Turkey: ‘Charlie Hebdo’ prison sentences for two journalists violate freedom of expression

Turkey: ‘Charlie Hebdo’ prison sentences for two journalists violate freedom of expression - Protection

An estimated 35,000 people assemble at the Place de la Republique in Paris in solidarity with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which was attacked by Islamist gunmen on 7 January 2015, leaving 10 people in the magazine's offices and two policemen dead. Many are holding pens to show their support fot the murdered cartoonists who worked on the magazine. Multicoloured letters carried by protesters spell the words 'Not Afraid'. Brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi entered the magazine's office and shot dead 10 people. Another two policemen were killed in the immediate aftermath. The two brothers were finally killed in a standoff with police in a town northeast of Paris where they had taken refuge in a factory after taking a hostage.

ARTICLE 19 condemns the two-year prison sentences for Cumhuriyet journalists Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Çetinkaya, for republishing the Charlie Hebdo “survivor’s edition” cover image. The convictions for “inciting hate and enmity”, and increased penalties due to the offence being committed through the media, violate international human rights law.

“Imprisoning two journalists for their newspaper’s gesture of solidarity with murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is a clear violation of right to freedom of the expression; they must be released immediately and without condition. The government must cease its crackdown on media freedom in Turkey and harassment against newspaper Cumhuriyet,” said David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programmes at ARTICLE 19.

“International human rights law gives broad protection to freedom of expression, including artistic expression, even if people may find it deeply offensive,” Diaz-Jogeix added.

Article 216(1) of the Turkish penal code makes it a criminal offence to “openly provoke a group of people belonging to a different social class, religion, race, sect, or coming from another origin, to be rancorous or hostile against another group”, and provides for between 1 and 3 years imprisonment if the act “causes risk from the aspect of public safety”.  Article 218 allows sentences to be doubled for offences committed through the media.

ARTICLE 19 argues that the application of Article 216(1) in this case violates international human rights law, and that it requires urgent reform to prevent against further abuse. 

Criminal penalties, in particular heavy custodial sentences, for “hate speech” are often disproportionate except for in the most exceptional and severe cases. Prosecutions must require a clear intent to incite violence or serious harm against individuals. That harm must be shown to be likely and imminent following the alleged incitement to violence.

 Both journalists were acquitted of charges for “openly insulting religious values” under Article 216(3). Laws that seek to limit freedom of expression to protect the feelings of followers of a particular religious belief are not legitimate and are open to abuse. This has been seen in Turkey:

  • On 15 April 2013, pianist Fazıl Say was given a 10-month suspended sentence for ‘insulting religious values’ in a series of tweets. The tweets included a verse from an 11th-century poem by Omar Khayyam, which challenged the understanding of ‘heaven’ in Islam.
  • On 25 May 2013, the Turkish-Armenian writer and linguist Sevan Nişanyan was sentenced to over 13 months in prison for alleged blasphemy in a blog post defending the controversial film ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ on grounds of freedom of expression.
  • On 7 August 2013, Sedat Kapanoğlu, owner of the user-generated satirical dictionary Ekşi Sözlük, and 40 contributors to the site were charged with religious defamation, and ‘committing a public order offence via press or broadcast.’ The charges relate to entries satirising the Prophet Muhammed.

ARTICLE 19 calls for the repeal of Article 216(3) of the Penal Code without delay.

The threat of increased criminal sentences for offences committed through the media in Article 218 additionally chills freedom of expression and media freedom, and cannot be justified under international human rights law. ARTICLE 19 calls on the Turkish authorities to repeal it without delay.

At the United Nations Human Rights Council, Turkey accepted recommendations during its Universal Periodic Review to protect freedom of expression, including for journalists, and to ensure its penal code and anti-terror laws are consistent with its international obligations. 

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Turkish government to release Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Çetinkaya without condition or delay, and to implement its Universal Periodic Review commitments to bring the Penal Code and other laws into compliance with its international human rights obligations, including through the repeal of Article 216 (3) and Article 218, in addition to the reform of Article 216 (1).