Turkey: Number of “insulting Turkishness” cases drops as parliament discusses changing definition of citizenship

There has been a significant decrease in the number of cases brought under Turkey’s infamous Article 301, a recent news investigation has shown. But the law continues to be rigorously implemented.

The original version of Article 301 made it illegal to insult “Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish government institutions”. This was changed in 2008 when the phrase “Turkish ethnicity” was replaced by “the Turkish nation”.

The amendment also set conditions for court cases, making the permission of the Justice Ministry mandatory for complaints to be turned into court cases.

According to a report published in newspaper Taraf last week, a total of 3,019 requests were sent to the Justice Ministry between 2008 and January 2013. Although the number remains significant, it also points to a decrease when viewed on a year-by-year basis.

In 2008, a total of 559 requests were sent to the ministry. This fell to 518 in 2009. In 2010 the number of requests was 403, which fell to 324 in 2011. In 2012, a total of 287 requests were sent to the ministry.

Between 2008 and January 2013 the Justice Ministry allowed 105 of the 3,019 requests to come to court. The percentage of cases allowed to be opened was 5.77.

The General Staff of the armed forces was among the state institutions which filed complaints. A total number of 37 requests were sent from the General Staff to the Justice Ministry.

The news of the decrease in the number of Article 301 cases came in a week when the Turkish parliament discussed proposed changes in the new Turkish constitution.

If accepted, the draft new constitution will alter the definition of national identity by changing the phrase “Turkish citizenship” to “citizenship of the Republic of Turkey”. This seems in line with the amendment made to Article 301, and extends the definition of citizenship to include all ethnic groups in the country.

French genocide denial law is an insult to memory of Hrant Dink

With grim symmetry, French politicians are preparing to debate a law criminalising denial of the Armenian genocide just five years after the murder of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink.

Dink, editor of Agos was passionately opposed to laws restricting discussion of what happened to thousands of Armenians in 1915. In Turkey, it was illegal for him to describe the events as genocide. In France, they hoped to make it illegal to say it was not. When this law was first mooted in 2006, Dink commented:

“When this bill appeared first, we were fast to declare as a group that it would lead to bad results…As you know, I have been tried in Turkey for saying the Armenian genocide exists, and I have talked about how wrong this is. But at the same time, I cannot accept that in France you could possibly now be tried for denying the Armenian genocide. If this bill becomes law, I will be among the first to head for France and break the law. Then we can watch both the Turkish Republic and the French government race against eachother to condemn me. We can watch to see which will throw me into jail first…I really think that France, if it makes this bill law, will be hurting not only the EU, but Armenians across the world. It will also damage the normalising of relations between Armenia and Turkey. What the peoples of these two countries need is dialogue, and all these laws do is harm such dialogue.”

Genocide denial is not a simple issue of differing versions of history; it is a calculated insult, a degeneration of a people’s memory and history. Ultimately, it is calculated to exterminate a people by other means. As novelist Howard Jacobson put it in a  magazine in 2009, addressing attempts to downplay or deny the Jewish Holocaust:

“[O]ne day, if they have their way, whoever they are, these people, there will be no Holocaust either. No Holocaust. No Israel. No Jews.”

A similar impulse is at play with the use of  Turkey’s Article 301, which outlaws “insulting Turkishness”. The law is used against Kurds and Armenians, because in the Kemalist vision that shaped the country, there are no Kurds or Armenians. There are only Turks, united in a single vision and a single story.

This impulse is unexceptional, particularly in 20th century nationalism. As empire disintegrated, projecting a single vision became important. In this way, Turkish “genocide denial” may be different from Holocaust denial, driven by fierce nationalism alone, rather than the combination of nationalism, classic and modern anti-Semitism and paranoid conspiracism which drove the Holocaust. But both are driven by distrust of the other, and by seeing diversity and cosmopolitanism as stumbling blocks on the path to perfection.

But while the two may differ, there is no difference in the free speech argument on laws covering them. Proscribing speech —whether it confirms or denys historical truths — is an offence to history, a barrier to dialogue and an insult to memory.