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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has published a new decision relating to freedom of expression. In the decision, the imprisonment of the applicant by a Turkish court for insulting the president of the Republic of Turkey was found to constitute a violation of his right to freedom of expression. The ECHR also stated that affording increased protection to a state president by means of special legal provisions is not compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The ECHR published its decision on Vedat Şörli v. Turkey on 19 October 2021 (“Decision“). In the Decision, it was found that the right to freedom of expression of Vedat Şörli (“Applicant“), who was sentenced to imprisonment as per Article 299 of the Turkish Criminal Code for insulting the president of the Republic of Turkey (“President“) through his social media posts, had been violated. You may access the ECHR’s summary of the Decision here.
As per Article 299 of Turkish Criminal Code, the Applicant was sentenced to imprisonment for 11 months and 20 days for insulting the President in two posts he shared on his social media account. The Applicant was also held in pre-trial detention for two months and two days. Following the High Criminal Court’s rejection of the Applicant’s appeal of the Decision, the Applicant made an individual application before the Constitutional Court, which was also rejected. Accordingly, the Applicant applied to the ECHR.
What does the Decision cover?
The ECHR evaluated the application according to the Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“Convention“), which stipulates the right to freedom of expression. The ECHR stated that provisions such as Article 299 of the TCC, which provides higher protection to heads of state than other individuals, are incompatible with the spirit of the Convention. In this context, the ECHR concluded that the aim of protecting the reputation of heads of state does not justify the protection of these people by special regulations.
The ECHR also underlined the importance of the role of the competent authorities in the protection of heads of state and pointed out that the dominant positions of these authorities should be used in a way that does not violate citizens’ right to freedom of expression. In this respect, the ECHR stated that civil law remedies should be preferred instead of criminal sanctions when evaluating freedom of expression and further added that the Decision regarding the Applicant’s imprisonment could have a negative impact on individuals’ right to freedom of expression.
In line with the above, it was decided that the Applicant’s right to freedom of expression had been violated, considering the purpose to be achieved with the Decision did not constitute proportional interference with freedom of expression and was not necessary in a democratic society.
With this Decision, the ECHR has underlined that civil law measures should be preferred to criminal sanctions in order for interference with freedom of expression to be proportional. It was emphasized that decisions that would prevent individuals from expressing their thoughts, especially when evaluating insults against the President, should be avoided. In light of the above, the ECHR decided that the wording and application of Article 299 of the TCC should be changed in line with the Convention.