After several years in which restrictions on freedom in Turkey had begun to ease, journalists, academics and researchers are once again coming under increasing pressure, according to the latest report by the locally-based Independent Communications Network (BIA).
Founded in 2003 in an attempt to provide an alternative news source to the large Turkish media organizations, whose news coverage is frequently influenced by political considerations, BIA concentrates primarily on issues related to human rights and freedom of expression. Almost 80 percent of the funding for BIA comes from a grant provided by the EU.
The most recent BIA Media Monitoring Report claims that, in the first three months of 2008, 186 people, 71 of them journalists, were facing charges in 92 separate cases related to freedom of expression. Many of the charges stemmed from Turkey’s Kurdish problem and the long-running insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is classified by both the United States and the EU as a terrorist organization.
Under Turkish law, membership in and giving assistance to a terrorist organization are both criminal offences in their own right. Turkish legislation restricting freedom of expression is, however, commonly used to charge those who merely espouse the same cause as a terrorist organization. A large number of Kurdish nationalists are hostile to the PKK, not least because it has a tendency to intimidate and even physically target anyone whom it regards as a potential rival. Nevertheless, the open expression of Kurdish nationalist sentiments, whether the person concerned is sympathetic or hostile to the PKK, can result in charges of conducting “terrorist propaganda.” In the first three months of this year, 87 people appeared in court on charges of “praising a crime” or conducting propaganda for an outlawed organization. A further seven were tried on charges of attempting to “alienate” the public against the system of compulsory military service (www.bianet.org).
A total of 42 people appeared in court through the end of March on charges related to the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which made it an offense to denigrate “Turkishnessness.” Twelve of those accused were facing charges for the first time. The other 30 were defendants in ongoing cases (www.bianet.org).
On April 30, under pressure from the EU, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) finally amended Article 301 (see EDM, May 1). The previous injunction on denigrating “Turkishness” was replaced with one on denigrating the “Turkish Nation, Turkish Republic, Turkish Parliament, Turkish Government or the state judicial organs”; but hopes that the amendment would lead to an easing of restrictions on freedom of expression have proved to be very short-lived. On May 5 charges were filed under the new Article 301 against Mehmet Tursun, the father of a youth shot and killed by the Turkish police when the car he was riding in failed to stop at a roadblock. Tursun was charged with insulting the judiciary when he publicly declared that he did not believe that the Turkish judicial system would punish his son’s killer. If convicted, Tursun faces up to two years in jail (Milliyet, Radikal, NTV, CNNTurk, May 6).
The Turkish justice system remains equally sensitive to any criticism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. Turkish Internet service providers are already banned from allowing access to a host of undesirable websites, most of which are sympathetic to outlawed organizations such as the PKK. In recent days, anyone living in Turkey has once again been prevented from visiting the popular video-sharing website YouTube. On April 24 the 11th Criminal Court in Ankara ordered all Internet service providers to prevent anyone living in Turkey from accessing YouTube on the grounds that it contained a video that was insulting to Ataturk’s memory (Radikal, NTV, May 6).
Speaking at a panel organized by the Ankara Bar Association, Mustafa Akgul, a member of the teaching faculty at Ankara’s Bilkent University, noted that YouTube contained 102,000 videos about Istanbul and nearly 40,000 about Ataturk. “Who are we punishing by preventing access to YouTube?” he asked. “There are thousands of books in the Library of Congress that are against Turkey and against Ataturk. Are we going to prevent Turks from going there as well?” (Anadolu Ajans, May 5).
Even if such practices have led many to claim that the Turkish judiciary is living in the past, there are also indications that at least some of the country’s judges are moving with the times. Under Turkish law, judges can set their own punishments for relatively minor offences. Radikal reported that Tamer Demirsoy, who serves as a judge in Kazan county in Ankara, has been trying to use his authority to counter the effects of global warming. To date, Demirsoy has ordered convicted offenders in approximately 150 cases to plant a total of 20,000 trees.
“Global warming poses a serious threat to Turkey,” explained Demirsoy. “The most serious effect is drought. I am trying to use the authority granted me by law to contribute to expanding green areas” (Radikal, May 6).