Friday, November 10, 2006

EU criticises Turkish penal code article under which 65 people have been prosecuted


TURKEY 9 November 2006

Reporters Without Borders today welcomed a report on EU enlargement which the European Commission issued yesterday, saying it could help to promote press freedom in Turkey. While conditioning further membership talks on Turkey's respecting all of its commitments on Cyprus, the report clearly says in point 11 that "significant further efforts are needed, in particular on freedom of expression."

Article 301 of Turkey's penal code, which penalises "humiliating Turkishness, the republic, and the organs and institutions of the state," is specifically mentioned in the report. The conclusions say: "freedom of expression in line with European standards is not yet guaranteed by the present legal framework (...) Article 301 and other provisions of the Turkish penal code that restrict freedom of expression need to be brought in line with the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR)."

Reporters Without Borders said: "We can only endorse these conclusions, as article 301 allows the law to be used to control the activity of the media. The proof is in the fact that 65 people, including many journalists and writers, have been prosecuted in Turkey since it took effect on 1 June 2005. Turkey's laws must meet European standards as regards basic freedoms such as freedom of expression."

The trials of several intellectuals - novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, the journalist of Armenian origin Hrant Dink, and five columnists with the leading dailies Milliyet and Radikal (Erol Katircioglu, Murat Belge, Haluk Sahin, Hasan Cemal and Smet Berkan ) - gave rise to scenes of violence between their supporters and the supporters of the Leading Lawyers Union, the ultra-nationalist group that brought the complaints against Pakuk and Shafak.

Not only do the Turkish courts interpret article 301 in the most draconian manner, but they also fail to apply section 4 of the article, which stipulates that "expression of thought in the form of criticism cannot be penalised."

The Turkish government and society are split on this issue. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party did not heed the criticism and warnings coming from press freedom groups and civil society for the past two years.

Erdogan finally took a position on the issue in the run-up to the publication of the EU report and after the protests about Shafak's trial and the award of the Nobel literature prize to Pamuk. He met with representatives of trade unions and medical associations, including the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers Unions (Disk) and the Turkish Confederation of Employers Unions (Tisk), on 5 November in Istanbul to discuss the possibility of amending 301.

After the meeting, he said he was ready to receive proposals designed to make the article more concrete "if problems exist due to the fact that it is abstract." He added that, "we will look at options in line with the spirt of the reforms in the article 301 framework."

This pleased EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn of Finland. He said he was "satisfied by Erdogan's personal commitment to freedom of expression and his country's participation in the EU," adding that, "we are waiting for this intention to be supported by concrete steps and for concrete decisions to be taken."

Several journalists who have been convicted say they will petition the European Court of Human Rights accusing Turkey of violating article 10 of the convention. They include Dink, the publisher of the Armenian weekly Agos, who was given a suspended sentence of six months in prison on 7 October 2005 for a series of articles entitled "Armenian Identity." They also Burak Bekdil, a columnist for the English-language Turkish Daily News, who received a 20-month suspended sentence (upheld by the highest appeal court in October 2005) for a column about the lack of confidence of Turkish citizens in their judicial system.

Lawyer Eren Keskin, the former president of the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association (IHD), meanwhile faces prison for refusing to pay a fine of about 3,300 euros for comments she made in Cologne in 2002, accusing the Turkish security forces of several cases of rape in the mainly Kurdish area of southeast Anatolia. "I will not buy my freedom by paying this fine," she has said.

Entitled "Humiliation of Turkishness, the republic, and the organs and institutions of the state," article 301 of the penal code makes "humiliating the government and judicial organs of the state or the police or military structures" punishable by six months to three years in prison.


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