Freedom of Expression, Law, Democracy, Social Development and Power
In view of the fact that a group of academics (“Academics for Peace”) who signed a petition are facing pressures including dismissal and imprisonment, we would once again like to underscore citizens’ and academics’ freedom of expression, and right to express their opinions. These rights and freedoms constitute the sine qua non of democracy and the rule of law. The free sharing of opinions and information serves as a guarantee for social consensus and a healthy and democratic dialogue among all citizens. Academics, who are expected to produce and disseminate fresh information and so require a creative work environment, must enjoy not only rights and freedoms for intellectual studies in their own fields, but also the freedom of general political expression -which naturally all citizens are entitled to. The criminal punishment that they face for exercising their freedom of expression, and the investigations and sanctions that they are subjected to by university administrations as faculty members are not in accordance with the basic principles underpinning democracy and the university system.
United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and European Charter of Human Rights indicate that individuals’ expression of their thoughts and opinions -as long as this does not involve or provoke violence, defamation or slander- is a natural right. Law, and especially criminal law, stipulates that the exercise of a right cannot be considered a crime. Scientists are individuals who seek the truth, and make suggestions based on that truth they believe to have obtained; through academic discourse, they express the results yielded by their efforts in a specific field of expertise. However, as citizens, scientists also have the right to express their opinions in fields falling outside their field of expertise (extramural discourse). As long as it does not incite violence or involve slander, such an act cannot be considered “disciplinary transgression” (which needs to be investigated by the university administration) or a crime to be persecuted on the basis of criminal law. It simply amounts to the exercise of a right.
Freedom of expression is not only important in and of itself, but also has crucial functions for the society at large. Free thought and expression lay the groundwork for scientific creativity, new technologies, and accordingly, economic development. In other words, they are key to social and human development. It is not by coincidence that countless innovations, ranging from mobile phones to driverless cars, originate in societies where freedoms are held in high esteem.
Free democracies not only have the most advanced economies, but also foster the unfettered and productive development of technology, culture, science and the arts. This is what makes such democracies a crucial hub of soft power. Young individuals hailing from all over the world are present in the universities, companies and cities of such countries, contributing to economic, cultural and political enhancement, and also honing their own skills. Freedoms open the door to economic and social development, while leading to an intensification of soft power which demands a creative cultural environment.
Accordingly, in our century, law, especially criminal law, has turned into a means for the protection of rights and freedoms, and particularly the freedom of expression. Criminal law is not a tool at the hands of the establishment which employs it to protect itself and muzzle the opposition and dissident voices. On the contrary, it functions as an instrument which ensures that the opposition and heterodox opinions can find expression without any worry and fear. In fact, in the absence of a confrontation between opposing ideas, it would be much harder if not impossible to get closer to truth and to create better practices. As such, freedom, free democracy, economic welfare and soft political power lay roots and prosper in societies which respond to ideas -that do not involve violence and slander- with other ideas, rather than imprisonment and persecution.
It is deeply worrying that Turkey has steered further and further away from these standards in recent years. Despite the gravity and intensity of threats against security, it is essential to protect freedoms. A discourse which turns scientists, thinkers, artists and intellectuals into scapegoats, discrediting, denigrating and otherizing them, would not only allow officials to suppress dissident opinions and deny the general public access to these opinions. Such attitudes and actions run counter to the interests of the society at a more general level as well.
In fact, the recent administrative and criminal measures not only breach such principles but go against the applicable legislation which they refer to. On the other hand, laws have to be in compliance with the Constitution, international conventions signed by Turkey, and resolutions of the Constitutional Court as well as the European Court of Human Rights. The fact that university administrations act on the instructions of the Higher Council of Education (YÖK), and judges and prosecutors on the statements of political authorities goes against the principle of the separation of powers, democracy and rule of law.
It is our duty to share with the general public our opinion that the current state of affairs is not conducive to social development and economic welfare, quality of Turkish democracy, nor political clout. In this respect, we deem it necessary to share the following observations:
- On 14 January 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that a law had be drafted to regulate the administrative investigations carried out by universities in the framework of Higher Council of Education directives. The “omnibus” law regarding the issue has been submitted by the government to the Turkish parliament on 21 March 2016. As such, the administrative measures in question lack a legal basis as of yet.
- From the perspective of criminal law, the process is in breach of Turkish Criminal Code, Article 26 (“The exercise of a right cannot be penalized”), and we consider it very worrying that the lawsuit is grounded on the Anti-Terror Law, Article 7/2, despite the fact that the petition includes no element which could be considered “propaganda for a terrorist organization aimed to praise, legitimize or incite to the use of force, violence or threat”.
- Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s recent comments also suggest that there is no legitimate ground for the imprisonment of the academics pending trial. We would like share with the general public our belief that the release of the academics from prison would prevent damages which could be impossible to compensate, and strengthen Turkey’s claim to be a democratic state upholding the rule of law.
Executive Board of The Science Academy, Turkey