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Turkey Cracks Down on Dissent

Nick Ashdown/The Media Line

As Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) tightens its control over the country, it’s using every means at its disposal to silence its many critics, including ordinary citizens.

Ankara mayor and AKP member MelihGökçek, for instance, boasts of suing 3,000 Twitter users for “insulting” him.

EyüpHanoğlu, a Turkish activist who works in Austria, was sued by Gökçek for calling him “shameless” after the mayor asked a pro-choice woman on Twitter if she’s had many abortions. Gökçek has gained notoriety for several public comments such as advising women to kill themselves rather than have an abortion.

Hanoğlu thinks it’s ironic that he’s being sued for using the word shameless, since Gökçek himself, who has nearly 2.5 million followers on Twitter and has tweeted over 50,000 times, regularly uses this same term against his detractors in an insulting way.

“He uses the same words against other people, and nothing happens, but when others use [these] words against him, then he takes it as an insult,” Hanoğlutold The Media Line. “This is ridiculous.”

The activist insists it’s his right to criticize public officials. “This was not insulting, this was not a crime. I just used my right to protest.”

Gökçek once tweeted the phone number of a student who criticized him, and photos in which a 17 year-old girl who called him “indecent” is seen with alcoholic drinks. During the Gezi protests in 2013, the mayor encouraged his Twitter followers to denounce BBC journalist SelinGirit as an “English spy.” He also applauded pop star YıldızTilbe after she praised the Holocaust on Twitter last July and wrote “May Allah bless Hitler.”

Hanoğlu thinks it isn’t fair that Gökçek hasnever been sued for his controversial remarks, and would like to be the first to do it.

The activist also doesn’t think the government has anything against him in particular, but is trying to quell dissent in general, targeting a few people as examples for everyone to see.

“They want to scare people off,” Hanoğlusays. “They’re trying to silence everybody, so nobody will stand against them.”

Professor Howard Eissenstat, an expert on Turkey at St. Lawrence University, agrees, comparing the AKP’s quelling of dissent to a speed trap.

“The point of a speed trap isn’t to catch everybody who speeds. The point is to slow everybody down,” Eissenstattold The Media Line.

He says the aim is to get people to self-censor, since it’s impossible to completely shut down social media. “It seems to me that they’re finding a way to moderate social media through three, four, five prosecutions a week.”

Several prominent individuals and even ordinary citizens have recently been accused of insulting the president in what appears to be an ever-increasing criminalization of dissent.

MerveBüyüksaraç, an industrial designer, writer and former Miss Turkey, was charged with insulting Erdoğan after she shared a satirical poem on her Instagram account. This week a prosecutor requested a sentence against her of up to two years in prison.

Can Dündar, editor of the popular secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet, testified on Tuesday at a criminal hearing targeting him. Dündar is charged with making comments insulting the president during an interview with Celal Kara, a Turkish prosecutor who was in charge of the December 2013 corruption investigation involving high-level government officials.

Last December, a 16 year-old boy was arrested at his school in Konya on charges of insulting Erdoğan, allegedly calling him “the leader of corruption, bribery and theft,” during a speech at a political rally. The student now faces a possible 37-month prison sentence.

Professor Eissenstat says silencing its critics is all part of the AKP’s process of consolidating control over the Turkish state.

“I think the AKP uses these lawsuits as part of its toolbox,” he says. “The big problem is that in many ways it’s entrenched in the obsession with centralization and monopolizing power.”

Eissenstat says a plethora of recent measures, including a security package being passed this week that expands police and government-appointed governors’ powers, “gives strong indication that things are going to get worse rather than better.”

He believes the AKP is poised to fundamentally increase its already significant hold over Turkey over the next year, and says he has many friends who are now afraid to openly voice critical opinions.

Hanoğlu, who couldn’t renew his passport because of the lawsuit against him and hasn’t been able to work for several months, has been rattled by his experience.

“Before I wrote exactly what I thought, but now I’ll have to think twice,” he says. “I’m scared.”