Sultan Erdogan the Thin-Skinned

by omouggos

Erdogan in his palace flanked by historical Ottoman soldiers (image from

Many prominent or notorious rulers have a synonymous epithet. For instance, Alexander the Great was so labelled for his amazing conquests in the Middle East and central Asia. Or Ivan the Terrible who was greatly feared by his enemies. The Saxon John George the Beer Jug who was apparently fond of alcohol. The Byzantine Emperor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer was noted for his methodical conquest of medieval Bulgaria. Mehmet the Conqueror was the Ottoman Sultan that captured Constantinople in 1453.

Such names may be descriptive, and in some cases amusing, but to most they are historical anachronisms. We live in a world of democracy in which we do not have rulers who rule over us, be they great, terrible, magnificent, mad or drunks. Well, this is what we think. In reality the ostensibly free-world, is not so free anymore, especially when compared to 50 years ago, while in other parts of the world there are many dictators and strong-men who rule with an iron fist and in accord with their own will and not that of the people.

Take for example President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, who, as is becoming increasing evident, is more a sultan than a president. Since he is a budding sultan it seems appropriate to me that he be given a fitting epithet. There are many possibilities. Erdoğan the Cunning, the Reckless or the Islamist are all applicable. But I believe, the most unique and currently descriptive is Erdoğan the Thin-Skinned.

Now why would I label Erdoğan as thin-skinned? Well, he doesn’t have much tolerance for being insulted or mocked, so much so that he frequently takes legal action against anyone with the temerity to say something insulting about him. People in the West may be familar with the recent incident involving the German TV presenter Jan Böhmermann, who recited a vulgar satirical poem mocking Erdoğan.[1] The result was an international incident between Turkey and Germany, and Böhmermann being investigated for “insulting foreign state representatives and institutions,” pursuant with an archaic German law from 1871.[2]

But this incident in Germany is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg, for in Turkey there are many individuals having been charged with insulting Erdoğan. In Turkey Article 299 of the penal code forbides insulting the President, stating “A person who defames the president of the [Turkish] Republic shall be imprisoned for a term of one to four years and the penalty to be imposed shall be increased by one-sixth if the offence is committed publicly and by one-third if it is committed by way of press and media.”[3] It appears this law is frequently enforced. The Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ stated there are 1,845 such cases awaiting prosecution.[4] If we are to believe the columnist Burak Bekdil since August 2014 more than 1,300 people have been arrested in Turkey over such accusations.[5]

It may seem odd that in a supposedly westernized country such as Turkey, that freedom of speech, would not also protect speech insulting towards the president. However, Erdoğan’s interpretation of freedom of speech is bit different than ours. As his spokesman İbrahim Kalın said, “It is never possible to consider insulting the presidential office within freedom of expression. Attacking the presidential office to score small political goals with small political estimations is not politics. Trying to become the center of attention by attacking the presidency and our president’s personality and his family is not journalism. It is often just common activism or militarism.”[6]

On the topic Bozdağ has said, “When we look at the insults toward the president, I cannot even read them. My face gets red. Nobody should have a right to curse. These curse words and sentences are not expressions of thoughts, they are completely insults.”[4] While Erdoğan himself has stated “We shouldn’t confuse criticism with insult,”[7] and has also vowed “I would (thank) each and everyone one of those who criticise me but if they were to insult me, my lawyers will go and file a lawsuit.”[8]

To prove my point that Erdoğan the Thin-Skinned is a justified title for the sultan, I present just some of the cases that I have come across in which politicians, journalists, regular citizens and teenagers have been accused of insulting the President of Turkey.

Cases involving journalists

In democratic societies, the “Fourth Estate” of journalism plays an importance role in the maintenance and realization of democracy, as it informs the public of what is occurring in the state and, ideally, exposes the malfeasance of public officials. In spite of this special role, it appears that journalists in Turkey are in no way exempt from Article 299. Here are some examples of journalist being prosecuted (or persecuted) in Turkey for insulting Erdoğan.

On September 3, 2015 Ertuğrul Özkök, a columnist for Hürriyet published an article entitled, “Listen, grand man,” which through allusion was critical of Erdoğan.[9] As a result Özkök exceeded “acceptable criticism” of the president and could face up to five years in prison.

In October of 2015, Bülent Keneş was placed on probation for defaming Erdoğan in a tweet.[10] Keneş is the editor in chief of Today’s Zaman, a Turkish english language daily which has been recently taken over by the Turkish government over alleged connections to Muhammed Fethullah Gülen.[11]

During the same month journalist Necati Doğru was sentenced to 11 months in prison for writing an article insulting to the president.[12] He denies the charges saying “There weren’t even any insults in my article. It was critical and intended to make readers question.

Cumhuriyet columnist Özgür Mumcu could be sentenced to over 4 years in prison for writing an article entitled “Tyrant and a coward.”[13] Referring to Erdoğan, he wrote, “It is well-known that tyrants are always fearful. They are so fearful that they would even file a complaint against someone like Abdullah Cömert’s mother [Mr. Cömert died under suspicious circumstances during the Gazi Park protests].” According to Erdoğan’s lawyer Mumcu’s statement “a tyrant who oppresses his people, treating them without mercy” exceeded “the limits of criticism.

Cengiz Çandar, a prominent Turkish columnist for the Radikal news portal, is currently the focus of two separate probes for seven articles he wrote that allegedly insulted Erdoğan.[14] If convicted he could face up to four years in prison.

It is not just individual journalists that are the targets of litigation, but also the news organizations themselves. In September of 2014, when the magazine Nokta published a photo of Erdoğan taking a selfie by the coffin of a dead soldier, their Istanbul offices were subsequently raided by police for “insulting the Turkish president.”[15] The magazine’s chief news editor Murat Çapan was also detained for such charges and for “making terrorist propaganda” but was then released on probation.

The CNN Türk television station was also investigated for insulting the president.[16] Apparently while reporting on a story that CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called Erdoğan a “dictator” CNN Türk had on screen an image of the president and the word “dictator.” They were not attempting to denigrate Erdoğan as a dictator but merely reporting on a new story. However, such reporting was considered grounds for investigation by prosecutors.

Cases involving politicians

It is not only journalists that are targeted by Erdoğan and his lawyers but fellow politicians who are perceived to have insulted him. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu–the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the second largest political party in Turkey having almost 25% of seats in Parliament–has been investigated over numerous incidents related to violating Article 299.

What are Kılıçdaroğlu’s crimes? Well the first one that I am aware of involved him being sued for calling the president a “prime thief,” but that case has been dismissed.[17] Following that he called the president a “sham dictator” in response to the latter’s reaction to a pro-Kurd petition signed by over 1,000 of the nation’s academics.[18] For this crime Erdoğan is suing Kılıçdaroğlu for 100,000 Turkish Liras. Rather comically, Kılıçdaroğlu responded to the situation that what angered Erdoğan “is not the fact that I call him a dictator. He gets angry when I call him the ‘sham dictator.’ Because he could not even be a dictator.”[19]

Most recently in April 2016 Kılıçdaroğlu is the object of another lawsuit by Erdoğan’s lawyers. This time he is being sued for 100,000 Turkish Liras for comments he made during a speech to the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) which have been described by Erdoğan’s lawyers as “extraordinarily heavy insults.”[20] Kılıçdaroğlu responded “You hurl insults via TV programs from morning to night at everyone who is not your supporter and now you open an ‘insult’ case against me. Is that so? These cases are an honor for me.” It should be noted that prior to Kılıçdaroğlu’s TTB speech Erdoğan has called him a “political pervert.”[21]

Selahattin Demirtas the chairman of the Kurdish HDP political party is also in legal hot water. He is accused of insulting Erdoğan for saying in a speech that the latter “wants to be the caliphate of Islam. But thieves cannot be caliphs.”[22] The indictment described Demirtas’ remarks as not being “within the scope of freedom of thought and expression” and as being legally indefensible “as they amounted to statements beneath one’s dignity and honor.

A number of other CHP officials have been investigated for insulting the president. At a CHP rally called “Justice caught in red light” that occurred during November 2014, speeches made by members of the CHP youth branch, Ömer Yener and Ali Aktaş became grounds for indictment for “defaming the Turkish president.”[23] Secretary-General of the CHP Gürsel Tekin has also been charged with insulting Erdoğan after criticizing the latter for detaining academics who signed a pro-Kurd petition.[24]

Eren Erdem a deputy of the CHP has been ordered by a Turkish court to pay Erdoğan 7,000 Turkish Liras for a speech given that was critical of the president in the aftermath of the Suruç bombing conducted by ISIL.[25] It is interesting to note the Erdem has also made allegations that the Turkish government is covering up that ISIL is aquiring materials needed to make Sarin gas in Turkey and then transferring them to Syria.[26] One wonders if Erdem’s indictment has anything to do with these accusations he made against the government.

Cases involving regular people

It should be expected that Erdoğan would target his political and journalistic opponents as they have the power and influence to obstruct or complicate his political maneuvers. However, regular Turkish citizens, be they inconspicuous folk or those of repute, have also been in the crosshair’s of Erdoğan’s lawyers.

In August 2015 a 30 year old civil engineer was arrested in Antalya province for a making a tweet insulting towards the president’s daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan.[27] The man expressed regret for his crime and stated he “was a bit drunk” when he made the tweet. He has been released.

In September 2015 a man was sentenced to house arrest for insulting Erdoğan in a facebook post.[28] His reaction to his sentence was “I was surprised by this decision. I can’t even do my job, so I can’t earn money because I’m not allowed to leave home.

In October Dr. Bilgin Çiftçi posted online images comparing Erdoğan to the Lord of Rings character Gollum.[29] In the aftermath of this comparison Dr. Çiftçi was fired from his job and is under investigation for insulting the president. To determine whether the comparison was in fact insulting, the court has appointed Lord of the Rings experts.[30]

A construction worker, who is also a member of the HDP, was arrested in Kocaeli for making social media posts that were deemed as insulting towards the president and as “propaganda of a terrorist organization.”[31] Two people were also arrested in Şanlıurfa province for making social media posts that insulted and cursed Erdoğan.[32]

In January 2016 Filiz Akıncı, an economist, was sentenced to over 11 months in prison for “shouting and directing a hand gesture toward” Erdoğan at a rally in İzmir.[33] At the time of rally Erdoğan was still the Prime Minister of Turkey. Actress Gonca Vuslateri was more fortunate as on February 2 she was acquitted of “insulting” Erdoğan.[34] Vuslateri’s crime was tweeting a satirical cartoon of the president.

Perihan Mağden, an author for the already mentioned Nokta Magazine, faces up to 4 years in prison for insulting Erdoğan.[35] The incident occurred following the police raid of Nokta Magazine when Mağden commented on the raid in the press. Apparently her statements “went far beyond criticism and clearly could be regarded as insults.

Hakan Şükür–a famous footballer who played for Galatasaray and Inter Milan, a former AKP member of parliament and a Fethullah Gülen supporter–faces up to 4 years in prison for making a tweet insulting towards Erdoğan and his son.[36] In his defence Şükür “denied that the words in his tweets were directed at either the president or his son.” In March a drunken man called a police line and insulted Erdoğan, Davutoğlu and other officials.[37] For his drunken transgressions he has been arrested.

Not only are Erdoğan’s lawyers filing charges against people, there is also a case were a Turkish man filed criminal charges against his wife for insulting the president.[38] The husband had warned his wife that if she continued to insult the president he would report her to the police. Apparently the wife did not heed the warning, and when she saw Erdoğan’s face on television and swore at it, the husband was prompted to take legal action. I guess among some Turks, the love of Erdoğan is greater than the love of family.

Cases involving minors

Even young offenders are not exempt from insulting their president. A 17 year old high school student has been sentenced to 11 months in prison for insulting Erdoğan during a speech he gave at a commemoration ceremony.[39] Another 17 year old was arrested for posting an insulting facebook post about the president.[40] A teenage school boy was also arrested for insulting the president. However, when it was discovered that he was 14 instead of 15 years old, he was released.[41]


Based on what I have presented I will leave it up to you to decide whether I am being facetious by calling Erdoğan the Thin-Skinned or if I have selected an accurate and appropriate epithet. Regardless, it is clear that Erdoğan’s sensitivity to being insulted and criticized (the two seem frequently conflated in his mind) indicate that he is not some run-of-the-mill elected leader, but instead is a megalomanic dictator, who cannot tolerate any dissent, dislike or criticism. Hopefully my characterization will not puncture Erdoğan’s thin skin.

O Mouggos


[1] See my post on Jan Böhmermann













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