Turkish Journalist Given 21-Month Suspended Prison Sentence

Convicted of sending offensive tweet

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan / AP

An Ankara penal court sentenced Bülent Keneş, the editor and chief of a major Turkish newspaper, to a 21-month suspended prison sentence on Wednesday after convicting him for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey in a July 2014 tweet.

"AKP leaders simply hate Bülent Keneş. They did not want to accept the fact that what we have been doing is simply journalism and like a mirror, we have only been reflecting what it is there," İhsan Yilmaz, a columnist for the paper, Today’s Zaman, wrote Wednesday. "Keneş, myself and a few other columnists at the paper have been criticizing the AKP since 2009 when we started to realize that democratization was not the party's real intention."

Erdoğan, who has been in power for the past 13 years, has been accused of intolerance toward journalists. Freedom House, a human rights think tank, labeled Turkey’s press "Partly Free" in 2010, with worsening scores every subsequent year. Beginning in 2013 Freedom House downgraded Turkey’s status to "Not Free."

Freedom House reports:

Verbal attacks on journalists by senior politicians—including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the incumbent prime minister who was elected president in August—were often followed by harassment and even death threats against the targeted journalists on social media. Meanwhile, the government continued to use the financial and other leverage it holds over media owners to influence coverage of politically sensitive issues. Several dozen journalists, including prominent columnists, lost their jobs as a result of such pressure during the year, and those who remained had to operate in a climate of increasing self-censorship and media polarization.

"Thankfully, the respected mother of this shameful [man] didn't live to see what kind of son she has and saved herself from that torture," Keneş tweeted three years after Erdoğan’s mother died.

Keneş’ suspended sentence will imprison him if he commits a crime within the next five years.

"The delay of prison sentences in cases to do with media freedom is an infamous measure employed by Turkish courts to silence journalists and critics. The Turkish authorities believe putting journalists under probation for five years will significantly restrict them criticizing the country's authorities," Today’s Zaman reported June 16.

Keneş has repeatedly criticized Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule and the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

"Paradoxically, Erdoğan had sought to use the parliamentary election to abolish the parliamentary system. His ulterior motive was to pave the way for a one-man dictatorship disguised as a presidential system," he wrote in a column addressing Turkey’s June 7 parliamentary elections.

The Turkish electorate dealt a significant blow to AKP’s influence and voted AKP out of its long-standing parliamentary majority. Keneş described AKP as "exhausted, corrupt, degenerate, arrogant and unlawful during its 13 years in power."

AKP officials have allegedly targeted other Today’s Zaman writers along with Keneş.

"We have heard inside information that AKP officials hate Keneş and me so much that they would be delighted to see us tortured in prison," Yilmaz said. "A few years ago, well before the Dec. 17 and 25 corruption crisis, one of Erdoğan's advisors told a friend of ours that "even God will not be able to save Ihsan Yilmaz from my wrath."

Leading politicians and journalists in Europe have condemned Keneş’ sentencing.

"21 months in prison for a Tweet considered libellous by President Erdogan?! It did not even mention his name! Turkey needs free speech!" Sir Graham Watson, president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, tweeted June 17.

Turkey led the world in number of jailed journalists from 2012 to 2013.