Television in Turkey has become a hot topic over the last few weeks. First, PM Erdoğan decided to inform the world of his dislike for the immensely popular soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl. He based his disdain in the program’s depiction of the Sultan Süleyman I convorting in his harem and drinking wine instead of fighting and conquering. Erdoğan went on to make a barely veiled call to ban the show. Now a member of parliament has taken up the cause and is introducing a bill that would restrict the depiction of historical characters in a “humiliating” manner.
In a separate incident last week, the Turkish television and radio regulatory agency fined a Turkish television channel for airing an episode of the Simpsons which they found offensive. The episode is describe as insulting God and religion by the agency. They claimed to be acting in the interest of “protecting children, not God” from subversive material.
It would be easy to dismiss the public uproar over this incidents as overblown. After all the programs in question are merely a soap opera and a foreign cartoon. However, the the censorship of these shows is part of a larger trend of the Turkish government quashing of freedom of speech. The Turkish press is unhealthily restricted. Notoriously, Turkey currently has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world. Websites such as blogger and youtube have been periodically blocked and Turkey has the dubious honor of lodging the most requests for content bans with Google. In the beginning of 2012, Twitter agreed to censor insulting remarks aimed at Ataturk and any discussion of the Armenian Genocide.
Some media outlets, especially those which subscribe to theories of “creeping Islamization”, have interpreted the recent acts of television censorship as proof that Erdoğan and the AKP are out to create an Islamic state. Out of context, it may appear as if Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Simpsons were targeted because of their glorification of practices and beliefs that go against some of the teachings of Islam. However, the actions taken by this current government fit into the long history of state censorship in the Republic of Turkey. As Dov Friedman puts it “the AK Party acts increasingly authoritarian in ways unrelated to its Islamist roots.” The first three leaders of the Republic, Atatürk, Inönü and Menderes, all restricted the freedom of the press in the interest of advancing their own agenda. Previous to the 1998 soft coup, Turkey also led the world in number of imprisoned journalists. The new law created in response to Muhteşem Yüzyıl would in effect be an extension of the already existing bans on insulting both “Turkishness” and Ataturk. Law 5816 About Crimes Against Atatürk has been in effect since 1951 and article 301 of the Turkish penal code regarding insults to “Turkishness” was passed under the current government in 2005. Despite being passed under an “Islamist” government, Article 301 has all the features of classic Turkish secular nationalism. There is no mention of Islam, only the “sacred” institutions of the Turkish Republic: the branches of government, the military and the Turkish “nation”
Having been born, raised and educated in a society which accepted and even welcomed a certain level of state media control, the leadership of the AKP has now begun to echo their secular predecessors, almost in spite of themselves. After all, Erdogan himself spent
nearly a year four months in jail for a speech crime. The censoring and/or banning of Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Simpsons is disturbing not because it is a sign that the AKP government is becoming more “Islamist” but that they are returning to the bad old days of Turkish secular authoritarianism.