A Turkish court’s order for Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to remove images of a dead government official is only the latest in a series of concerning developments in Turkey’s constitutional culture.
The social media giants were ordered to remove pictures of a prosecutor who was killed during a hostage standoff in Istanbul on March 31. Facebook complied with the order, while Twitter and YouTube were shut down for refusing to do so. Facebook and Twitter later announced that they will appeal the case.
Casual observers of world politics may be surprised to see this emerging power take action worthy of Kim Jong-un. But the last few years have underscored a shift in Turkey’s political identity, led by its former prime minister and current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Once regarded as a shining example of secular democracy in a region wrought by sectarian strife, Turkey is increasingly indulging the autocratic tendencies of its ambitious leader. And Turkey’s constitution, last revised by referendum in 2011, provides a weak bulwark against them.
Consider, for examples, free speech. Using the Constitution Center’s interactive tool, Constitutional Rights, one discovers that the Turkish constitution contains only 4 percent of the text of America’s First Amendment.
Article 26 states, “Everyone has the right to express and disseminate his/her thoughts and opinions by speech, in writing or in pictures or through other media, individually or collectively.” That sounds great, until you read the next paragraph:
The exercise of these freedoms may be restricted for the purposes of national security, public order, public safety, safeguarding the basic characteristics of the Republic and the indivisible integrity of the State with its territory and nation, preventing crime, punishing offenders, withholding information duly classified as a state secret, protecting the reputation or rights and private and family life of others, or protecting professional secrets as prescribed by law, or ensuring the proper functioning of the judiciary.
So the recent squabble with Silicon Valley—not to mention attacks on cartoonists and suppression of protest—should come as no surprise when so many malleable exceptions to free expression are embedded in the nation’s governing document.
On paper, the relationship between church and state is closer to the American ideal. Article 2 of Turkey’s constitution says the country is a “democratic, secular and social state governed by rule of law.” That makes President Erdogan’s effort to promote religious schools a particularly egregious affront to the nation’s core principles.
One might blame Article 24: “Religious and moral education and instruction shall be conducted under state supervision and control. Instruction in religious culture and morals shall be one of the compulsory lessons in the curricula of primary and secondary schools.” (That’s difficult to reconcile with Article 24’s hollow assertion that “everyone has the freedom of conscience, religious belief and conviction.”)
And what about gender equality? As discussed at the Constitution Center last month, the U.S. Constitution contains no explicit statement of equal rights for both sexes. But Turkey’s constitution does make such a leap in Article 10:
Everyone is equal before the law without distinction as to language, race, colour, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion and sect, or any such grounds.
Men and women have equal rights. The State has the obligation to ensure that this equality exists in practice. Measures taken for this purpose shall not be interpreted as contrary to the principle of equality.
Yet President Erdogan has said, “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against her nature because her nature is different, her bodily constitution is different.” He has also said that birth control is a form of “treason.” These comments raise serious questions about Turkey’s commitment to gender equality under its constitution.
All of this is to say nothing about President Erdogan’s current efforts to rewrite Turkey’s constitution to establish a presidential system in place of the current parliamentary design. The Kurds aren’t happy, and there are signs that the President’s own party is divided.
Perhaps a nation’s constitution is only as strong as the leaders that enforce it.
Nicandro Iannacci is a web strategist at the National Constitution Center.
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