Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has announced plans to amend the controversial Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, that provides for custodial sentences for anyone who insults “Turkishness.”
The EU has repeatedly cited Article 301 as evidence of Turkey’s failure to internalize the concept of freedom of expression, regarded as one of the prerequisites for eventual Turkish accession to the union. However, not only does the AKP’s latest initiative appear half-hearted, recent polls suggest that support for EU membership among the Turkish population as a whole is continuing to decline.
In recent years, Article 301 has been one of the main instruments used by the Turkish authorities to try to restrict freedom of expression. The vagueness of its ban on “insulting Turkishness” has meant that it has been used to try to suppress the expression of a wide range of dissenting opinion, from criticism of Turkish government institutions to opposing the official Turkish denial of an orchestrated campaign to kill Armenians during the latter years of the Ottoman Empire. In its current form, Article 301 provides for prison sentences of up to three years, with the punishment increased by 50% percent if the offence occurs outside Turkey and thus blackens the country’s reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Although none of the nearly 100 journalists and intellectuals prosecuted under Article 301 in recent years has subsequently served time in prison, several have received suspended sentences. Perhaps more seriously, anyone prosecuted under Article 301 immediately becomes marked for a campaign of harassment and death threats from Turkish ultra-nationalists and can usually expect little protection from the Turkish police. It was the publicity surrounding his conviction under Article 301 that led to the assassination of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink by a Turkish ultranationalist in January 2007. Other prominent Turkish intellectuals prosecuted under Article 301 include Orhan Pamuk, the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature.
The EU has long pressed Turkey to abolish Article 301 in its entirety. However, the latest draft amendment drawn up by the Justice Ministry makes merely minor adjustments, such as replacing the ban on insulting “Turkishness” with one on insulting the “Turkish nation” and reducing the maximum prison sentence from three to two years. But even these minor amendments have been vigorously resisted by the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the third-largest party in parliament. “Everyone should resist the proposed amendment to 301,” said Oktay Vurul, the deputy chair of the MHP parliamentary party (Radikal, January 8).
The AKP government now appears to be having second thoughts as well. The draft amendment was originally expected to be raised at a meeting yesterday (January 7) of the Turkish Cabinet, prior to being presented to parliament for approval later this week. However, in a briefing for journalists after the meeting, Government Spokesperson Cemil Cicek confirmed that the changes to Article 301 had not been on the Cabinet meeting’s agenda. He explained that the amendments would probably be submitted to parliament privately by a number of MPs rather than as a government proposal (Radikal, NTV, Milliyet, Vatan, January 8).
The AKP’s reluctance to amend Article 301 is indicative of a general lack of enthusiasm for any of the reforms required to revive Turkey’s stalled EU accession process. But recent polls suggest that the AKP is merely reflecting a broader decline in enthusiasm for EU membership among the Turkish population as a whole. In September 2004, when the EU protested the AKP’s proposals to criminalize adultery, even though he personally supported them, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly shelved the proposed changes for fear of jeopardizing Turkey’s prospects of opening official access negotiations. At the time, opinion polls suggested that 75-80% of the Turkish population favored the country joining the EU.
But since accession negotiations were finally initiated in October 2005, and both the AKP government and the Turkish people have begun to understand that membership will involve not only benefits but also sacrifices and the delegation of a measure of national sovereignty to Brussels, support for EU accession has fallen precipitously. According to the latest Barometer opinion poll, which is commissioned by European Commission in all member and candidate countries, in late fall 2007 only 49% of Turks thought that their country should join the EU. Just 25% of the Turks questioned trusted the EU, compared with 60% who did not, while trust in the European Commission itself stood at 17%, down from 22% six months earlier. There was also a substantial decline in the proportion of Turks who believed that EU membership would benefit the country. In fall 2007, 53% of Turks thought that it would bring benefits, down nine percentage points from 62% in spring 2007.