Édition N°4, 2021-2022

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The Ongoing Case of Sedef Kabaş and Its Implications for Turkish Press Freedom: On “Insult to the President” Laws and “Executive Orders” AYSE-LARA SELCUKER

COLUMNIST

It started on January 22nd at 2 a.m. when the renowned journalist Sedef Kabaş was detained after reciting a well known Circassion proverb on Tele1. She said,, “‘An ox does not become a king as it ascends to a palace, but the palace becomes a barn.’ There is [also another] very famous proverb that says that a crowned head becomes wiser. But we see it is not true.” Just hours after her presence on live television, she was detained and arrested due to her public criticism. About a week after her arrest, on February 1st, the International Press Institute and 26 other organizations specializing in press freedom released a joint statement condemning her arrest and calling for her immediate release. Since the release of the statement, Kabaş continues to be held in pre-trial detention, according to the Independent Communication Network. In the last three weeks, the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office Press Bureau’s indictment to arrest Kabaş based on “insulting the President” and “public officers” has been confirmed by the İstanbul 10th Criminal Judgeship of Peace, revealing that she is facing up to 12 years and 10 months in jail. Now, exactly a month after Kabaş’s detention, the court has set a date for the first hearing (11 March) and has denied Kabaş’s lawyer’s request for her release. With little to no positive updates regarding the case as Kabaş wraps up her first month in jail, the state of freedom of expression and press in Turkey has become even more pressing both domestically and internationally. Kabaş’s case highlights two parts of the modern Turkish legal system that have weakened its press freedom and therefore

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democracy: the overuse of (1) “insult” or “libel” laws and (2) executive orders and the (lack of) separation of powers. The latest data provided by the 2020 Justice Statistics Report from Turkey’s Department of Justice reveals that convictions of “insulting the President” have risen to 160,169 during President Erdoğan’s tenure. For context, the two next-highest numbers of convictions of “insulting the president,” which occurred under former presidents Abdullah Gül and Kenan Evren, were recorded as 848 and 340 respectively. Variations of libel and insult laws towards government officials exist in virtually every country. Yet the wording of the articles are usually very clear and the definition—by precedent in common law-practicing countries and by writing in civil law-practicing countries—is kept as narrow as possible. Usually, the insults must genuinely instigate some sort of violence. Another factor normally strengthening democracy, historically controversial in Turkey, is the separation of powers. Since Erdoğan’s 2017 referendum replacing the parliamentary system with an executive presidency, as well as the “Emergency Status” put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of executive orders has strikingly increased. While the Kabaş case has not currently been dealt with any executive orders, there is suspicion that the rule of law will not be used to make the decision whether or not to imprison Kabaş. Kabaş must be released immediately, but the work cannot stop there. Turkey’s judicial and legal system needs immediate reform, notably through the limitation of presidential powers, the increase of the number of overseers in civil cases, and the reduction of the scope of libel laws.• SEDEF KABAŞ Ş

As of February 2022, Turkey ranks 153rd amongst all countries in Reporters Without Borders’s (RSF) World Press Freedom Index. According to these figures, there are 369 journalists, 102 citizen journalists, and 24 media assistants imprisoned across the country, mostly through anti-democratic prosecution. The status of press freedom has significant implications on the state of democracy in the Eurasian nation. In this article, I wish to dissect the effects of restrictions on press freedom through one recent and notable case: the arrest of Sedef Kabaş.


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