Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, is personally acquainted with this history. He was briefly imprisoned in Poland in 1983 for supporting the anti-communist trade union Solidarity and helping launch a pro-democracy publication.
“The line between criticism, insult, and defamation is very thin and relative,” Tusk said at the press conference on Saturday. “And the moment politicians begin to decide which is which can mean the end of the freedom of expression in Europe, in Turkey, in Africa, in Russia, everywhere.”
“I was imprisoned for being critical of the regime, and if I remember well, also my good friend President Erdogan, it was 15 years later, had [a] similar experience for expressing his views,” Tusk continued. “As a politician, I have learned and accepted to have thick skin, and I have no expectation that the press will treat me with special care—quite the opposite.”
Erdogan, it seems, learned the opposite lesson from his stint in jail. In 1997, as mayor of Istanbul, he too spoke poetry to power. At a rally in the city of Siirt, Erdogan loosely referenced a poem by the Turkish nationalist Ziya Gokalp:
The mosques are our barracks,
the domes our helmets,
the minarets our bayonets,
and the believers our soldiers.
Erdogan had included these lines in past speeches. But this time they provoked Turkey’s secular military leaders and civilian elite, who had just forced the country’s first Islamist prime minister from power and who viewed Istanbul’s popular, Islamist-leaning mayor as a threat.
The poem “was an attention-getter,” Erdogan told The New York Times in 2003. “It would make the people spirited.” It also landed him in prison for four months on the charge of inciting religious hatred. In 1999, thousands of supporters escorted him to jail, where his popularity only grew. Erdogan seemingly emerged from prison a changed man, committed more to Western-style democracy than Islamism. He had learned that it “was necessary to catch up with developments, the modern age,” he said in 2002, the year his new political party won its first election.
But that perception was mistaken. Instead, Erdogan appears to have learned that it’s better to be the prosecutor of the poet than the poet himself. Over the last 13 years, his skin has grown thinner even as his power has grown more concentrated. Erdogan presides over the 17th-largest economy in the world and lives in a 1,000-room, 2 million-square-foot palace, but these evidently provide little comfort in the face of criticism. And the more Erdogan has lashed out at criticism, the more fiercely that criticism has come.
In the past year and a half, government prosecutors have opened almost 2,000 cases against Turks for insulting the Turkish president. One Turkish man lodged a legal complaint against his wife for cursing Erdogan in their own home. Another went on trial for comparing Erdogan to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Cartoonists were fined for a drawing allegedly implying that Erdogan is gay. And Erdogan has taken his war against insults abroad. In March, the Turkish government summoned Germany’s ambassador in anger over a music video, called “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan,” that aired on a satirical German TV show. On Saturday, the same day Davutoglu and Tusk debated free speech, a Dutch journalist was detained in Turkey for denouncing Erdogan in a column. Since 2002, Turkey has dropped from 99th to 151st in Reporters Without Borders’ annual ranking of press freedom in different countries, largely because of the government’s intimidation of critical journalists and censorship of the Internet.