Journalist in Turkey arrested for criticising a TV drama on Twitter

Kurdish reporter Oktay Candemir was detained for 'insulting the memory' of a dead person after joking about an Ottoman history series aired by state broadcaster TRT

FILE PHOTO: Turkish police officers wearing face masks, with the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia, now a museum, in the background, patrol at touristic Sultanahmet Square following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 5, 2020. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo
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In what could be a new low for press freedom, a journalist in Turkey has been arrested for tweeting about a TV drama.

Oktay Candemir was detained at his home in the southeastern city of Van on Monday after he posted a humorous message about a historical show called Awakening: The Great Selcuk. The series, which is due to be aired by state broadcaster TRT later this month, focuses on the conquest of Anatolia by the Selcuks, a Turkic dynasty predating the Ottomans.

Referring to several prominent Ottoman sultans, Mr Candemir jokingly tweeted that the following series could include Fainting Yavuz, Sobering Fatih, Laying Kanuni and others.

Mr Candemir, a Kurdish reporter who has been repeatedly arrested and sued over his work, was detained under Article 130 of the Turkish penal code for “insulting the memory” of a dead person. The offence carries a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. He was released on bail on Tuesday.

Media rights group Press in Arrest said it was the first time a journalist had faced such a charge.

“These are the things that we journalists have been experiencing in Van for a long time,” Mr Candemir told Press in Arrest after his release.

“In Van, the same pressures are underway against other journalists. [It is] a policy of constant intimidation, suppression. We’re clearly told ‘Don’t report, don’t write, don’t even think.’ But we’ll keep thinking and writing.”

His lawyer Deniz Yildiz added that the offence required a living relative of the insulted person to lodge a complaint, something that had not been done in Mr Candemir’s case. He said that the case had been presented to a prosecutor by police scouring social media for potentially criminal comments.

Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish television has produced a number of sentimental historical shows focusing on the lives of Ottoman sultans and their ancestors.

One of the most popular, Resurrection: Ertugrul, began filming in 2014 and covers the 13th century exploits of the father of the Ottoman Empire’s founder.

It became available on Netflix and is now licensed to 72 countries, helping make Turkish TV dramas second only to US shows in global distribution and placing Turkish as the most watched non-English language in the world.

Such shows have played an important role in Turkey’s “soft power” foreign policy, helping it promote a message of Muslim unity. The characters are usually depicted as brave and honourable, often beset by foreign-inspired conspiracies.

“The AKP is pushing this very grandiose, very positive view of Ottoman history in order to create and educate a new pious generation that will be pro-AKP,” said Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.

The shows’ scripts carefully mirror themes in modern Turkish politics, such as Western powers plotting against and trying to divide Turkey, he said.

“Sometimes the message is so blatantly obvious, you don’t even need to read between the lines,” Dr Esen added. “So you listen to an Abdulhamit II dialogue and it literally has extracts from Erdogan’s speech from the previous week.”