Freedom of expression, the ECHR, and Turkey: recent developments

Flag of Turkey, via BBCTwo recent cases in the European Court of Human Rights demonstrate that there are still large gaps in the protection of freedom of expression in Turkey.

Terrorist speech
In Gözel and Özer v Turkey (43453/04 and 31098/05; 6 July 2010 | judgment (in French); press release (in English)), a Turkish magazine published an article that contained a statement by the central committee of the banned Marxist-Leninist/Turkish Communist Party. Another published an article about the founder of the Marxist movement in Turkey which included a statement by eight people who were in custody for belonging to illegal organisations. The editors of both magazines were convicted of pubishing statements of illegal armed organisations.

The ECHR noted that the editors had been convicted for publishing texts that the domestic courts had characterised as “terrorist organisation statements” without taking into account their context or content, and held that to condemn a text simply on the basis of the identity of the author would entail the automatic exclusion of groups of individuals from the protection afforded by Article 10. It therefore concluded that since the opinions expressed did not constitute hate speech or stir up violence, the Respondent was not entitled to rely on national security to restrict the public’s right to receive information, and that Article 10 had therefore been breached.

In Ireland, the leading Supreme Court decision in this area is the deeply flawed The State (Lynch) v Cooney [1982] IR 337 upholding the infamous section 31(1) of the Broadcasting (Authority) Act, 1960 [(also here), as amended by section 16 of the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1976 (also here), ultimately repealed in 2001] (discussed on this blog here | here | here). On foot of the powers in that section, the Minister had proscribed the access of paramilitaries to the airwaves, and this extended to preventing an election broadcast by a candidate in a party associated with a paramilitary organisation. That association, effectively the mere identity of the candidate, was sufficient to allow the ban to be upheld. O’Higgins CJ held that the use of the media for the purpose of securing or advocating support for organisations which seek by violence to overthrow the State or its institutions is a use which is prohibited by the Constitution. This must now be questionable in the light of Gözel and Özer.


In Sapan v Turkey (44102/04; 6 July 2010 | judgment (in French); press release (in English) | h/t Strasbourg Observers), the applicant published a book on the emergence of stardom as a phenomenon in Turkey. It was based upon his doctoral thesis, and it focussed in part on a well-know pop singer. The Turkish courts held that, since the book addressed subjects related to the singer’s personal life rather than his public persona, it had infringed his personality rights. An interim order that the book be seized was eventually lifted after two years and eight months, but the singer’s damages claim was allowed to proceed.

The ECHR emphasised the importance of academic freedom, and it considered that the book was a serious academic analysis of the social phenomenon of stardom which could not be compared with the tabloid press or gossip columns. It therefore held that there were no relevant or sufficient and reasons to justify the seizure of the book, and that Article 10 had therefore been breached.

In an earlier post, I placed the terms of section 14(1) of the Universities Act, 1997 (also here) in the context of US and ECHR decisions on academic freedom, in particular the decision of the ECHR in Sorguc v Turkey 17089/03, [2009] ECHR 979 (23 June 2009). This is a very significant judgment in the development of this important right. In particular, it re-inforces the argument that, since academic freedom is protected under the ECHR as an aspect of Article 10, it should by analogy be protected under the Irish Constitution as an aspect of the right to freedom of expression in Article 40.6.1(i), or of the right to communicate protected by Article 40.3, or even as an unenumerated right located in Article 40.3.

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