A Turkish Court has appointed a panel of five Lord of the Rings experts to give actual evidence on trial over the question of whether or not a Gollum meme could be considered ‘offensive’. A ‘meme’, pronounced ‘meem’, is an image, idea or behaviour that is typically spread through social media and the Internet in general. Recently the term has spread to incorporate essentially any satirical image or humourous comparison.
According to The Washington Post, Turkish doctor Bilgin Çiftçi shared a meme on Facebook that allegedly compared Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the conflicted ex-Hobbit creature from the titular books and films. What would typically have come across as a light hearted piece of political commentary in other jurisdictions, has instead evolved into a full-scale trial with very real consequences. Insulting the head of state is a crime punishable by jail time in Turkey, and Çiftçi felt the consequences almost immediately – losing his job, being expelled from the Public Health Institution of Turkey and swiftly being put on trial after the meme was spotted in his Facebook feed.
While there was no dispute the former doctor had posted the meme, the real question on which his innocence or guilt hinged was the simple question:
‘Is Gollum a good guy or a bad guy?’
When he appeared in court however, Çiftçi argued that he hadn’t insulted anyone at all. Despite his slimy skin, questionable syntax, horrid hygiene, nuanced hairstyle, unforgiveable diet, liberal fashion sense and fickle friend circles – many state that Gollum is not a villain, in fact he may even be a hero. Çiftçi alleged that Gollum was a deeply misunderstood character and that the comparison was anything but insulting. After all, it was Gollum who ultimately freed Middle Earth from the tyranny of the Ring by savagely and heroically biting off Frodo’s finger and plunging (some scholars say accidentally) into the boiling lava inside Mount Doom.
When Çiftçi’s lawyer Hicran Danışman pressed the Chief Judge for his reading of the complicated character, the judge admitted he’d ‘only seen parts of the movies’ and adjourned the case until late February to give an expert panel time to review the validity of Çiftçi’s defence.
Hence a Fellowship of 5 experts was forged. Two comprising of academics, another two comprising of behavioural scientists and a lone expert on cinema and television production. Its purpose: to investigate the meme and conclude if Çiftçi’s defence that it was not offensive held weight. However, the outcome of the expert panel will have less of an impact on Gollum, who in addition to suffering from the stubborn condition known as death, is just a figment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination – than on Çiftçi, who faces up to two years in prison if successfully convicted.
The Turkish Penal Code states that anybody who insults the president of the Republic can face a prison term of up to four years – more if the statement is made publically or by a journalist. President Erdogan’s time in office has coincided with an increase in the number of investigations for insults, with 236 investigations in just over a year with 105 successfully indictments.
Lord of the Rings fans and even Director Peter Jackson have expressed support for the doctor, with Mr. Jackson issuing a statement stating that the images did not show the malicious character of Gollum but rather depict Smeagol, the character’s joyful, innocent alter-ego. One can only await the findings and recommendations of the Fellowship panel to see if this brief internet meme puts a man behind bars, or concludes more poignantly – if Gollum is good or bad.