Reporters Without Borders is alarmed by the frenetic rate of prosecutions of news media and imprisonment of journalists under an arsenal of repressive media laws that have imposed a regime of censorship in Turkey and have had a disastrous impact of press freedom and free expression.
Anyone making a public statement or writing a newspaper article that directly or indirectly raises subjects that are off-limits or untouchable, such as the Kurdish and Armenian minorities, the armed forces, national dignity or the Turkish republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is liable to be prosecuted.
These violations of freedom of expression are frequently criticised by the European Commission responsible for examining Turkey’s progress as a candidate for European Union membership, most recently in a bi-annual report issued on 9 November.
The Turkish government recently announced its intention to amend certain aspects of the criminal code affecting media freedom. But the proposed amendments would affect just two articles punishing “complicity in violating the confidentiality of a judicial investigation” (article 285) and “trying to influence the course of a fair trial” (article 288).
They would be just the latest in a long series of cosmetic changes designed to simulate compliance with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights. They would change Turkey’s media legislation no more than superficially, and would leave the most repressive articles intact. Reporters Without Borders has identified more than 25 articles in the criminal code that directly restrict press freedom and free expression.
Two journalists are currently being prosecuted for “denigrating the Turkish people” under article 301 of the criminal code. Rasim Ozan Kütahyali, a columnist with the liberal daily Taraf, is facing a possible two-year jail sentence for criticising the army’s decision to name a regiment in the eastern province of Van after Mustafa Muglali, a general who was convicted of shooting 33 Kurdish villagers in 1943. His criticism is deemed to have “humiliated the army” and by extension the Turkish people.
The other journalist is Temel Demirer, who is facing the same possible sentence for saying that the newspaper editor Hrant Dink’s murder in January 2007 was not due to the fact that he was Armenian but to his recognition of the reality of the Armenian genocide.
The most problematic piece of legislation continues to be the anti-terrorism law of 1991, known as Law 3713, and its 2006 amendments. More than 13 reporters, newspaper editors and publishers have been prosecuted on a charge of “propaganda in support of a terrorist organization” under article 7-2 of this law.
Five were acquitted by an Istanbul court on 23 November but the others continue to face a possible sentence of seven and a half years in prison because prosecutors systematically apply the vague concept of “propaganda” to any allusion to the Kurdish issue. Many publications, including Azadiya Welat, Rojev, Günlük and Devrimci Demokrasi, are often suspended under the same article.
Four journalists – Vedat Kursun, Ozan Kilinç, Gurbet Cakar and Bedri Adanir – are currently detained under article 6-2 of the anti-terrorism law for publishing or quoting statements by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). According to article 6-2, “any dissemination of statements and communiqués by terrorist organizations” is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Article 8-b of this law magnifies its impact by establishing a “chain of responsibility” under which not only the reporter who writes an article but also his editor, the editor in chief, the publisher and the newspaper’s owner can all be prosecuted and sentenced to pay heavy fines. This dangerous provision is often used and allows the authorities to censor and muzzle an entire publication.
There is also the law that makes any criticism of Atatürk publishable by up to four and a half years in prison and Law 5651, which is used to censor the Internet by providing for disproportionate sanctions for websites with content that is deemed unlawful.
The appalling state of press freedom is due not only to the extraordinarily repressive nature of these laws but also to the readiness of judges to exploit them to the hilt and often in an utterly abusive manner. Conversely, impunity continues to be the rule for crimes of violence against journalists.
The trial of the alleged murderers of Hrant Dink, the editor of the weekly Agos, has been marked by delays and obstacles that testify to the lack of political will to solve this case. The European Court of Human Rights condemned the Turkish state on 14 September for its failure to protect Dink despite being aware of the plots on his life. Dink was gunned down outside his newspaper on 19 January 2007.
The legislative straitjacket makes journalism impossible. There is therefore an urgent need for the repressive articles in the criminal code and the anti-terrorism law to be overhauled or scrapped altogether in order to create a real climate of freedom of expression, information and debate on all issues.
Reporters Without Borders again calls on the Turkish authorities to tackle these badly needed reforms. It also urges the European Union to press Turkey to bring itself into line with international standards on media freedom and free speech. Turkey was ranked 138th out of 178 countries in the 2010 press freedom index that Reporters Without Borders released on 20 October.