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20th Jan 2019

Turkey free speech row goes EU-wide

Turkey has said Dutch authorities should throw the book at a Dutch comedian the same way German authorities treated a German comic for insulting Turkey’s president.

The Turkish embassy to the EU told EUobserver on Friday (22 April) that Hans Teeuwen merits “legal … action” for making obscene jokes about Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Dutch TV.

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  • Protests against Turkey's internal media crackdown (Photo: Reuters)

“Just like the derogatory poem recited by the German comedian Jan Boehmermann, Teeuwen’s remarks are nothing short of insulting, crude, below the belt and even racist. In fact, this is precisely the reason why [German] chancellor Merkel has acceded the case against Boehmermann to proceed,” the embassy said in a written statement.

“Those who believe in freedom of speech apparently have not watched the video of Boehmermann’s poem or witnessed Teeuwen’s remarks,” it added.

“The related footage must be watched and objectively assessed.”

The statement by its EU delegation on events in The Netherlands, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, lifts the dispute to a European level.

Teeuwen himself had acted in solidarity with Boehmermann after Merkel let prosecutors go ahead on the basis of a Turkish request.

Both comedians could, in theory, go to prison under antique Dutch and German “lese majeste” laws that contain special penalties for insulting domestic or foreign heads of state.

Turkey’s statement on Teeuwen comes amid a scandal caused by the Turkish consulate to Rotterdam on the same issue.

The consulate sent an email to Turkish community groups in The Netherlands on Wednesday saying: “We ask urgently for the names and written comments of people who have given derogatory, disparaging, hateful and defamatory statements against the Turkish president, Turkey and Turkish society in general.”

Turkish officials told Dutch media that they wanted to “monitor” a “hate campaign” against Erdogan. They later said the email had been sent by mistake.

But for many Dutch people, dozens of whom sent abusive emails to the Rotterdam consulate in protest, it looked like a Turkish assault on Dutch civil liberties.

Dutch PM Mark Rutte on Thursday, at a press conference with Merkel, said the Turkish email had “surprised” him.

“It’s not clear what the Turkish government aims to achieve with this action,” he said.

He will next week face MPs’ questions in a parliament debate on the topic.

“We will ask Rutte whether he stands for free speech … Parliament will want to clearly hear that Dutch people have nothing to worry about if they speak out on Turkey,” Kees Verhoeven, an MP with the liberal D66 party, told EUobserver on Friday.

He said it looks like Turkey is trying to impose Erdogan’s will in Europe in return for his help on taking back migrants.

“A lot of people saw this email as a sign that Turkey is trying to limit the space for debate," he said. “We have free speech and freedom of the press in Europe and that should always be kept alive without bending to Turkey.”

He said that Teeuwen is unlikely to be prosecuted.

But he said that even if no one is prosecuted threats of legal action could have a “chilling effect” on Dutch journalists or artists by prompting self-censorship.

Verhoeven had, prior to the Teeuwen and email affairs, drafted a bill to scrap the lese majeste provisions.

He said that under the new law, which could come into force by 2017, people would be entitled to seek legal redress for defamation but penalties would be the same for insulting VIPs or commoners.

He tabled the bill after a Dutch man of Arabic origin was prosecuted in 2015 for shouting vulgarities at Dutch royals.

The free speech row is bad for Turkey’s image in Europe.

But EU leaders have tied their hands in a deal to give Turkey visa-free travel and faster accession talks in return for taking migrants from Greece.

Thinking strategically

Verhoeven said Erdogan "is not thinking strategically how to react [to insults], he’s just not happy that he has critics, the way some people speak about him.”

Turkey has prosecuted some 2,000 people at home for insulting the president.

It routinely jails government-critical journalists and recently shut down the main opposition newspaper, Zaman.

Erdogan has also used violence against pro-democracy protesters and fired judges, prosecutors, and police who tried to probe corruption allegations against his family.

“Turkey’s image is not very positive mainly due to the fact that there is always prejudice. This fuels a negative sentiment and works against Turkey even when our cause is justified. We expect our critics to be more fair in forming their judgement,” the Turkish mission to the EU said in its statement.

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