Is it Smeagol or Gollum?

Turkey debates Lord of the Rings to decide whether a doctor will spend two years in jail over a Facebook post.

Little surprises with a country that falls near the bottom of the world in global press freedoms, isn’t much better in general Internet freedoms and imprisons those who run afoul of its censorship laws, but Turkey’s Turkey and a current case involving a doctor, Lord of the Rings and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an absurdity worth mention.

It began when Bilgin Ciftci posted images on Facebook this summer that juxtaposed photos of the country’s president and a Lord of the Rings character. By October, the Public Health Institution of Turkey fired the doctor for the post, and earlier this month, Ciftci found himself in court facing two years in jail for insulting Erdoğan.

All of which is absurd, but more absurd is that the doctor’s fate rests on interpreting Lord of the Rings mythology. In particular, what character appears in the photos and whether that character is inherently good or bad.

More specifically, the judge wants to know whether Ciftci was comparing the president to the cheerful Smeagol who later becomes the dark, brooding Gollum because of his temptation for the ring, or was he comparing him directly to Gollum.1

This February, the court plans to bring in five outside experts to provide answers. Namely, two academics, two behavioral scientists, and a television and film expert.

None of whom are Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, who along with his screenwriters on the films, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, issued a statement supporting Ciftci and clarifying that the character in question is the benevolent Smeagol:

If the images are in fact the ones forming the basis of this Turkish lawsuit, we can state categorically: None of them feature the character known as Gollum. All of them are images of the character called Smeagol.

Added Walsh for good measure:

Smeagol does not lie, deceive, or attempt to manipulate others. He is not evil, conniving, or malicious — these personality traits belong to Gollum, who should never be confused with Smeagol.

Smeagol would never dream of wielding power over those weaker than himself. He is not a bully. In fact he’s very loveable. This is why audiences all over the world have warmed to his character.

Sadly, of course, is that the case is being tried on fantasy world technicalities instead of basic free speech rights.2

Unfortunately, such is current-day Turkey.

Over the last few years, platforms as varied as Twitter, Blogger,, Vimeo, WordPress, Soundcloud and YouTube have been blocked for varying amounts of time and for varying reasons. Meantime, Freedom House reports that ordinary social media users are detained, harassed and threatened with imprisonment for posting “propaganda” or “misleading information” on social sites.3

Take, for example, this tweet from the actor Mehmet Ali Alabora during the 2013 Gezi Park protests: “It is not just Gezi Park, mate. Haven’t you understood it yet? Come along.”

Soon after, a prosecutor charged Alabora with “inciting an armed rebellion against the government” which carries a prison sentence of up to 25 years. Fortunately, the charges were eventually dropped. Others have not been so lucky.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 149 out of 180 in its annual World Press Rankings report; The BBC reports that 236 people were investigated for “insulting the head of state” between between August 2014 and March 2015; and the country cracked down on opposition media in the run up to its most recent elections.

Journalists critical of Erdoğan or government policies have been fired from newspapers seen as close to the president and even assaulted, while offices of pro-opposition media outlets have been raided in what observers say is a broad campaign to intimidate voices demanding change and accountability in Ankara.

“It’s the biggest crackdown on press in Turkish history,” said Tarık Toros, the editor-in-chief of the television station Bugün, which on Wednesday was taken off the air by security officers during a raid, with Toros taking refuge in the station’s control room before being forced out by police.

Ciftci’s case resumes in February.

Is it Smeagol or Gollum? originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project

  1. For those not up on their Lord of the Rings, Smeagol is to Gollum as —broadly— Anakin Skywalker is to Darth Vader.↩︎

  2. If the case is going to be decided by technicalities, let’s get Stephen Colbert as an expert witness. The late night host prides himself on his Middle Earth mastery and earlier this week had this to say about the case.



  3. Freedom House’s 2014 Turkey report is a good primer on the country’s Internet censorship. In particular, its “strategy of demonizing and discrediting social media, one of the few forms of information that is not yet controlled by pro-government individuals.”↩︎

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