After more than two months, Istanbul’s parks have reopened. The Municipality of Istanbul has emulated the social distancing circles that were drawn with white paint on the lawn in the parks of New York and San Francisco.
Aside from its practical use, those circles serve as a metaphor for the way the coronavirus has sealed off and exerted greater control on our lives. In the Turkish context, those circles are also metaphors for the growing restrictions and assaults on freedom on speech that came with the outbreak.
Unlike the actual social distancing lines, the imaginary lines for freedoms and rights in Turkey are blurry and changing. The President and his allies distort and change the law to suit their whims. The Penal Code, the Constitution, and universal law are twisted accordingly.
The cases of philanthropist Osman Kavala and former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş serve as striking examples as to how this is achieved: The classification of offense was changed so that neither are released despite ECHR decisions.
Yet it is not only about Kavala and Demirtaş, or about the thousands of jailed journalists, lawyers, activists and opponents, all of whom are described as “convicts of thought.” During the lockdown, there were many alarming attacks on freedom of speech and human rights. I asked Kerem Altıparmak, a prominent human rights lawyer, if breaches on human rights had worsened significantly.
“In the past few years, we have stopped saying ‘This the worst that can happen’, because we’re experiencing new and unprecedented downs with regards to the law. After the coup attempt, Turkey was ruled through statutory decrees, some of which became permanent. The government then confiscated the power of the Parliament,” Altıparmak told me.
“During the pandemic, the Interior Ministry has published several memorandums announcing which segments of the population should stay at home and during which times. What is legitimate is not necessarily legal. I fear that this habit of ruling through memorandums might become praxis. No one has objected to it so far,” Altıparmak added.
Altıparmak pointed to other severe problems with regards to freedom of speech. First, access to information has become highly problematic. Our information concerning the pandemic is limited to the Tweets of the Health Ministry.
Second, press freedom has become ever more restricted. Take the example of the recent investigation regarding the illegal construction of a house by Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun. The government punished the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet for having reported on this affair. The state routinely targets critical newspapers, journalists and oppositional politicians alike. Then came the religion-related detentions.
Photographer Fırat Erez was jailed for his a Tweet that stated “Islam is immoral”. Yet even the most Islamist of lawyers cannot legally justify how this Tweet could lead to an imprisonment. “If this is not a requirement by law, is it a religious requirement then?” Altıparmak asks.
The latest example on how secular law is being undermined was the ‘Bella Ciao’ case. A former CHP politician, Banu Özdemir, shared the story of a Bella Ciao song being played from the speakers of a mosque in Izmir on Twitter last week. Prosecutors altered the nature of the charges pressed against her to keep her in custody.
How can a song played from a mosque “denigrate religious values”? What’s more alarming is that even figures from the main oppositional party CHP cannot defend secular law as they rely on populism. Muharrem Ince, CHP’s presidential candidate in 2018, tweeted the following: “To play songs from mosques is vulgar and disrespectful. Whoever has done this should be severely punished.”
If the secularists don’t defend the rule of law and secularism, who will?