Turkish writers take stand for free speech

Five prominent journalists go to court Tuesday, weeks after similar charges were dropped against novelist Orhan Pamuk.

Twenty-something Fatih Tas is far from being one of the giants of the Turkish publishing scene. Based in a poorly heated one-room office, his Istanbul-based Aram publishing house usually counts its sales of individual titles in the hundreds - maybe the thousands if business is good.

But Aram's small size hasn't kept it from drawing the attention of the Turkish authorities. Mr. Tas currently has 20 court cases open against him and faces a six-month prison sentence if his appeal is not upheld. His fault? Violating a vaguely-worded law that regulates a wide range of acts that could be interpreted as an "insult" to "Turkish identity" or to the country's military and other state institutions.

World-renowned Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was charged under the same law after he told a Swiss magazine in an interview last year that 1 million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in Turkey in the past century. But unlike Pamuk, whose case was dropped on a technicality under strong pressure from the European Union, Tas and dozens of others are still mired in a legal system that raises questions about Turkey's readiness to join the EU.

"This resolution of the Pamuk drama does not really bring a lot of resolution to the other cases, because nobody really stood up for freedom of expression," says an Ankara-based European diplomat, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.

"Nothing of what was used to end the Pamuk case could be used to resolve some of these lesser-known cases," the diplomat added. Freedom of expression activists estimate that there are perhaps 80 ongoing cases in Turkey relating to the law - article 301 of Turkey's new penal code - or other similar statutes.

Five prominent Turkish journalists are expected in an Istanbul court Tuesday to face charges stemming from columns they wrote criticizing a judge's decision last September to ban an academic conference about the Armenian question.

Turkish legal experts say the cases represent a clash between pro-EU forces and conservative, nationalist members of the judiciary and government who are trying to use laws like Article 301 to slow down Turkey's democratic reform process.

But Turgut Tarhanli, director of the Human Rights Law Research Center at Istanbul's Bilgi University, says the cases are also indicative of another struggle. For decades, Turkish law enshrined state order over individual rights, turning the country's courts into political tools. Turkey's EU-mandated reforms have helped change that, but the country is "in a transition period," he says.

"Some members of the government and the judiciary are in the right position. They are aware of this new mind-set in law and are trying to transform their old attitude. But on the other hand, we are also faced with the old tradition, the protection of state interests," says Tarhanli, whose university is itself facing the threat of legal action for hosting last September's banned Armenian conference.

The European diplomat said that the various freedom of expression cases could ultimately impact Turkey's accession talks with the EU, although for now the body will watch the remaining cases closely to see how they turn out.

"It's something where the EU has a feeling that for the sake of our own credibility we need to make sure that the Turks not only release those who have high visibility or international backing, that's it's a matter of principle," the diplomat says.

For its part, the Turkish government appears reluctant to immediately do away with Article 301, despite the criticism.

In a January 20 speech to EU ambassadors in Ankara, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted there have been problems with how the new penal code has been implemented, but said it was too early to make any changes to it.

"We believe that it is a more appropriate method to follow closely the rulings of our courts and the case law which these rulings will establish and then take the necessary measures," Mr. Erdogan said.

But Bilgi University's Tarhanli says an article like 301 harms Turkish democracy. "There must be a public interest in every legal provision, but what is the public interest protected under this article?" he asks. "The existence of such an article in a penal code in a democracy is nonsense."

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