Murder of outspoken journalist tests Turkey's democratic gains

The murder Friday of a prominent and outspoken Armenian journalist has sent shock waves throughout Turkey and raised questions about whether a recent nationalist upsurge in the country has taken a violent turn. It also presents the government with what many say is a serious challenge to its already embattled democratization and reform efforts.

The journalist, Hrant Dink, was a vocal critic of Turkey's treatment of its religious minorities and had been particularly outspoken against the government's policy of rejecting claims that the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 was genocide. He was shot in broad daylight just outside the offices of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, where he served as editor.

"A bullet has been fired at democracy and freedom of expression. I condemn the traitorous hands behind this disgraceful murder," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on television soon after Mr. Dink was murdered. "This was an attack on our peace and stability."

The past few years have seen Turkey engaged in a deep internal struggle. On the one hand, the country's drive toward European Union (EU) membership has resulted in significant political reforms, particularly regarding democratization and human rights, and the freeing up of the debate on what had previously been taboo subjects, such as the Armenian question.

On the other hand, the EU-related reforms have been met with a strong nationalist backlash.

Nationalist lawyers and prosecutors, for example, have been able to use a law, known as Article 301, to charge writers and journalists like Dink and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk with the crime of insulting Turkish identity as a way of stifling the emerging debates and putting the brakes on Turkey's EU bid.

Dink was tried under this article, and in 2005 was convicted and handed a suspended six-month prison sentence.

"In a sense, both sides have been sharpening their axes, thinking that the EU question is the final intellectual battle in Turkey," says Ali Carkoglu, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Sabanci University. "It touches on everything that is salient in Turkish politics: the Islam versus secularism debate, democratization, and the extent to which individual human rights are to be protected."

For many Turks, the killing of Dink harks back to the turbulent '70s and '80s, when journalists and intellectuals were frequently the victims of ideologically inspired violence. Although Turkey has moved forward, some wonder whether Dink's murder is an indication that the political gains made over the past few years have yet to be consolidated.

"In a way, he took too many risks, he underestimated his opponents," says Rifat Bali, an Istanbul-based researcher who studies Turkey's minority communities. "Some of the ultranationalist core of Turkey has not changed. It is a militant core that is ready, if necessary, to murder its ideological opponents," he says.

Unlike in the past, however, Turkey's government was quick to respond to the murder, sending top officials to oversee the investigation. The quick arrest of the suspect – teenager Ogun Samast – is also seen as a positive sign, since in the past perpetrators of such crimes were rarely caught.

"Those who created nationalist sentiment in Turkey have fed such a monster that there are many youngsters on the streets who do not find the ... state nationalist enough and are ready to take the law into their own hands," wrote Ismet Berkan in his daily column in Radikal, one of Turkey's main dailies. Extreme nationalism in Turkey is divided into secular and religious camps, although what unites both is non-Muslim minorities.

Experts here say the murder poses a major challenge for the Turkish government, led by the moderately Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP).

With its EU bid already suffering – negotiations with Brussels have been partially suspended since December – the killing of a journalist who had already been the target of legal proceedings strongly condemned by the EU will only increase the pressure on Ankara and further tarnish its image in Europe.

"The image problem was already bad and this can only make it worse. Turkey will be seen as a country not only curtailing freedom of expression but the country that can also produce people who will assassinate writers and thinkers," says Suat Kiniklioglu, director of the German Marshall Fund's office in Turkey.

"The atmosphere that created this person to go after Hrant Dink with a gun was really the result of the atmosphere created by the trials brought on by Article 301," he says. "In that respect, the government will need now to really take article 301 seriously."

Outside the offices of Agos, an Armenian word that refers to a place where a seed is growing, a makeshift memorial has been created near the spot where Dink was gunned down, with crowds gathering to light candles and lay down flowers.

Dink, who founded the paper in 1996, used his last few columns to write about his legal woes.

"For me, 2007 is likely to be a hard year," he wrote in one column. "The trials will continue, new ones will be started. Who knows what other injustices I will be up against."

In his final column, Dink wrote about the increasing amount of hate mail he was getting, including one letter that scared him enough that he went to the local prosecutor to ask for protection, although without any luck.

"I don't know anyone else like him who raised his voice for minorities and democracy in Turkey," says Murat Celikkan, a veteran Turkish journalist and human rights activist.

"Intellectually he was a very important figure for Turkey. We don't have anyone else like him."

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