Assaults on the Press in Turkey

Reforms to Controversial Laws Will Make or Break The Country’s Accession to the European Union

It has been just over a year since the murder of award winning Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, and the Turkish government is still stuttering over reforms to controversial laws that limit freedom of speech in the country. Their indecision is understandable: The implications of the failure to do so will be make-or-break for Turkey’s accession to the European Union.

Last year, the Vienna based International Press Institute honoured Dink as their World Press Freedom Hero 2007. The award was handed to his widow, Rakel, at a ceremony held at the Austrian Chancellery on Dec. 10, as a “tribute to his bravery, but also an acknowledgement of his significant contribution to freedom of expression and press freedom in Turkey,” according to Johann P. Fritz, then director of the press freedom watchdog.

Dink, of Turkish-Armenian descent, had long been a commentator on the ethnic friction that still exists between members of the Turkish and Armenian communities. Always an advocate of reconciliation, he had received several death threats from extremists thanks to his work. But an article he wrote in 2004 concerning the massacres of 1914-1917 brought him into direct conflict with the Turkish authorities. The government’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for the events of that earlier era is well documented, and Dink’s criticism led to charges of his breaching the now infamous Article 301 of the Criminal Code, which makes insults to ‘Turkishness’ illegal.

Ultimately found guilty and given a six month suspended sentence, Dink received growing threats, until on Jan. 19, 2007, he was shot twice in the neck in the street outside his workplace, and died at the scene. The killer was later identified as Ogün Samast, a teenage Turkish nationalist.

The reaction to Dink’s murder was immediate and moving, with over 100,000 mourners marching through the streets at his funeral chanting “We are all Armenians,” and “We are all Hrant Dink.”

Criticism of Article 301 intenisified in the wake of his death. However, many questions were left unanswered. Had the high profile trial of Dink singled him out as a target? Had his conviction given his murderer a sense of justification? Or perhaps inspiration? The human rights issues that were proving a stumbling block to Turkey’s EU accession were now laid bare for the world to see. Both Pr ime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and now-President Abdullah Gül came out in favour of reform. Changes were touted as about to occur within a few weeks. However that was a year ago and, as yet, nothing has happened.

Censorship has a long history in Turkey, and Article 301 is by no means the only law that seems draconian by current standards. In March of last year, for example, YouTube was banned throughout Turkey for two days for comments about the President made in a video clip. In another example, in 2005, 20 people were fined for using the letters ‘W’ and ‘Q’ in Kurdish New Year celebrations: these letters are banned, as they appear in the Kurdish alphabet but not in the Turkish. Only this month (Jan), another journalist faced a possible prison sentence for an article that breaches Law 5816, “insulting the memory of Atatürk”.

Turkey’s slow progress on resolving such issues has already resulted in the freezing of the accession process to the EU. At the beginning of this month, comments made by the Turkish Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin stated that a reform package to article 301 would reach the floor of the Turkish parliament by the second week of January. Erdogan refuted this the following day, stating that the draft reforms had not been finalised. Press reports suggested that any problems in the draft would be ironed out in time to present it to Parliament in the week prior to the first anniversary of Dink’s murder. The anniversary came and went, however, and no reform package appeared.

Now those in favour of reform fear that the very carrot used to encourage change, i.e., the resumption of the EU accession process, is proving to be a rod ‘cut to beat oneself’: The opposition to EU membership inside the Turkish Nationalist Action Party, who since July 2007 have 71 seats in Parliament, is no secret. Using their influence to water down the draft reforms to Article 301 and related measured, or to block reform altogether, could well ensure that Turkey retains its full independence.

The price for this independence, however, is the loss of the fundamental right to freedom of speech, and a continuing climate of fear for those who, like Dink, are brave enough to speak out.

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