In Turkey, satirical TikTok video leads to arrest and travel ban

Photo by Solen Feyissa,

It was a satirical video posted by two 23-year-olds on TikTok, titled “Areas where the Turkish passport is used,” that poked fun at the inability to travel during the pandemic — but the alternative ways in which the duo used the travel document (as a bookmark, an oven mitt and a coaster) angered the authorities. They were accused of belittling national symbols through their mockery of the Turkish passport, and charged with “openly insulting the state's sovereign insignia.”

After their arrest, the TikTokers attempted to explain that the video was made with comedic intention. In a statement during the interrogation, one of the video's creators said, “We had no intention whatsoever to insult or belittle the Republic of Turkey, its passport or the Turkish flag.”

They were still charged. Having been released on probation, however, they were required to report to the police station daily, and — quite ironically, given the subject matter of their video — placed under a travel ban until their hearing begins.

Twitter user Can Okar couldn't believe both the absurdity and the threatening nature of the government's reaction:

Not all social media users, however, found the video funny:

I call on my government. Save the glorious Turkish passport from the hands of these incompetents.

To emphasise the discrepancy in the degree of the government's reaction, some netizens brought up the issue of Turkey's service passport. Also known as the grey passport, it is issued to citizens such as national athletes for the purpose of official or government-related trips. Family members of these passport holders may also be awarded the privilege of carrying a grey passport, which comes with the benefit of being able to travel to Schengen states without a visa.

In early April, the ruling Justice and Development Party found itself in the midst of a grey passport scandal when 43 of its members who traveled to Germany went into hiding there and refused to return. In response, Turkey's interior ministry suspended the issuance of new service passports pending investigation, prompting one Twitter user to compare the two incidents:

Two 23-year-olds in Istanbul were detained on the pretext of criticizing the value of Turkish passports on TikTok with humor. Young people were banned from going abroad. No action was taken against AKP municipalities that smuggle people abroad through grey passports. [AKP is an acronym for the ruling party, Adalet ve Kalkinma, which means Justice and Development.]

Still incensed at the double standard, Can Okar pointed out how easy it is to acquire a Turkish passport once you can afford to buy property in the country:

Under the current administration, humour has become one of many items on the government's list of intolerable acts, regardless of whether it targets the president, members of the ruling party or the state and its symbols.

In 2018, three university students who upon graduation held up a satirical banner that read, “Now it’s […] Kingdom of the Tayyips” — accompanied by depictions of animals with the president’s face — were arrested. Police also detained the student who helped transport the banner and the manager of the printing shop where it had been produced. They were all tried under Article 299 of the Turkish penal code for “insulting the president”, but were eventually released without serving any time in prison. When the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, tweeted the banner text in support of the students, the Ankara prosecutor’s office initiated a preliminary investigation against him on the same grounds.

In 2016, a former Miss Turkey was sentenced to a 14-month suspended sentence for sharing an Instagram post about a satirical twist on the national anthem. Just one year prior, two cartoonists from the popular magazine Penguen were given a 14-month jail sentence for drawing a cartoon of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan which he found insulting; the sentence was later reduced to a fine. In a similar vein, 40 contributing writers of the satirical Sour Dictionary (Eksi Sozluk) were put on trial in 2014 for insulting religion.

In a 2017 opinion piece for The Guardian, internationally renowned Turkish writer Elif Safak wrote:

In the past we had a solid tradition of black humour. Politics was always rough, but it was OK for the people to laugh at politicians. Not any more.

In a country where diversity has been stifled and freedom of speech curtailed, even satire is under scrutiny and may land offenders behind bars — or at the very least, in an interrogation room, as in the case of the TikTok couple.

If found guilty, the pair faces either fines or up to one year in jail. There have been no further updates about their hearing, however, as the government has introduced lockdown measures in an attempt to curb the country's growing COVID-19 infection rate.

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