PEN International is deeply concerned by the news that another defamation case is being brought against a high-profile Turkish writer by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reports emerged on May 6, 2014, that Erdoğan had lodged a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office alleging that writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker Can Dündar defamed him in an article for national newspaper Cumhuriyet printed on April 18, 2014. The public prosecutor is yet to decide whether to press criminal defamation charges against Dündar, who is expected to be questioned in Istanbul in the coming days. PEN opposes the criminalization of defamation in all cases.

The complaint against Dündar comes in the aftermath of a number of highly publicized defamation cases brought by the Turkish prime minister against prominent critics in the media. Writers Ahmet Altan and İhsan Eliaçık (who was featured as a case study in PEN’s recent report on the Gezi Park protests) are among those to have had cases brought against them by the prime minister for their writings or social media posts in recent times.

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Background Information

Can Dündar is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker who has become one of Turkey’s most prominent voices in a career spanning more than three decades. He is well-known for his literary work as well as for a series of biographies and documentaries regarding key figures in Turkish history, including the founder of the republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the poet Nazım Hikmet, and industrialist Vehbi Koç. His 2008 documentary on Atatürk sparked nationwide debate for its depiction of Turkey’s first president as a flawed and troubled leader. Dündar was sacked from his position as a columnist for Milliyet following a series of articles critical of the government during the Gezi Park protests. He has since worked as a columnist for Cumhuriyet and BirGün, and as the host of a current affairs program on Artı Bir TV until recently. He was featured as a case study in PEN's report on the Gezi Park protests.

Dündar’s article, entitled "Erdoğan will be put on trial," makes reference to a controversial corruption investigation involving senior AKP officials and its repercussions for the police and judiciary, as well as a series of voice recordings of supposed conversations between the prime minister and his son. Dündar argues that Erdoğan's current position of power is by no means permanent and that he must eventually face trial, drawing parallels with the leader of the 1980 military coup General Kenan Evren, who was put on trial in 2012 for his role in the coup.

PEN believes that Dündar’s article constitutes legitimate political criticism and that the public prosecutor’s office should drop the investigation against him. Freedom of expression includes the right to offend, particularly within the context of thoughts and opinions relating to the politics of high-ranking government officials. The onus is on the Turkish courts to ensure that the prime minister’s personality rights are not unduly placed above those of others, nor above the general interest in a democratic society of promoting freedom of expression where issues of public interest and political criticism are concerned.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media have stated that that "criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws."

This approach was reinforced in a European Court of Human Rights case, Tuşalp v Turkey (2012), a defamation suit brought by Erdoğan against journalist Erbil Tuşalp. The European Court highlighted the relevance of the fact that Tuşalp’s scathing criticism of the prime minister involved "important matters in a democratic society of which the public had a legitimate interest in being informed and which fell within the scope of political debate." Regarding the "offensiveness" of the words used by Tuşalp, the court held that "the protection of Article 10 [of the European Convention on Human Rights which relates to freedom of expression] was applicable not only to information or ideas that were favorably received but also to those which offended, shocked or disturbed." A crucial matter for consideration was the prime minister’s public position: "The limits of acceptable criticism were wider for a politician than a private individual. [The prime minister] would therefore have been obliged to display a greater degree of tolerance."

Write A Letter

  • Calling on the Turkish authorities to decriminalize defamation;
  • Urging them to ensure that judges and prosecutors approach defamation cases involving senior politicians in accordance with the principles set out by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Tuşalp v Turkey;
  • Reminding them that Turkey has the obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which it is a state party;
  •  Asking the prime minister directly to stop bringing defamation cases against writers and journalists engaging in legitimate political criticism.

Send Your Letter To

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Vekaletler Caddesi
Başbakanlık Merkez Bina
06573, Kızılay
Ankara, Turkey
Fax: +90 312 417 0476
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @RT_Erdogan

Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ
Milli Müdafaa Caddesi No: 22
06659, Kızılay
Ankara, Turkey
Fax: +90 312 419 33 70
Email: [email protected]; [email protected]
Twitter: @bybekirbozdag

Please send copies to the Embassy of Turkey in your country.

**Please contact PEN if sending appeals after June 6, 2014.**