were covered by Article 26 of the Constitution as well as Article 10 of the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights]. The preamble for the overruling stated that the phrases were covered by the ‘freedom of expression which is held up by the verdicts of the Supreme Court of Appeals and the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR].’ The high court unanimously absolved the accused, stressing that they could not be tried for using the phrase in question.

“There has recently been a campaign to support people who have been tried for referring to Öcalan as ‘Mr.’ The original phrase in Turkish is ‘Sayın,’ which is a hat-tipping expression used before names to show respect. The campaigners signed petitions to turn themselves in for using the phrase, and 150 were sued. There were also approximately 300 cases against 29 lawyers of Abdullah Öcalan for referring to him as ‘Mr. Öcalan.’ A total of 949 people were convicted for the same offense in 2006-2007.”

Well, I am glad that we have this judgment from the Supreme Court, which will be binding on all local courts. What also made me very pleased was that our high court justified its decision by relying on the jurisprudence of the ECtHR. In recent years there has been a growing tendency to this effect. I very much welcome this decision of our high court, which put an end to such a nonsensical legal practice and which broadens the limits of freedom of expression in Turkey.

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