In September 2005, some specially commissioned cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were published in the right-wing Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Many Muslims and non-Muslims found the images offensive and racist. It was not the first occasion that Muslims had been exposed to such ruthless attacks. In the past, they were considered part of the ongoing struggle between two major religions. Yet recently, these attacks had been defended under the guise of so-called freedom of speech and expression by Westerners. Free speech and free press, and their relation to other forms of freedoms, need to be re-assessed, especially in the context of the war on terror. One simply should not be permitted to express any ideas that would incite any religious or ethnic hatred and eventually endanger other people's lives. A decade ago, the Danish cartoon crisis was the main cause of numerous popular uprisings and demonstrations in the Islamic world, as Muslims could not accept the excuse of the freedoms of speech and the press that would offend their religious values. Furthermore, a majority of them interpreted the publication of these cartoons as a new manifestation of Western supremacy under the guise of democratic ideals. It was clearly an example of post-modern imperialism.
It has been argued that the freedom of press is an inalienable extension of the freedom of speech and, as such, it is a sacred component of democracy. However, the press exercises enormous power as it has more ears and eyes than ordinary citizens. Press organizations might have some covert relations with intelligence agencies and, because of this, they would have more command and information and, in return, they are expected to behave responsibly. In addition to objectively informing the public, the press also has the burden of protecting their countries' national security.
Since freedom of the press, like speech, is not absolute, sometimes governments might restrict their journalistic activities if and when they feel national security has been threatened. There are innumerable examples of such restrictions, even in the so-called cradles of democracy. For instance, the British government had restricted all Sinn Fein speeches and interviews throughout the Northern Irish independence struggle, especially by dubbing its leader Gerry Adams. In that period nobody complained about the censorship measures on Irish politicians despite the fact that they were clearly used as a weapon of war to silence Northern Irish politicians. Yet nobody from the international community criticized the British government's lack of sympathy for the media.
Similarly, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks the U.S. government pressured, if not directly censored, television networks concerning their coverage of al-Qaida. It was then explained that when tapes of Osama bin Laden and his associates were broadcast without prior review they might contain some incitement or even coded messages to their followers. As a result, unlike the rest of the world, U.S. citizens could not see or hear those videotaped statements from media outlets or the Internet. It was simply a part of the war on terror and the international community could not critique these methods and practices of the U.S. government. Comparably, the press was restricted to what they could disclose during the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq without prior permission from the military.
Western countries appear to be concerned about the freedom of the press in Turkey especially after the recent seizures of some media outlets that are critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Although there are many newspapers, television channels, and Internet sites that harshly criticize and oppose the government without any restriction, it seems the Turkish administration has targeted one specific group linked to the Gülen Movement, a secretive network. The movement was a close ally of the AK Party in the first 10 years of its rule, but the relationship soured after some disagreements between the two sides concerning the government's policies on Israel and the resurgent PKK. The AK Party government believes the Gülen Movement has been trying to overthrow it and design Turkish politics through undemocratic means. Although none of the allegations against the movement like being a terrorist organization have been proven, the government is still of the opinion that it could attempt to stage another coup like it is accused of doing two years ago through flooding social media with leaked tapped recordings. Therefore, the government has been trying to take some preemptive measures against itself like in the cases of Britain against Sinn Fein and the U.S. against al-Qaida. Here, the case is not silencing a political opponent or controlling an armed terrorist group, but protecting the state from a potential threat of designing the regime.
About the author
* Professor of anthropology in the Department of Radio, Television and Cinema at Marmara University