Turkey: Criminal law silences discussion
Felix Colchester: The "Kurdish question" requires debate, but it is almost impossibe to discuss it openly
20 Nov 09

This is a guest post by Felix Colchester

The Turkish government’s much anticipated “Kurdish Initiative” was discussed in parliament on 10 November, with many political parties eager to have their say on how best to solve the long-standing “Kurdish problem”. Speculation is rife as to the details of the initiative; thought to be amongst its key policies are the decentralisation of power away from Ankara, a more inclusive definition of citizenship, and the use of dialogue to pacify and eventually integrate militant groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) back into the political process. Why, then, if the “Kurdish Initiative” seems to favour mediation over military campaigns and dialogue over coercion, does it remain almost impossible for the Turkish media to discuss the initiative?

The Turkish Criminal Code, with its vague articles open to wide interpretations, is a considerable deterrent to journalists. A notorious example is Article 216, which punishes “inciting hatred and hostility amongst the public and humiliation of the public”. A journalist at Millyet newspaper, Devrim Sevimay, and actress Hülya Avşar fell foul of this article by conducting an interview on 24 August in which Avşar expressed doubts about the “Kurdish Initiative”. Bianet, a Turkish news agency, reported that Avşar had said it would be difficult to “convince the terrorist operatives of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party to lay down their arms”. Criminal behaviour indeed. The pair remain under criminal investigation.

If the Turkish Criminal Code doesn’t provide enough of an incentive for self-censorship, the Turkish Anti-Terror Law adds further muscle to force the Kurdish question off the media’s agenda. Article 7/2 of the Anti-Terror Law in particular has been put to prolific use; Günlük columnist Veysi Sarisözen and managing director Ziya Ciçekçi each face up to seven years in prison for making “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. The paper published an article on 6 February testifying to the support of the PKK in Diyarbakir. The defence for these journalists is in the very title of the article they are being charged for: “We do not make propaganda for an organisation, the people do”. More recently, journalist Namik Durkan and his managing director Hasan Cakkalkurt at Millyet newspaper were both charged under Article 7/2 for publishing an announcement made by PKK executive Duran Kalkan. Kalkan had said that a general amnesty would not bring about the disarmament of the PKK. Durkan and Cakkalkurt could face up to seven-and-a-half years in prison if found guilty.

The “Kurdish Initiative” has faced criticism from opposition parties, most notably from the Nationalist Movement Party, led by Devlet Bahçeli, who believe that the “Kurdish Initiative” abandons the fight on terror and condones the actions of the PKK. If the Turkish government wishes the policies it sets out for the Kurdish question to prove robust and successful once implemented, it would do well to consider the dissenting voices not only of parliament, but also of the media and key stakeholders such as the PKK. Unfortunately, Turkey’s criminal laws have prevented such a constructive dialogue from occurring.