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Turkey’s free speech problems

By Index on Censorship / 19 January 2011


Censorship in Turkey is largely motivated by deep-rooted nationalism. Jennifer Amur explains the issues

Turkey regularly faces international criticism for its restrictions on free expression, both spoken and printed. At the centre of debate — and a major obstacle in the mostly Muslim country’s bid for full membership in the European Union — is the Turkish Criminal Code, which dictates in several articles that insult to Turkey, its people or its institutions must be penalised, often at the cost of the right to free speech. Hundreds of cases have been brought against journalists, authors, news outlets and publishers under the umbrella of article 301, which makes it a crime to “insult the Turkish state,” and article 216, which prohibits “inciting hatred and hostility amongst the public and humiliation of the public.”

These cases have been focused largely on two monority targets, Kurds and Armenians, and those who lobby for more rights for these groups. Despite numerous calls from the European Union and international rights groups to bring these laws in line with democratic norms, changes to these codes have been minimal.

Key articles

The infamous article 301 came into being with the 2005 iteration of the Turkish Criminal Code. The language of the code, which originally banned insulting “Turkishness” was narrowed to prohibit insulting the Turkish state in April 2008 and the maximum penalty was reduced from three to two years in jail. In a January 2010 report, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly called on Turkey to abolish article 301 and noted that the 2008 amendments had not significantly reduced the number of cases opened against journalists.

Another widely utilised code, article 216, forbids inciting people to hatred and hostility. Its vague wording has been used against journalists and others who have questioned the government’s approach to solving the country’s conflict with its Kurdish citizens. Article 220 of the criminal code criminalises “making propaganda for the PKK,” a measure that has led to the banning of several pro-Kurdish political parties with in Parliament. There are numerous other articles on the books that have led to dozens of cases against journalists, writers, politicians, protesters and otherwise ordinary citizens.

Recent cases

Two high-profile cases — those involving slain journalist Hrant Dink (murdered four years ago today) and Turkey’s only Nobel Prize laureate, Orhan Pamuk — dominated headlines in Turkey and abroad. Both writers were tried under article 301 but avoided doing prison time. Dink was the chief editor of Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos before he was gunned down in broad daylight in January 2007 by an ultra-nationalist teen who was alleged to have ties to a shadowy network of agenda-setters known as the “deep state”. As an Armenian Turk, Dink was known for his calls to reconcile Turkish-Armenian relations, blackened by the World War 1-era killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. More recently, Mustafa Balbay of the daily Cumhuriyet newspaper has come to represent the dozens of journalists who have been arrested as part of the probe into Ergenekon, the name given to the investigation into elements of the “deep state” that are accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Though the Ergenekon probe has uncovered alleged plots with a significant amount of evidence (no one has yet been convicted), critics of the case have alleged that the government is using the investigation to silence dissidents. Several writers and reporters have been held without being charged or arrested.

Turkey’s Kurdish issue

A complex conflict that involves banned political parties, a 22m-strong population, and an organisation that is simultaneously dubbed a terrorist group and a band of freedom fighters, Turkey’s “Kurdish puzzle” has become a blight on the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. During its second term in power, the AKP launched the “democratic initiative,” meant to grant more rights to the country’s Kurdish population. For example, the government decriminalised broadcasting in Kurdish.

Settling outstanding issues with the Kurds is another stipulation in Turkey’s effort to join the EU. Supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK’s, separatist calls for an independent Kurdistan in the country’s Southeast amounts to a crime under Turkish law because it undermines the country’s unity. This policy has led to scores of arrests of pro-Kurdish journalists and the banning of pro-Kurdish political parties. The most recent closure was the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, which was accused of spreading terrorist propaganda. More than 30 members of the party were barred from participating in politics for five years, including party leader Ahmet Türk. The case revived debate about whether the current system made it too easy for prosecutors to initiate a closure case.

Armenian issue

Although claiming that the deaths of thousands of Armenians in 1915 constituted genocide is no longer a punishable crime in Turkey, the topic remains taboo and has led to scores of cases against individuals who have publicly questioned Turkey’s official stance on the incident. Armenia and the Armenian diaspora claim that as many as 1.5m Armenians were systemically slaughtered during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire and have pushed for international recognition of the killings as genocide. Turkey fiercely denies the genocide label, arguing instead that hundreds of thousands of people died on both sides in what amounted to civil strife. Several countries have recognized the events of 1915 as genocide, and the disagreement has repeatedly proven to be an obstacle to normalisation between the Turkish and Armenian governments. In October 2009, the countries committed to re-establish relations, but that process stalled after both sides accused the other of failing to meet the conditions of the agreement, specifically on the genocide issue. Many of the cases filed against Turks who speak out against Ankara’s official line — Dink’s and Pamuk’s are two of the most notable, followed by a similar case filed against writer Elif Şafak — stem from the prohibitions put in place by article 301.

Jennifer Amur is a web editor at the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in Istanbul

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