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Turkey25 May 2004

Two sentences infringe press freedom

Reporters Without Borders has protested at the 20 May jailing of a journalist for "insulting the memory of Ataturk" - founder of the Turkish Republic. Former editorialist Hakan Albayrak of Milli Gazete was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

On the same date, the daily Vakit was ordered to pay the equivalent of 500,000 euros in damages for defamation of 312 generals in the Turkish Army.

Reporters Without Borders said the imprisonment was shocking and contrary to the recommendations of the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) that press offences should not be punishable with prison.

"It is unworthy of a democracy to jail a journalist for having written an article, whatever it might be. We call for his immediate release", the international press freedom organisation wrote to Justice Minister Cemil Cicek. It also condemned the exorbitant sum demanded of Vakit, which it said would be the paper’s death warrant.

Albayrak was sent to Kalecik prison in Ankara, after being found guilty of "insulting Ataturk’s memory", under the 1951 law on Crimes against Ataturk. Article 1 of this law punishes such insults by a sentence of from one to three years in prison. Article 2 doubles the penalty if carried in the press.

The offending editorial, published in 2000, criticised the offering of prayers at the funeral of atheist writer Mina Urgan, comparing it with the burial of Ataturk. The item finished, "Mustapha Kemal Pasha, was he not buried without prayers? Neither the state not society was concerned about it at the time."

The same day, the owner of the daily Vakit, Nuri Aykon, his editor, Harum Aksoy, and Mehmet Dogan, author of an article published on 25 August 2003, were sentenced by a court to pay around 500,000 euros to 312 generals in the Turkish Army.

In the article headlined, "The country where a soldier who does not deserve to be sergeant becomes a general", published under a pseudonym, the author condemned the incompetence of the top ranking officers, without naming any of them. All the generals who brought a suit were awarded damages.

The newspaper intends to appeal against the sentence. The daily’s lawyer, Haci Ali Ozhan, described the sentence as dangerous in the sense it could determine jurisprudence.

In its 2004 annual report, Reporters Without Borders said that legislative reforms adopted by Turkey linked to its joining the European Union have not in practice involved any significant improvements in press freedom.

Journalists daring to criticise government institutions or to broach taboo subjects, like the Kurdish question or the role of the army in the country’s political life, are censored, abusively taken to court and subjected to heavy penalties. Four are currently in jail for doing their jobs.

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