Thursday, January 12, 2012

Büşra Ersanlı, hate speech and issues with the "press reform"

The controversial "press reform" plan of the Ministry of Justice was covered a few days ago on GIT - North America. Today, an English translation of a newspaper article on the recently arrested academic Büşra Ersanlı exposed on our Hate Speech section illustrates very clearly what kinds of violations of personal information might be legalized by the State, under the disguise of "press reform."

As we had reported, according to this reform, leaking personal information to the media and violating privacy of citizens of Turkey will only be considered illegal if the private information is gathered illegally. In other words, if it is a member of the law enforcement or intelligence agency that leaks private information to the media (i.e., as part of an ongoing investigation wired conversation transcripts of people about whom there is no evidence of crime, for instance), this will not be considered as a violation of privacy. Because the information will be gathered as part of an investigation [hence, "legal"] no matter whether the collected information is actually directly related to the case or not, any information leaked to the press as such will be considered legal.

What does this mean, exactly?

The article entitled "Ersanlı's Love for Jewish [people]" published on our Hate Speech section illustrates all the concerns with the above issues. In a telling defamation campaign-like article published right after Ersanlı was arrested, Yeni Akit [formerly Vakit] makes use of abundant antisemitism, distorted information (i.e., labeling Ersanlı's course on "gender" as a terrorist-raising course as if a course on gender is a lethal terrorist weapon, muffling the oddity of labeling a course on gender as a terrorist content [1] with a bunch of unrelated personal information, beginning with Ersanlı's ex-husband's being Jewish, family registration information as well as previous criminal record not only of herself but also her extended family or ex-spouses, and so on) and thus strongly suggests collaboration with government official(s).

One wonders if the point of this article is to provide information as to why Ersanlı has been arrested as part of KCK trials, as the references to the "legally collected wire-tapped conversations" suggest, why then, the author found it necessary to title it "Ersanlı's love for Jewish [people]" [Ersanlı'nın Yahudi aşkı]?

The nature of this collection of personal/private information on not only Ersanlı but also those who have been related to her, however, is not the only implication that the source is a government official. In fact, in addition to the implicit statements like "it has been discovered," "it came to light," "it has been detected," which mask the agent of the sentence (i.e., who discovered? who detected it? ) the author of the article also makes bold and explicit statements that indicate the source with references to the Prosecutor's office and such statements as follows:

"According to legally collected wire-tapped phone conversations, the same courses given to PKK in the rural areas were repeated in the alleged Academy."

If we remember how the legally collected information as part of an investigation leaked to the media will not be considered a breach of a person's privacy according to the Ministry of Justice's new "press reform," the problem becomes clearer: should that law pass, such articles will not only be justified but also, a legal ground will be prepared to legitimize them, if not encouraging them. And not only the detained, but also the privacy of people completely unrelated to a court case will be exposed--as exemplified in the article on Ersanlı to a certain extent (i.e., the ethnic-religious background of her ex-husbands as well as their previous criminal record were clearly investigated, and their only relation to this case is being Ersanlı's ex-husband), and these people will not have a legal venue to complain about the breach of their own privacy.

What is also worrisome is that, the Minister of Interior who had recently invented "scientific terrorism" to describe such cases as Ersanlı's, also used parts of this private information on Ersanlı to normalize her arrest. To defend her arrest, he advised us to look at her pre-1980s youth activities and her family members, pointing at her former brother-in-law who is arrested as part of Ergenekon trials. The boundaries of such publications are thus not only limited to the publication itself, but becomes part of a larger strategy to engage an arrested figure publicly.

Additionally, as was already expressed here on GIT - North America, the "press reform" that the Minister of Justice announced was thought as a remedy to the European Court of Human Rights verdicts, raises a great concern. Considering how in many high profile cases there were leaks of personal information (e.g., national identification numbers, passport copies, genealogy, private conversations which have nothing to do with the case but which serve the purpose of defamation, and so on) to the media as is exemplified with this article on the arrested academic Büşra Ersanlı, this current "reform" plans by the Ministry of Justice to "improve" freedom of expression are likely to secure the state's freedom to violate its citizens' privacy only.

In fact, as is also reported on GIT - North America, following his visit to Turkey from 10 to 14 October 2011, Thomas Hammarberg--Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe prepared a report on the administration of justice and protection of human rights and the judiciary in Turkey. Hammarberg raised concerns about the judicial scrutiny when authorizing wire-tapping, among other issues. The Council of Europe website addresses some of his concerns, as follows:

"He further expresses his concern about the way certain offences relating to terrorism and membership of a criminal organisation are defined in the Turkish legislation, leaving room for a very wide interpretation by courts. 'Terrorism poses enormous challenges and difficulties, but it should be fought while fully respecting human rights. Prosecutors and judges need to be further sensitised to the case-law of the ECtHR concerning in particular the distinction between terrorist acts and acts falling under the scope of the rights to freedom of thought, expression, association and assembly'.

The Commissioner stresses the importance of guaranteeing a fair trial by ensuring adversarial proceedings and equality of arms at all stages of the criminal procedure. He points to a number of shortcomings in this respect, including rules concerning the suspects’ access to evidence against them, as well as practical problems limiting the capacity of the defence to cross-examine and summon witnesses and experts. He also voices concerns about the use of secret witnesses and suggests a more effective judicial scrutiny when authorising ‘protective measures’, such as wire-tapping."

Thus, rather than legitimizing the leaking of "legally collected" private information to the media, perhaps a real remedy to the judicial system should rather be putting into question Turkey's anti-terrorism law and its problems, as well as implementing a close scrutiny process in the context of "legal wire-tapping" and better protect individual rights to privacy, expression, and association and identity.

[1] Not that it really matters, as labeling any content of a course as "terrorist" would be problematic. Aside from hindering academic freedom, such statements also assume people are passive recipients with no agency, who can only be indoctrinated and not develop a response of their own to a content that they are exposed. Such approaches, therefore, tell us less about a course and more about the state and official approaches to it.