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Turkey5 January 2006

Letter to chancellor of Austria, new holder of the EU presidency, about violations of free expression in Turkey

In a letter to Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel of Austria, which has held the European Union presidency since 1 January, Reporters Without Borders has voiced concern about recent attacks on press freedom in Turkey and has asked him to use his influence with the authorities in Ankara to convince them to amend articles 301 and 305 of the criminal code, under which journalists can be sent to prison for the views they express.

Paris, 3 January 2006

Dear Chancellor Schüssel,

Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that defends press freedom worldwide, would like to share with you its concern about the threats to free expression in Turkey, a country which has started talks on possible joining the European Union. We are worried about the arbitrary use of Turkish criminal code, especially article 301 on “humiliation of the Turkish identity, the republic and state bodies and institutions,” to censor dissent.

More than twenty journalists, writers and editors are currently being prosecuted in Turkey, most of them under this article. The cases of Hrant Dink and Orhan Pamuk are representative of the persistent threats from the authorities and nationalistic lawyers to those who refer to certain episodes in Turkish history.

On 24 December, the prosecutor’s office in Sisli (Istanbul) initiated new proceedings against Mr. Dink, the editor of the Armenian-language weekly Agos, for allegedly trying to influence the course of justice in an article published after his first trial in October, in which he was given a suspended sentence of six months in prison under article 301. He will be tried in February and faces four to five years in prison.

Mr. Pamuk, a leading writer, is accused under article 301 of “insulting Turkish identity” by telling a Swiss weekly that “one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country but no one dares to say so except me.” His trial, originally set for 16 December, has been postponed until 7 February. He faces up to three years in prison. Meanwhile, the authorities decided on 29 December to take no action on a complaint that was brought against him by a group of nationalistic lawyers accusing him of “openly attacking the army’s image.”

Sinan Kara of the fortnightly Datça Haber was sentenced on 19 October to nine months in prison for "insulting by means of the press" under article 125 of the criminal code.

Reporters Without Borders has had occasion in the past to stress the ubiquity of certain taboos that constitute a constant impediment to free expression in Turkey. We have also often had occasion to be alarmed by vaguely-worded articles in the criminal code. Anyone, whether the government, the army, can make arbitrary use of these articles to attack journalists who refer to certain painful or controversial events in Turkish history such as the Armenian genocide, the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Cyprus, the relations between the army and the government, or the Kurdish question.

On 26 December, 169 intellectuals and performing artists called on the government to repeal articles 301 and 305 of the criminal code on the grounds that they are incompatible with the right to free expression and are obstructing democratisation in Turkey.

Responding to the criticism, Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gül recognised on 28 December that the charges brought against Mr. Pamuk had harmed Turkey’s image and said the laws restricting free expression could be modified.

The hopes pinned on the new criminal code that took effect in June have in part been dashed. Your role, as leader of the government that currently holds the European Union presidency, will therefore be decisive in establishing real freedom of expression in Turkey.

We are aware of your commitment to press freedom and we therefore urge you to intercede with the authorities in Ankara, especially at meetings about the membership process, in order to stop the criminalization of dissident views. In the light of recent events, we believe that progress in the talks on Turkey’s membership should be conditioned on amendments to certain provisions of the Turkish criminal code, especially articles 301 and 305, in order to ensure that journalists and intellectuals enjoy the kind of freedom of speech that is worthy of a democracy, and in order to make Turkey’s laws conform to European and international standards.

We trust you will give this matter your careful consideration.

Sincerely,

Robert Ménard, Secretary General




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