The infamous Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which outlaws “humiliating Turkishness,” has been the focal point of criticism that the country lacks decent legislation allowing free speech.
Knowing that, Turkey’s pro-EU government is working to amend that article, but in a way that will probably not please anyone. The current, very vague definition of what constitutes an offense is about to be “softened,” but the new version may not be any better.
Even worse, there is no consensus on the amendment, even within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The government has now delayed a vote on the proposed changes in parliament until next week (Turkish Daily News, Today’s Zaman, January 9).
Under the current penal code, Article 301 makes denigrating “Turkishness” or insulting the country’s institutions a crime that can be punished by up to three years in prison.
The law has been used more than 60 times against writers and intellectuals — including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and slain ethnic-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink — since it went into effect June 2005 (Today’s Zaman, January 9).
Working together, Deputy Prime Minister (and former minister of justice) Cemil Cicek and incumbent Minister of Justice Mehmet Ali Sahin announced on January 7 that under the amended provision, prosecutors must obtain permission from the Justice Ministry to be able to press charges and that the ambiguous word “Turkishness” would be replaced with “the Turkish nation” (Today’s Zaman, January 9).
Cicek is known to have objected to the amendment, arguing that many EU-member countries have similar articles in their penal codes. Cicek also argued that the new practice would turn justice ministers, who will have to make the decision whether to endorse prosecution, into targets (Today’s Zaman, January 9).
Overall, the proposed amendment has not impressed intellectuals inside Turkey, and it was not clear how effectively it would prevent nationalist prosecutors from pressing charges against opinion-makers for their speeches or writings.
“If the government hopes to leave behind its 301-related headaches with some cosmetic changes to the law, what it has offered so far won’t help at all,” wrote columnist Yusuf Kanli (Turkish Daily News, January 9). Kanli said the government was “unwilling to take any meaningful steps in fear of a possible nationalistic backlash.”
“Let’s put it right straight away!” Kanli wrote. “As it stands within the current proposal for its amendment, the contentious Article 301 will remain a chain on free thought… What’s proposed is not reform. What we are seeing is deception in action!”
Nobel laureate Pamuk was prosecuted for commenting on the mass killings of Armenians by Turks in the early 20th century. Dink, editor of the Armenian minority newspaper Agos, was killed in front of his Istanbul office in January 2007. His assassination stirred the debate about Article 301, with many observers saying he had become a target of nationalist circles because of his prosecution.
The Turkish government took a year to respond to Dink’s murder, and it only focused on the issue after a final warning from the EU in November to repeal or amend the article.
“It is not acceptable that writers, journalists, academics, and other intellectuals … are prosecuted for simply expressing a critical, but completely nonviolent opinion,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said when presenting the annual progress report on Turkey in November. “The infamous Article 301 must be repealed or amended without delay.”
While the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party favors the abolishment of the entire article, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Action Party, strongly opposes any changes.
“The amendments mean slandering the glorious history of Turkey and despising the Turkish nation. It will reward those who seek an opportunity to insult the national and spiritual values of Turkey,” Bahceli said (Dogan News Agency, January 8).
Fatma Disli, a columnist for Today’s Zaman newspaper, wrote on January 9 that the opposition to the amendment makes it difficult to record progress. “The opposition within parliament to the amendment of the article and the heightened nationalist feelings in the Turkish public indicate that Turkey has a long way to go before it can [re]move one of the most problematic barriers on its EU path,” Disli wrote.
Ismet Berkan of Radikal newspaper wrote that even if the article were amended, it would not ease the EU’s concerns, since the proposed amendment retains the nebulous phrase “Turkish identity.” “Acting on such an abstract concept, all the opinions harboring criticism about state institutions or the Turkish identity may be regarded as an insult to the things in question,” Today’s Zaman quoted Berkan as saying on January 9.