I wrote about Erdogan’s use of Europe’s lese-majeste laws for the Guardian

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 16.09.34

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 I wrote in March about how the Turkish Prez was using outdated and often largely forgotten about lèse-majesté laws in order to silence critics in Europe, but how it was actually backfiring.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 It seems he is actively targeting other European countries that, like Germany, still have outdated, and often near forgotten about, lèse-majesté laws.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”.

Is Turkey heading towards civil war?

Is Turkey heading for civil war?

I wrote this piece for News Hub a few weeks ago, but it seems apt now following the awful bombings in Ankara. Can read it on News Hub here.

Things are not looking good for Turkey. The Turkish lira is at a record low against the US dollar and society is polarized over ongoing clashes between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces. Last week, Selahattin Demirtas, leader of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish political party, the HDP, warned that the country is on the verge of a civil war.

With violence escalating, it seems worryingly viable. Old tensions between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) – which they consider to be a terrorist organisation – have been well and truly reignited in a conflict that has seen 40,000 people killed since 1984.

The PKK were first to break a two-year ceasefire in July. They claimed responsibility for the shooting of two Turkish policemen – a reprisal, they claimed. Many Kurds sympathetic to the PKK blamed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for being complicit in, or at least passive towards, an Isis-blamed suicide attack that claimed the lives of 32 activists in Suruc, close to the Syrian border.

Days of fighting followed and when Turkey finally announced airstrikes on Isis militants in Syria, it only took until the next day for the guns to turn instead onto PKK targets in Iraq. Suspicions of the vehemently anti-Assad AKP government’s ties to Isis are never far away. The government denies any link. However, while Kurdish fighters remain the biggest resistance against Isis, these attacks will have done little to hinder the jihadists.

Since then, a series of nationalist protests, car bombings, arson attacks and sieges have brought violence well and truly back to the streets of Turkey. The government have been accused of fanning tensions for their own political means. If Turkey is heading towards a civil war, it’s increasingly believed that it’s by design rather than accident.

In June, just before the peace was broken, the AKP failed to win a political majority in a general election for the first time since 2002. The party’s rule had become increasingly authoritarian, swaying the secular country towards Islamification. They were denied their majority by Demirtas’s left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP who surpassed the steep 10% threshold – with 13% overall – in their first general election.

The streets fizzed with excitement that night, a real sense of euphoria after years of oppressive rule. HDP had the young and the alienated on their side, both Turkish and Kurdish, and channelled the revolutionary spirit of 2013’s anti-government Gezi Park movement.

However, coalition talks, which appeared a non-starter from the off, collapsed and a new election has been scheduled for November 1st. Beyond simply retaining control, the AKP and their controversial president Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who undertook the largely ceremonial role after hitting a three-term prime ministerial limit last year – seek a majority so that the constitution can be revised, ushering in a new presidential system. A move no doubt learned from Russia’s Vladamir Putin.

The subsequent frosting over of Kurdish-Turkish relations seems too convenient to be coincidence. As Marxist theory goes, the best way to end a revolution is with a counterrevolution. Years of massive economic growth led to increased inequality, with the poor now paying the price for the current crisis. Yet divide people on national lines instead of class ones, and it becomes far easier to sway the vote.

If Turkey did somehow engineer PKK retaliation over their handling of the Suruc bombing – or subsequent skirmishes – would Erdogan really be willing to throw the country back into bloody conflict just to win an election?

He is certainly a figure of scorn to his critics, trailing in his wake a string of corruption scandals, inflammatory comments about women’s role in society and incessant attacks on the press. He has shut down pro-Kurdish TV stations, online content is frequently blocked and many journalists have been arrested and even deported for daring to question his government.

Erdogan’s policies are uncompromising, everyone who disagrees with him is soon publicly branded a terrorist, or said to be aiding terrorists. When tapes were released claiming to contain recordings of him ordering his son to dispose of millions of dollars of incriminating cash amid one corruption scandal, he refused to step down, dismissing it as a plot to bring down the government. He’s no Mother Theresa, but as to whether he would risk thousands of lives for a game of political chess is not for me to say (see journalism prosecutions above). However, growing numbers of Turkish people believe so and it’s a feeling that’s not going to be easy to shake.

Either way, it’s the Kurdish civilians who are left baring the brunt of the country’s power struggles. Street attacks on the Kurdish minority are growing, and their cities are under siege. Few feel protected by official forces. According to even the pro-government press, 1,100 Kurds have died since the recent unrest compared to 150 soldiers. If civil war is brewing in Turkey, it’s because at least one side wants peace. They are, however, willing to fight for it.