Defamation remains a criminal offence in Turkey.
Insult (Turkish Criminal Code Art. 125), subject to various qualifying conditions:
• General insult. The Turkish Criminal Code defines insult as “attribut[ing] an act, or fact, to a person in a manner that may impugn that person’s honour, dignity or prestige, or attack[ing] someone’s honour, dignity or prestige by swearing”. The penalty for insult is imprisonment for three months to two years or a judicial fine. If the act is committed in the absence of the victim, there must be at least three witnesses.
• The same penalty applies to insult committed orally, in written form or through a visual medium, addressing the victim (Art. 125(2)).
• “Where the insult is committed: a) against a public officer due to the performance of his public duty; b) because of declaring, altering or disseminating, his religious, political, social or philosophical beliefs, thoughts, or convictions, or practising in accordance with the requirements and prohibitions of a religion he belongs to; or c) where the subject matter is deemed sacred to the religion the person belongs to the penalty to be imposed shall not be less than one year” (Art. 125(3)).
• The penalty for insult is increased by one-sixth if the act is committed publicly (Art. 125(4)).
• “Where an insult is made which arises from the duties of public officials who are working as a committee, the offence shall be deemed to have been committed against the all members of that committee. In these circumstances the provisions of the Art. concerning successive offences shall be applied” (Art. 125(5)).
Calumny (Criminal Code Art. 267): Calumny is defined as “accus[ing]another person of committing an act contrary to law in order to secure the implementation of an administrative sanction or the commencement of an investigation and prosecution by submitting a complaint or notification to the relevant authorities or through the press or broadcasting, despite the fact the person knows the other person did not commit such act”. The penalty is imprisonment for a term of one to four years (this penalty may be increased according to conditions set forth in the law).
If committed through the press or broadcasting, “the conviction of the offender shall be announced through the same or equivalent press or broadcasting organs” (Art. 267(9)).
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
Insult against a public officer due to the performance of his public duty (Criminal Code Art. 125(3)). The act is punished under the terms of Art. 125(1), whereby the minimum penalty is one year in prison.
Additionally, Criminal Code Art. 125(5) provides that “[w]here an insult is made which arises from the duties of public officials who are working as a committee, the offence shall be deemed to have been committed against the all members of that committee. In these circumstances the provisions of the article concerning successive offences shall be applied”.
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
Insulting the Turkish President is a criminal offence under Art. 299 of the Turkish Criminal Code. The penalty is one to four years in prison, increased by one-sixth if the offence is committed publicly.
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Insult of the state and its organs and institutions (Criminal Code Art. 301):
• Insult of the state and state bodies. Insult against the Turkish Nation, the State of the Republic of Turkey, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, the Government of the Republic of Turkey and the judicial bodies of State is punished with imprisonment from six months to two years.
• Insult of the military. The same penalty applies to those who publicly degrade the military or security organisations (Art. 301(2)).
• Protection for criticism. Art. 301(3) provides as relates to the foregoing paragraphs that “[t]he expression of an opinion for the purpose of criticism does not constitute an offence”.
Degrading the symbols of state sovereignty (Criminal Code Art. 300):
• Degrading the Turkish flag. “Any person who publicly degrades the Turkish flag by tearing, burning it or similar action shall be sentenced to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of one to three years. This provision is applicable to any insignia which bears the white crescent and star on a red background, as defined in the Constitution, which is used as a symbol of the sovereignty of the State of the Republic of Turkey” (Art. 300(1)).
• Degrading the Turkish anthem. “Any person who publicly degrades the National Anthem shall be sentenced to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of six months to two years” (Art. 300(2)).
• Acts committed by Turkish citizens abroad. “Where the offence defined in this article is committed by a Turkish citizen in a foreign country, the penalty shall be increased by one-third” (Art. 300(3)).
Criminal Defamation of Foreign Heads of State
Offences against foreign heads of state. According to Art. 340(1) of the Turkish Criminal Code, the penalty for a given offence is increased by one-eighth if committed against a foreign head of state. Investigation and prosecution is “subject to the making of a complaint by the foreign state”.
Offences against representatives of foreign states. According to Art. 342(1) of the Turkish Criminal Code, temporary or permanent representatives of foreign states or international institutions in Turkey “shall be considered as if they were public officers in relation to any offence committed against them as a result of their duty, and any person who commits such an offence shall be subject to a penalty according to the relevant provisions of this Code”. This provision specifies that in the case of insult, “the commencement of investigation and prosecution shall be subject to victim’s complaint”.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Defamation of foreign flag. Public defamation of “an officially flying flag of a foreign state or other symbol of its sovereignty” is an offence under Art. 341(1) of the Criminal Code. The penalty is imprisonment for three months to one year. Prosecution is subject to complaint by the relevant state.
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
Insulting the memory of a person (Criminal Code Art. (130(1)): “Any person who, in the presence of at least three persons, commits the offence of insult to the memory of a dead person shall be sentenced to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of three months to two years, or a judicial fine. If the offence of insult is committed publicly the penalty shall be increased by one sixth.”
Making insulting statements about the body or bones of a deceased person (Criminal Code Art(130(2)). The penalty is imprisonment for a term of three months to two years.
The Criminal Code provides increased penalties for acts of insult (cf. Art. 125) committed against a person because of the person’s “declaring, altering or disseminating his religious, political, social or philosophical beliefs, thoughts or convictions, or practising in accordance with the requirements and prohibitions of a religion he belongs to”, or whose “subject matter is deemed sacred to the religion the person belongs to”. In this case, the penalty applied for insult must be at least one year in prison (Art. 125(3)).
It should also be noted that Criminal Code Art. 216(1) provides criminal liability for “publicly provok[ing] hatred or hostility in one section of the public against another section which has a different characteristic based on social class, race, religion, sect or regional difference, [in a way that] creates a explicit and imminent danger to public security”. The penalty is imprisonment for a term of one to three years.
Art. 216(2) provides criminal liability for “publicly degrad[ing] a section of the public on grounds of social class, race, religion, sect, gender or regional differences. In this case, the penalty is imprisonment for a term of six months to one year.
Art. 216(3) provides criminal liability for “publicly degrad[ing] the religious values of a section of the public … where the act is capable of disturbing public peace”. The penalty is imprisonment for six months to one year.
The following are official statistics from the Turkish Ministry of Justice on criminal convictions for the years listed :
Article 2015 2014
125(1) – insult, general: 58,201; 47,656
125(2) – insult oral, written, visual: 4,374; 3,051
125(3.a) – insult of public officer: 66, 79
125(4) – public insult: 1, 0
125(5) – insult of public officials as committee: 317, 344
130 (1, sentence 1) – offence to memory of dead: 8, 4
130 (2) – removal or insult of body or bones: 5, 7
216 (1) – provoking hatred based on group identity: 12, 35
216 (2) – public degradation on group identity: 25, 3
216 (3) – public degradation of religious values: 8, 5
267(1) – calumny, general: 5,857; 6,239
267 (4) – qualified addl. penalty for calumny: 25, 34
267 (5, sentence 1) – calumny with victim sentenced to life
imprisonment: 7, 5
267 (5, sentence 2) – calumny with victim sentenced to imprisonment: 31, 12
267 (7): 15, 23
299 (1) – insult of president: 238, 40
300 (1) – degradation of Turkish flag: 57, 34
300 (2) – degradation of Turkish anthem: 4, 6
301 (1) – insult of state and state bodies: 14, 7
301 (2) – insult of the military: 14, 8
340 (1) – offence to foreign heads of state: 0, 0
341 – public defamation of foreign flag: 0, 0
342 (1) – offence to foreign representatives: 6, 2
Criminal Defamation and Media
Many of the legal provisions included in this analysis have played a central role in the crackdown on press freedom in Turkey. The cases below cannot do justice to the breadth of this crackdown and are included merely as examples.
In January 2017, Cumhuriyet reporter Canan Coşkun was fined 12,600 Turkish liras for “insulting public officials” over a 2015 report alleging that top judicial officials with were able to buy discounted residences from a public real estate company. Coşkun reported claims that a lottery to select homebuyers for a housing project in Istanbul’s Başakşehir neighbourhood was rigged to favour members a group of judges and prosecutors with ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). She had faced more than 23 years in prison under the charges .
In May 2016, a court convicted Cumhuriyet journalists Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Çetinkaya of “openly encouraging hate and enmity among people via the press” (Criminal Code Art. 216(1) for including images of the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s first issue after the 7 January 2015 attacks on its Paris offices that left 12 people dead. The pair had included the image to illustrate columns they wrote expressing solidarity with their murdered colleagues. They were acquitted on a separate charge of “insulting people’s religious values” (Criminal Code Art. 216(3). Karan and Çetinkaya faced the charges after some 1,280 people – included Turkish President and his children – filed criminal complaints. The journalists’ columns appeared in a special 14 January 2015 insert in Cumhuriyet that prompted a police raid on the newspaper’s printing press and led to threats against Cumhuriyet and its staff by Islamists .
Cumhuriyet columnist Bekir Coşkun was convicted of criminal insult charges and given a suspended, 14-month prison sentence after three then-deputies from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) complained about a 4 July 2013 column in which Coşkun questioned how support for the party could be so high given what he termed its many “scandals” and “disgraces”. The column, which came amid the Gezi Park protests that rocked the country that summer, highlighted some protestors’ practice of painting stairs in multiple colours and it urged readers to do the same in protest of government actions. Turkey’s Constitutional Court overturned the ruling in 2015 and awarded Coşkun 5,000 liras (approx. €1,700). It reportedly stated in its ruling that “acceptable limits to criticism of politicians are wider than acceptable limits to criticism of other people” .
In May 2016, Nazlı Ilıcak, a columnist for the newspaper Bügün, was sentenced to a fine of 10,260 Turkish lira for insulting a public official over an article in which she accused of calling Turkish Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoğlu a “cretin” .
Insult of the president (Criminal Code Art. 299)
Since assuming his country’s highest office, the current Turkish President has made prolific use of Criminal Code Art. 299, which provides criminal liability for insulting the president. In March 2016, it was reported that 1,845 cases had been filed under Art. 299 since August 2014. While journalists are among the targets of the abuse of this law, he has cast a wide net: those charged under Art. 299 have included writers, politicians, athletes, students, academics and schoolchildren. A report by The New York Times wrote of the wave of cases under Art. 299 :
“They have also created bizarre legal scenarios. In one of the oddest cases, a doctor lost his job for creating a meme that compared Mr. Erdogan to Gollum, the creature from “The Lord of the Rings,” and a judge ordered expert testimony to determine whether Gollum was good or evil. Hakan Sukur, a beloved soccer star turned politician who was once a member of Mr. Erdogan’s party, has been targeted for posts on Twitter. A 13-year-old boy was charged after posting to Facebook, and a university student was pulled from class because of his social media posts. And a husband presented a recording of his wife, accused of insulting Mr. Erdogan while she watched him on television, to a prosecutor.”
Other scurrilous cases included the conviction of a former Miss Turkey, Merve Büyüksaraç, over a satirical poem she shared on Instagram. The poem reworded the Turkish national anthem to include the lines ” I am like a wild flood, I smash over the law and beyond / I follow state bids, take my bribe and live”, a reference to the President. Büyüksaraç was given a 14-month suspended prison sentence.
In December 2015, Barış İnce, editor of the daily Birgün, was sentenced to 11 months in prison (suspended) for defamation and violation of secrecy related to his coverage of corruption allegations against then-Prime Minster. While on trial, İnce presented in court a written defence that included an acrostic spelling out “Hırsız Tayyip” (Tayyip the Thief). Birgün then published the acrostic on its front page. İnce was then charged under Art. 299 with insulting the president and sentenced in March 2016 to 21 months in prison .
In June 2015 the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, Bülent Keneş, was sentenced to 21 months in prison (suspended) for insulting the President in a tweet . In March 2016, Keneş was sentenced to two years and seven months for insulting the President again on Twitter, having been arrested on the charges in October 2015 .
In May 2016, Özgür Mumcu, a columnist for the newspaper Cumhuriyet, was acquitted of insulting the President through an April 2015 column called “Cruel and Cowardly” .
Following the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the President announced that he was withdrawing all insult charges brought under Art. 299. He said the one-time gesture was intended to signal a “new beginning” in Turkey, but he implicitly threatened that new complaints could be forthcoming against those who do not “behave accordingly with this new reality” .
In December 2016, police arrested Şenol Buran, the cafeteria manager of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, after Buran reportedly said he would refused to serve tea to the President .
Constitutional Court challenge. The Turkish Constitutional Court in 2016 heard a challenge to the constitutionality of Art. 299 based on Arts. 2 (basic characteristics of the Republic, including rule of law), 10 (equality before the law) and 39 (freedom of expression) of the Turkish Constitution. The applicants argued, i.a., that Art. 299 violated the principle of equality in treating one public official differently in defamation law; that there was uncertainty as to whether Art. 39 of the constitution would be applied or not in Art. 299 cases; and that Art. 299, in providing special protection to a head of state, violated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
In a ruling dated 14 December 2016 , the Constitutional Court rejected the challenge and upheld the constitutionality of Art. 299. The Court stated in its ruling (excerpts):
“14. This provision aims to prevent and punish any attack against the dignity of the State in the personality of the President who is the Head of the State and represents the State. Accordingly, the fact that the law maker, considering the legal interest targeted by the said provision, qualifications of the offence and the emerging result, evaluates the defamation against the President more differently than the other offences of defamation and envisages a special provision is not against the principle of state of law. On the other hand, it cannot be said that the provision is not clear since it explicitly envisages the act which amounts to an offence, lower and upper limit of the penalty to be imposed, circumstances which require the increase of the penalty and the ratio of this increase.
20. It is clear that the provision which is the subject matter of the application brings a restriction on FoE. The said restriction has been introduced in order to ensure the protection of others’ reputation or rights and public order and it is within the scope of the measures that should be taken in favour of the democratic order of the society. The said provision does not pose any obstacle to express ideas and thoughts as long as they do not harm others’ reputation or rights. Therefore it is clear that the said restriction does not make difficult or make impossible the exercise of FoE in line with the purpose indicated in Art. 26 of the Constitution and the essence of the right is not infringed on.”
Notably, the Court’s ruling makes no reference to the ECHR.
Recent Legal Changes
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information for Turkey was originally collected by IPI as part of the “Out of Balance” report, published in January 2015 with support from the European Commission and incorporating research contributed by Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and by the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. This entry was later expanded and updated by IPI as part of a study commissioned by the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
A fully footnoted version of this entry is available in the OSCE study. This entry was last updated in March 2017.
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at info(at)ipi.media.