It’s old news at this stage, but the resignation under fire of Hürriyet‘s chief columnist Oktay Ekşi at the end of last month continues to leave a bad taste in the mouth. This kind of free speech question usually draws out a few straightforwardly liberal responses from English-language commentators, but support for Mr Ekşi has been muted. It has also been partly qualified in two recurring ways: first, with reference to the “intemperate” nature of the column that got him into trouble and, second, on the basis that Mr Ekşi appears to be someone who has treated others badly over the years.
The second of these points is surely irrelevant to our judgement in relation to Mr Ekşi’s column. If journalistic freedom of expression is to be steadfastly defended only in cases involving steadfastly agreeable journalists, then we are in trouble. The “intemperate” qualification bears more weight in abstract terms (all societies have lines which, if crossed, will leave an individual journalist isolated), but I think it’s a mistake to apply this principle in this instance.
In his column on October 28th, Mr Ekşi wrote about the construction of a series of hydroelectric dams in the Ikizdere Valley region of northeast Turkey. He criticised the government’s environmental failings in respect of these dams, noting that the Environment Minister, Veysel Eroğlu, has been acting as if he’s still in his old job as head of the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works, the body responsible for Turkey’s hydroelectric infrastructure.
So far, so unspectacular. Criticism of Turkey’s environmental record is nothing new. However, Mr Ekşi’s problems began with the rhetorical flourish with which he ended his column. His final sentence read as follows: “Şimdi, analarını bile satan işte o zihniyetin marifetlerini görüyoruz.” Which we can loosely translate as: “Now we see the achievements of those who would even sell their mothers.”
These words prompted protests outside Hürriyet‘s offices and led Mr Ekşi to draw to a close his 36-year career as a columnist with the paper.
As translated into English above, it is difficult to understand the controversy caused by Mr Ekşi’s words. To suggest that someone would sell their mother is a colourful rather than a particularly harsh or degrading way of highlighting their unprincipled venality.
However, the crux of the “intemperate” criticism is that the Turkish original carries undertones that are lost in translation. In particular, the words used by Mr Ekşi have connotations of pimping. When phrasing his column’s conclusion, Mr Ekşi would have known that his audience would read his words to mean: “those who would even sell their mothers into prostitution.”
Does this make a difference? Up to a point, perhaps. In a conservative country where much is made of (and much lip service is paid to) the value of motherhood and mothers, the assertion that the government is peopled by individuals who might trade their mothers as sexual commodities is potentially a shocking one.
But at the risk of pointing out the obvious, we need to remind ourselves of two important facts here. First, the pimping image is just that—an image. There is no hint of a suggestion that Mr Ekşi actually thinks that anyone in the government would, literally, sell their mothers into prostitution. His reference to pimping was metaphor, not accusation. And second, it is precisely because the pimping image is potentially shocking that Mr Ekşi elected to use it.
His view seems to be that the current government has lost all sense of perspective in its eagerness to maintain high rates of economic growth and to secure the energy supplies that this growth requires. The government, this line of thinking runs, is reducing to base financial calculations things (such as Turkey’s natural environment) that ought to be valued and protected regardless of their potential economic uses. It is this belief that the country is being debased by financial considerations that Mr Ekşi sought to analogise with his reference to mothers being sold. Given the point he was trying to make, it is not the worst of analogies.
It should also be noted that there is nothing derogatory or insulting about motherhood or mothers in what Mr Ekşi wrote. On the contrary, the potential force of his words rests on an assumption that all of his readers will value motherhood and be shocked by the idea of a mother being sold into prostitution. Where he clearly is being insulting is in relation to the character of those in power in Turkey. But that should be of much less concern to us. Intemperate or otherwise, insults have a long-standing and valuable place in the history of political debate and commentary. H L Mencken put one aspect of this well: “Journalism is to politician as dog is to lamp-post.”
Of course, Mencken didn’t draft Turkey’s laws. The country’s penal code goes out of its way to protect political institutions and office-holders from insult, particularly by journalists. For example, article 125 covers both of these bases by (i) expressly raising the minimum penalty for defamation if the target is a public office-holder, and (ii) further increasing the punishment for insults that are made in the media.
Turkey’s politicians are not shy about availing of these and similar protections. In this respect, the prime minister, Mr Erdoğan, seems to be a particularly delicate flower. Notoriously litigious, within days he had taken a lawsuit against Mr Ekşi for his mother-selling insults.
One suspects that Mr Erdoğan may have some kind of bulk-discount arrangement with his lawyers—”sue three, get one free”—because his action against Mr Ekşi coincided with another flurry of prime ministerial lawsuits. He is seeking TL100,000 for “emotional damages” from the opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who last month referred to Mr Erdoğan as a spineless hypocrite. He has also taken a separate action against Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s party in relation to an exhibition of political cartoons at its headquarters.
The prime minister’s legal action against Mr Ekşi is a more clearcut infringement of media freedom than the less formal pressures that led to the columnist’s resignation in the first place. But in the long term, those informal factors are just as corrosive, perhaps moreso. Only in exceptional circumstances, which I don’t believe apply in this case, should the terms in which a journalist couches an argument lead to the possibility of their being fired or having to resign. The words attributed to Voltaire are a tired cliche by now, but they bear repeating every day in Turkey. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”