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January 01, 2013, Tuesday

The prime minister’s lawsuits will backfire

Freedom of expression was and is still one of the most problematic areas in Turkey.

 There are so many obstacles before it. However, our Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan long ago introduced a curious element to this sphere. When a journalist makes him angry, he brings a lawsuit against this journalist and demands compensation.

Several other commentators and I have long criticized this attitude of Erdoğan, claiming that a lawsuit by a prime minister targeting a journalist is a form of devastating intimidation directed at all other journalists. The prime minister does, of course, have a legitimate right to bring a lawsuit for defamation and other purposes, but this should be acceptable under very specific and limited circumstances, given what is at stake. Against our criticism, proponents of our prime minister's attitude claim that Erdoğan does not bring compensation cases for criticism but for slander and defamation. This, however, is exactly where our problem starts. Yes, it is true that the prime minster files lawsuits when bad words are involved, but most of the time these words do not go beyond the limits of acceptable criticism by the standards of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

The ECtHR has already found Turkey guilty of breaching freedom of expression in a case in which there definitely was, by Turkish standards, a serious insult directed at the prime minister. I do not think any journalist whom the prime minster has ever sued has used harsher words than Erbil Tuşalp, who said the prime minister had “become such a nervous wreck…that he dismissed a question like the erection of the ‘Pontic Genocide Memorial’ in Thessaloniki… suffering from a psychopathic and aggressive illness.”

Turkish courts decided that Tuşalp should have paid compensation for this statement to the prime minster. This case was brought before the ECtHR. The court concluded that it “could not find that the strong remarks highlighted by the Turkish courts could be construed as a gratuitous personal attack against the prime minister. There was moreover nothing in the case file to suggest that the articles had had any effect on Mr. Erdoğan’s political career or his professional or private life.” And the court decided that Turkey had breached the applicant’s right of freedom of expression and needed to pay Tuşalp compensation. From this perspective, we can conclude that almost all of the cases that the prime minster won in Turkey will be overturned when they reach the ECtHR.

What is very interesting here is this: Turkish courts have recently and systematically reached the same conclusion -- that when the ECtHR finds a judgment by domestic courts in breach of the European convention, a re-trial should start at the domestic level. This means that almost all the cases that our prime minster has brought and won against journalist may backfire against him. He received a considerable amount of compensation through these cases. He may have to pay it back one by one to the journalists whom he sued before domestic courts. Since he has brought so many cases against journalists, the total amount he will have to pay back could reach dramatic levels.

Will he abandon his habit of suing journalists in light of these judgments from the ECtHR? Or will they try to find a way to bypass judgments from the ECtHR by introducing a new law preventing the re-trial for cases the ECtHR found in breach? It would be very interesting to observe what attitude our prime minster will assume in face of this coming legal catastrophe for himself. Let’s see what’ll happen.

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