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Watch what you say on social media in Turkey — a 14-year-old schoolboy spent Wednesday night in a police station for supposedly insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Facebook.Authorities released the teenager, who is identified in Turkish media only by the initials UE, on Thursday morning after police determined he was a year too young to be criminally charged under the law.Turkish authorities are not yet releasing specific details of the case. But it's clear that UE was initially arrested for violating Article 299, a specific provision in the penal code that makes any "insults" to the office of the presidency punishable by multiple years in prison.
Human Rights watchdogs have long criticized the law as a crude provision that is designed to stifle and discourage political dissent."It's used as a stick against anyone who dares criticize the president," said Nina Ognianova, the program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Project Journalists. What constitutes an insult, she noted, is not always clear."It's the million-dollar question," she added. "It could be a tweet. You don't have to necessarily even use the president's name — it's really up to the interpretation of authorities."Related: Turkey's President Erdogan Tells EU to 'Mind Its Own Business' Over Media ArrestsWhile Article 299 has been part of Turkey's penal code since 1926, Erdogan's administration has made a point of applying the law much more aggressively than his predecessors. Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul famously used the law to jail a number of prominent opposition newspaper editors, but the highly image-conscious Erdogan has ramped up enforcement to unprecedented levels, targeting all layers of society.In the first seven months of his term, authorities investigated 236 individuals under the provision and indicted 105 of them. Erdogan has a team of lawyers who regularly file cases in local courts against those who dare criticize him."It's a completely arbitrary process," Ognianova said. "And more often than not, the courts side with the president."
This is not the first time Turkey has arrested a minor for insulting Erdogan. Last December, he pushed for the arrest of a 16-year-old student who gave a speech at a protest that was critical of the ruling AK Party. At the time, Erdogan's political ally and prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, defended the arrest, saying that the presidency "needs to be shown respect." The boy was later released.The dragnet extends to nearly all sectors of Turkish society. In February, authorities detained Merve Buyuksarac, a former Miss Turkey, for insulting Erdogan on Instagram when she posted a satirical poem from a Turkish magazine that poked fun at the president.Related: Turkey Is Investigating a Major Media Group for Alleged 'Terrorism Propaganda'Earlier this month, the editor of a leading English-language newspaper in the country was also detained under the provision after he retweeted a statement made by a major Turkish opposition party. And just a day after 14-year-old UE was detained, Serkan Inci, the founder of a popular dictionary website, was arrested for insulting the president online, though it wasn't made clear what he had done to cause offense.These arrests illustrate how Article 299 is abused by Turkish authorities in order to eliminate dissenting voices."There's a very large basket of legislation that are on the books in Turkey to persecute both citizens and journalists for expressing themselves " Ognianova said. "Authorities just pick and choose from a wide number of articles that are available to them."The state's arbitrary enforcement of these provisions isn't limited to Turkish citizens. On August 27, Turkey detained and charged three VICE News journalists with abetting terrorism after the team entered a Kurdish zone in Turkey to report on the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK. One of them, an Iraqi journalist named Mohammed Ismael Rasool, remains in prison.As a result of Erdogan's crackdown, the space for political speech in Turkey is in danger of shrinking."People are self-censoring," Ognianova said. "More and more we are seeing a witch-hunt against those who criticize the president or his policies."Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro