Turkey: Ekşi Sözlük owner and contributors charged with religious defamation

English PEN is worried that the owner of the online Turkish-language ‘dictionary’ Ekşi Sözlük and 40 contributors to the site have been charged with religious defamation.

Ekşi Sözlük is a satirical web-based dictionary, the entries for which are largely written anonymously by a contributor base of over 50,000 people. Literally meaning ‘Sour Dictionary’, Ekşi Sözlük’s subject matter is unrestricted, exceeding the limits of a conventional dictionary with entries on current and historical events and people; notable quotations from popular figures; disputed political issues; and references to popular and internet culture. Contributors often impart their personal views in entries, which tend to be written with a humorous or satirical slant. With over 14 million visitors a month, Ekşi Sözlük is one of the largest social media sites in Turkey.

On 7 August 2013, 40 Ekşi Sözlük contributors and website owner Sedat Kapanoğlu were charged with religious defamation under Article 216/3, and ‘committing a public order offence via press or broadcast’ under Article 218 of the Turkish Penal Code. If found guilty, they could each face up to eighteen months in prison.

The indictment contained the following comment on religious defamation:

The legal privilege protected by Article 216/3 of the Turkish Penal Code is not Allah, religion, the prophet, holy books or sects; it is the religious feelings held by individuals towards these concepts. Undoubtedly, one may express their thoughts, their criticisms regarding these concepts. However, when doing so, not hurting the religious feelings of another person or persons must also be taken into account. For no-one has the right to hurt another person’s feelings of respect towards concepts that they consider to be sacred.

Ekşi Sözlük has faced over 200 civil suits (many of them ultimately dropped) and 150 criminal complaints in recent years as a result of its online content. Many of these complaints have been put forward by the adherents of a religious group that once successfully applied for a ban on writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ website (lifted in July 2011). A member of the same group made the complaint that led to the trial and conviction of classical composer, pianist and writer Fazıl Say.

The online dictionary has also been targeted by high profile figures in politics and the media in the past. In November 2011, a columnist for the daily newspaper Taraf started a Twitter campaign for the closure of Ekşi Sözlük, claiming that it “insulted the Prophet and religious values”. Soon afterwards, he submitted a complaint to the public prosecutor’s office, claiming that the site’s comments on religion and God were, “an organised affair”, that the owners and moderators of the site were “complicit in this organisation”, and that they “were earning advertising revenue by broadcasting content defaming religion”.

In July 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ made the following comments in regard to Ekşi Sözlük on Twitter:

Those who insult our Prophet are Satan’s 21st Century followers, the new Abu Jahls [Abu Jahl was a bitter enemy of Muhammad and early Islam]. Even if all the devils and their followers unite, they will be unable to extinguish the divine light of Allah. Allah will perfect his light; he will protect the Quran and his Prophet… insulting our Prophet is an offence under the scope of 216/3 of the Turkish Penal Code. It is the legal duty of public prosecutors to start an investigation into this matter.

English PEN is concerned that the charges against the Ekşi Sözlük owner and 40 contributors to the website may be in violation of their right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human and Democratic Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory.  

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