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8th Aug 2022

Turkey widens crackdown on EU free speech

  • Yerevan memorial: Turkey told Sweden's TV4 that it's "one-sided" to call slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians a "genocide" (Photo: young shanahan)

Turkey has detained a Dutch journalist and complained about German and Swedish projects to commemorate Ottoman genocides.

The moves come on top of calls for legal action against two European comedians, prompting awkward questions for EU leaders.

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  • Davutoglu with Merkel, Tusk and Timmermans in Gaziantep (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Ebru Umar, a Dutch journalist of Turkish origin, was arrested while on holiday in Turkey on Saturday (23 April) over her column in Dutch daily Metro in which she compared Turkey’s efforts to silence free speech in Europe to “NSB practices”, referring to the Dutch Nazi party in World War II.

She also called Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan a "megalomaniac dictator".

She then tweeted parts of her story, leading to her arrest in Turkey, where insulting the president is punishable by up to four years in prison. She was later released but forbidden to leave the country.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said he had personally contacted Umar and insisted Dutch diplomats were working on her release.

Dutch education minister Jet Bussemaker told the Dutch WNL broadcaster: “It's absurd that you can be arrested for a tweet.”

Rutte will this week answer questions from MPs in a special debate on free speech after Turkey called for the prosecution of a Dutch comic and Turkish officials urged Turkish expats in the Netherlands to report Erdogan insults.

The free speech row first erupted in Germany when chancellor Angela Merkel approved a Turkish request to prosecute a German satirist.

Genocide police

Turkish officials this weekend also complained about projects to commemorate Ottoman-era genocides.

Markus Rindt, whose Dresdner Sinfoniker orchestra had planned one such event, told German media that Turkey’s EU embassy had asked the European Commission to pull a €200,000 grant for his 30 April concert.

The event, to mark the 101st anniversary of the Ottoman Empire’s slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians, is to contain sung and spoken texts that describe the killings as genocide, which Turkey denies.

Rindt said the commission upheld the grant but deleted its online notice of the concert. He described the Turkish pressure on the EU as “an infringement on freedom of expression.”

The Turkish embassy in Sweden also urged the TV4 broadcaster to “reconsider” showing a documentary film, Seyfo 1915, on the Ottoman genocide of up to 300,000 Assyrians during World War I.

“We will protest against any attempt to exert pressure that threatens freedom of expression,” TV4 said.

German justice minister Heiko Maas wrote in Die Welt on Saturday that Merkel should send the message to Turkey that: “Opinion, art and freedom of the press are not negotiable.”

But Merkel, who visited Turkey this weekend with EU Council chief Donald Tusk and EU commissioner Frans Timmermans, was less outspoken.

Asked about free speech in a press briefing in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, she said EU leaders mentioned free speech concerns “in a frank and open manner” every time they met their Turkish counterparts.

She said it was normal that the EU and Turkey did not see eye-to-eye on some things. “The same is true of talks between some countries inside the European Union,” she said.

And she played down concerns that the EU-Turkey deal on taking back migrants from Greece had led to a more cautious approach.

See no evil

Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking alongside Merkel, defended Turkey’s interventions in Europe.

He said that "extreme, racist views have been on an upward trend in Europe" in recent weeks.

"Very heavy insults about the president of a country, that one shouldn’t hear," he said.

He said he valued free speech but not if it "negates respect for human dignity".

“You [the EU] do not have the right to bombard Turkey with endless questions coming, as it were, from a position of authority,” he said.

He denied that Turkey restricted free speech and used as an example recent elections, during which he said "no-one could claim there was a problem with exchange of opinions and sharing one’s opinions".

However, international election monitors, the ODIHR, said in each of their reports on the last four elections in Turkey that “media freedom remained an area of serious concern”.

But neither Merkel, Timmermans, or Tusk pulled up Davutoglu on his claim.

Turkey has indicted almost 2,000 people for insulting Erdogan. It recently shut down its leading opposition paper, Zaman. It has also used terrorism charges to justify detaining many journalists who have criticised Erdogan.

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