Again, still catching up on updates. I wrote in March about how the Turkish Prez was using outdated and often largely forgotten about lèse-majesté laws in order to silence critics in Europe, but how it was actually backfiring. It prompted several countries to rush through changes and abolishments of the laws, therefore actually scoring an accidental victory for freedom of speech. You can read the published version here or the unedited one below.
It seems as though hardly a day goes by without Turkey’s President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan and his sense-of-humour free Justice and Development Party (AKP) government having a go at someone. Over the past few weeks, their spectacular ability to take offence and ping out accusations of ‘spy!’ and ‘terrorist!’ at anyone within reach has grown such momentum that the renowned Do-Not-Insultan has now turned his thin-skinned, pointy-finger towards free speech in Europe.
Since Angela Merkel’s decision to approve a prosecution request for comedian – although admittedly, not a very funny one – Jan Boehermann for his ‘insulting’ song Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğan, the Turkish president has been capitalising on his success. It seems he is actively targeting other European countries that, like Germany, still have outdated, and often near forgotten about, lèse-majesté laws.
Similar to Turkey’s Article 229, which concerns defamation of the president, these ‘injured majesty’ laws make it a crime to insult rulers or heads of state. They often include other ‘friendly’ leaders, too – a probe under section 103 of Germany’s criminal code prohibits “insulting organs or representatives of foreign states”.
Turkey recently attempted to utilize the Dutch version of the law, requesting that Turks working in The Netherlands snitch on each other. A leaked email from Rotterdam’s Turkish Consulate General to Turkish organisations operating in the country appeared to ask them – although the consulate insists it was all just a misunderstanding – to report back on anyone who had insulted either the Turkish president or the Turkish state.
Dutch-Turkish journalist Ebra Umar was then arrested on holiday in Turkey after someone reported her for tweeting sections of a column she’d written for the Dutch Metro criticizing the email. She compared it to practices used by the Dutch arm of the Nazi Party during WWII, which probably hit a nerve after the media furore that surrounded a speech from Erdoğan in January that appeared – another misunderstanding – to cite Hitler’s Germany as an example of effective government.
Dutch comedian Hans Teeuwen could be prosecuted, too. When asked about the Boehermann case in an interview he claimed that Erdoğan used to be a “boywhore” in an Istanbul brothel and that the leader still owes him a blowjob.
Switzerland has a lèse-majesté law and the Turkish government this week demanded the removal of a photo of a boy from an exhibition in Geneva that associated Erdoğan with his death – he was killed by a tear gas canister fired by police during the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests. The Swiss government rejected the demand, but if you live in Italy, Spain, Denmark or Norway, you might want to watch your back.
Erdoğan’s attempts to silence his critics often have the opposite result – there are few better instances of the Streisand-effect (when an attempt to hide something actually results in far more publicity) than the time Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson waded into the debate over whether a Turkish doctor had shared a meme that compared Erdoğan to Gollum, for which he faced prosecution, or far friendlier Sméagol. It resulted in the little-seen images being shared by news outlets across the globe. Attempts by the Tall Man – a nickname used by the president’s supporters, and with a well-concealed snigger, his detractors – to flex his muscles beyond Turkey’s borders and have a go at freedom of speech in Europe have also backfired.
Outrage at the use of laws that were, until now, rarely used outside of Thailand, has caused European countries to scramble to rid themselves of the lèse-majesté. On Thursday, Germany’s Justice Ministry completed a draft to abolish its version. Chancellor Merkel had previously promised the law would be removed by 2018 as a result of the embarrassing Boehermann affair and the furious debate over freedom of speech that followed, but it’s been fast tracked. The draft included the statement: “the idea that foreign state representatives need special protection against insults does not accord with the era.”
The Dutch government, too, has said it will reform its old law. Just last year there were calls for it to be removed after an activist faced prosecution under the lèse-majesté for saying “fuck the king” when he was arrested for protesting. Erdoğan’s current taste for the law, however, has prompted Dutch MPs to push for a removal, and quickly. The justice minister said the constitution should not be a “museum for out-of-date articles”.
In Switzerland, repeal of the law has been called for by politicians from both sides of the political spectrum in the wake of the Böhmermann case. Former cabinet minister Jean-Christophe Schwaab said: “The fact that you can be prosecuted for insulting a foreign head of state here in Switzerland reminds me of the Middle Ages”.