On the evening of January 23, a court in Ankara decided to reverse a previous ruling and allow the population of Turkey to visit YouTube. For the previous four days all access to the popular video-sharing site had been blocked by a previous court ruling on the grounds that one of the videos insulted the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938), who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923.
In March 2007, a similar decision by the courts to block access to YouTube on the grounds that one of the videos insulted Ataturk caused a domestic outcry from advocates of freedom of expression in Turkey and considerable international bewilderment. On that occasion, the video was a rather childish collage put together by a Greek nationalist youth claiming that Ataturk had been homosexual. Under almost any circumstances the video would have been simply ignored. However, the court ruling ensured that the “insult” to Ataturk’s memory received tens of thousands of extra hits as Internet users from everywhere except Turkey logged on to see what all the fuss was about. As a result, the ruling became not only counterproductive but exposed Turkey in general, and its judicial system in particular, to widespread ridicule.
At first sight, it is difficult to find a logical explanation for the decision last week by the court in Ankara to repeat the mistake. However, in many ways, it is a symptom of a continuing broader failure in Turkey to internalize the concept of freedom of expression. There is no question that the situation is considerably better than 15 or even 10 years ago. But the process is far from complete. Perhaps more worryingly, progress has stalled and there have recently even been signs of a regression.
Despite pressure from the EU, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has yet to abolish Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a criminal offence to denigrate “Turkishness.” Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin recently announced that proposals to amend the article would go before parliament before the end of January (NTV, CNNTurk, January 24). However, the proposed changes are cosmetic and will satisfy neither the EU nor advocates of freedom of expression inside Turkey (see EDM, January 8).
Despite the public rhetoric about their commitment to freedom of expression, the leaders of the AKP have hardly been leading by example. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken more journalists and cartoonists to court than any of his predecessors, most famously insisting on prosecuting a cartoonist for comparing his uncertainty about how to go about lifting the headscarf ban (see EDM, January 16) with a kitten becoming entangled in a ball of yarn. Most recently Erdogan’s erstwhile AKP colleague President Abdullah Gul has taken two cartoonists to court for questioning gifts Gul received from the Saudi royal family and a business venture set up by Gul’s 16 year-old son (Radikal, January 24).
Although it has only been the high profile cases – such as the prosecution of Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk – that have attracted international attention, a report by the Independent Communications Network (BIA) notes that 55 people were prosecuted under Article 301 in 2007. Another 199 journalists and writers were taken to court under other provisions of the Turkish Penal Code. Most alarmingly, 2007 also witnessed an increase in attacks on members of the media. BIA reported that 34 journalists and 12 media organs were attacked in Turkey in 2007, mostly by Turkish ultranationalists. Most notoriously, on January 19, 2007, the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered by an ultranationalist youth with connections to members of the Turkish security forces (www.bianet.org).
The tightest restrictions on freedom of expression continue to be applied to Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Although Kurds are theoretically now allowed to speak and publish in their own languages, in practice many restrictions remain and the Turkish authorities continue to regard even the most innocuous of statements as evidence of an attempt to call for the creation of an independent state; even peacefully advocating one remains a criminal offense in Turkey. Yet finding a legal pretext to suppress publications often results in the authorities descending beyond the merely repressive into the absurd.
The Public Prosecutor in the city of Gaziantep in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey recently ordered the confiscation of the January 17 edition of a local newspaper called Coban Atesi. The newspaper’s offence was to publish a short biography and a few poems by a Kurdish writer and to write his name, in the modified Latin alphabet used by Kurds, as Abdula Pesew. Twenty-one people associated with the newspaper were then charged under Article 222 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes its an offense to violate Law No. 671 of 1925 in which Ataturk ordered that henceforth the Turkish language would be written in a modified Latin alphabet rather than the Arabic script that had been used previously. However, unlike the one used for Kurdish, Ataturk’s modified Latin alphabet did not include the letter “w.” If found guilty, the defendants face the prospect of a jail term (Bianet, January 22).
Prosecutions of Kurds for using the letter “w” are nothing new. There are already several ongoing cases against other Kurdish writers that were initiated in 2007. However, the Turkish authorities have been curiously selective in their application of Article 222. After all, every official website in Turkey, including the one of the Justice Ministry that oversees all courts, has the letter “w” in its web address.