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Photo controversy

Geneva refuses to remove critical Erdogan photo

Demir Sönmez poses with his photograph outside the UN in Geneva on April 25. The caption reads: 'My name is Berkin Elvan. The police killed me on the orders of the Turkish prime minister' (Keystone)

Demir Sönmez poses with his photograph outside the UN in Geneva on April 25. The caption reads: 'My name is Berkin Elvan. The police killed me on the orders of the Turkish prime minister'


The Geneva authorities have refused to remove a photograph from an exhibition in the city, which blames the death of a Turkish teenager on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish authorities wanted the photo taken down.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the city of Geneva authorities said they backed freedom of expression and announced that they would maintain their authorisation so the exhibition can continue until May 1.

On Monday, the Geneva authorities received a complaint from the Turkish consulate to Switzerland demanding that an offending photograph of a dead teenager, which is part of an ongoing photo exhibition of demonstrations shown on the Place des Nations square in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations, be taken down. 

The photo, by Swiss-Turkish photographer Demir Sönmez, who is of Kurdish and Armenian origin, shows a banner from March 2014, which proclaimed that Erdogan was responsible for the death of a teenager on the Taksim square in Istanbul in June 2013. The caption on the photo reads: 'My name is Berkin Elvan. The police killed me on the orders of the Turkish prime minister'.

The Turkish embassy in Bern told Swiss public television, SRF, it respected the freedom of any artist, but said the photo put Erdogan "under suspicion in an unjust and unreal fashion".

Geneva's local government said on Tuesday it stood by the exhibition which "participates towards freedom of expression and highlights Geneva’s role as capital of human rights”. 

The photo exhibition is supported by the city of Geneva and Reporters without Borders organisation. It also includes pictures of protests for and against Israel, for the rights of the Yazidi minority in Iraq and in support of Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Sonmez said he was not surprised by Turkey's request. "In the end, Turkey shot itself in the foot," he told Reuters.

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter welcomed Geneva's decision on Swiss public radio, RTS: "Freedom of expression must be a priority." 

German storm

The controversy follows a political storm in Germany when legal proceedings were opened against satirist Jan Böhmermann on Ankara’s insistence. Böhmermann will face trial for making sexual innuendos about Erdogan on German television. 

The decision to start a German prosecution against Böhmermann, based on 1871 legislation banning the defamation of foreign leaders, has drawn protests that the right of free speech has been undermined in Germany. 

Turkish prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting Erdogan since he became president in 2014, the justice minister said last month. Those targeted include journalists, cartoonists and even children.

Just like Germany, Swiss law contains a clause prohibiting insults towards foreign leaders. In 2010, Switzerland applied its version of the law against a Geneva political group who made posters depicting Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi with the tagline “He Wants to Destroy Switzerland”. The case was dropped a year later when Gaddafi was overthrown. 

Berkin Elvan received a serious head injury in June 2013 caused by a tear gas canister fired by police in his neighbourhood when he was out buying bread. His death on March 11, 2014, after 269 days in a coma, sparked protests by thousands of people in various Turkish cities, condemning Erdogan’s government. At the time he was prime minister.

swissinfo.ch with agencies


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