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Turkey16 December 2004

Turkey still far from European standards of press freedom

Reporters Without Borders has said that Turkey is still far from meeting European press freedom standards as the European Council prepares to decide on 17 December whether or not to open negotiations on Turkish EU membership.

European deputies voted on 15 December for the discussions to start without "needless delay" but on the basis of Ankara complying with certain conditions.

In particular they are seeking the repeal of Article 305 of Turkey’s new criminal code, that comes into effect on 1st April 2005 and which they consider runs contrary to freedom of expression.

"The legislative progress that has undeniably been made should not conceal the fact that the climate remains as harsh as ever for the most outspoken journalists," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

"The press is exposed to misuse of authority by the courts, which in practice continue to impose prison sentences and exorbitant fines that push journalists to censor themselves extensively on the most sensitive subjects such as the army and the Kurdish question," Reporters Without Borders said.

The TV and radio stations are still subject to "brazen censorship" by the High Council for Broadcasting (RTUK), while pro-Kurdish journalists continue to be the target of many kinds of pressure, the organisation continued.

"Despite progress towards European standards, the gap between the declarations of good intentions and the reality is still considerable, with the result that Turkey still does not fulfil all the necessary conditions for real press freedom," it added.

Genuine progress made

The legislative amendments undertaken by Turkey with a view to joining the European Union have been positive for journalists. Heavy fines have replaced prison sentences in the new press law, adopted in June. The most repressive sanctions, such as the closure of news organisations or bans on printing and distribution, have been eliminated, while the protection of sources has even been reinforced.

Article 159, which has led to many journalists being prosecuted for "affront to the state and state institutions and threats to the indivisible unity of the Turkish Republic," was amended in 2002 and 2003, with the prison sentence being cut from one year to six months. At the same time, criticism not intentionally aimed at "ridiculing" or "insulting" state institutions is no longer punishable by imprisonment.

Journalists still under pressure

Even though the new criminal code that becomes law on 1st April 2005 removes the offence of "mocking and insulting government ministers", there remains a problem with Article 305.

This punishes alleged "threats against fundamental national interests". It specifically targets freedom of expression, particularly on issues involving Cyprus or Armenia. The European parliament voted on 15 December for a resolution calling, among other things, for the immediate repeal of this article, viewed as incompatible with the 1950 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Contrary to European standards, the new criminal code stipulates that insult is punishable by three months to three years in prison, with the sentence increasing if the offence is committed by means of the press (Article 127).

In practice, judges still interpret the concept of "criticism" very subjectively and abusive prosecutions continue.

Four journalists with the pro-Kurdish daily Yeniden Özgür Gündem who criticised government policy on the Iraq war were brought before the courts in 2003 while online journalist Erol Öskoray was detained for "mocking" and "insulting" the army. Sabri Ejder Öziç, the manager of Radyo Dünya, a local radio station in the southern city of Adana, was sentenced to a year in prison for offending parliament.

Hakan Albayrak, a former editorialist for the daily Milli Gazete, was imprisoned on 20 May and is serving a 15-month prison sentence for "attacking the memory of Ataturk" in violation of the 1951 law governing crimes against Kemal Ataturk. Article 1 of this law punishes any offence against the Republic of Turkey’s founder by one to three years in prison. Article 2 doubles the sentence if it is committed by means of the press.

On 15 October, Sebati Karakurt of the daily Hurriyet was held for 12 hours at the headquarters of the anti-terrorist police in Istanbul and some 10 policemen searched his home. It stemmed from a report published a few days earlier that included an interview with Murat Karayilan, the military chief of the former Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), now renamed Kongra-Gel. The report included photos showing female rebels in combat fatigues in a favourable light, relaxed and smiling. Karakurt was released after being interrogated by the police and a prosecutor.

Memik Horuz, the managing editor of the far-left newspaper Isçi Köylü, has spent years in prison for the views he expressed in the course of their journalistic work.

Pro-Kurdish media targeted

While the national radio and TV stations are now allowed to use the Kurdish language, the RTÜK continues to impose disproportionate sanctions - ranging from warnings to withdrawal of licence - against pro-Kurdish media or media that are very critical of the government.

Özgür Radyo, a local radio station in Istanbul, was sentenced by the RTÜK to a month’s closure for "inciting violence, terror, discrimination on the basis of race, region, language, religion or sect or the broadcasting of programmes that arouse feelings of hatred in society." The station stopped broadcasting on 18 August. In the event of a further offence, the RTÜK could withdraw its licence altogether.

Günes TV, a local television station in the eastern city of Malatya, was also forced to stop broadcasting for a month from 30 March. This was because the RTÜK accused it of "attacking the state’s existence and independence, and the country’s indivisible unity with the people and Ataturk’s principles and reforms" under article 4 of RTÜK law 3984. Using the same article, the RTÜK closed down local TV station ART in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir on 15 August 2003 for broadcasting two love songs in Kurdish.

Mass detentions of pro-Kurdish journalists by the anti-terrorist police on the eve of the NATO summit in Istanbul on 28-29 June 2004 were also indicative of the treatment reserved for the pro-Kurdish press.

Finally, nine journalists covering the dispersal of protesters against electoral fraud were badly beaten by police in Diyarbakir during the 28 March local elections and three of them had to be hospitalised. Those responsible have still not been punished.

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