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Turkey10 July 2006

Prime Minister warned that terror law changes could impose censorship of Kurdish issues

Reporters Without Borders has written to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan voicing concern about amendments to the anti-terrorism law that have just been passed by parliament. The organisation roundly condemns articles providing for prison sentences for the dissemination of statements and propaganda by “terrorist organisations,” fearing they could lead to arbitrary prosecutions of journalists covering issues related to these organisations.

The amendments are sufficiently vague that any member of a news media producing a contested report or article could be prosecuted, especially as several journalists are already charged with collaborating with the successor to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and face stiff sentences for covering military operations or pro-Kurdish demonstrations.

Paris, 6 July 2006

Dear Prime Minister,

Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that defends press freedom worldwide, would like to share with you its concern about the situation of free expression in Turkey, a country currently holding negotiations with a view to joining the European Union. We are worried about amendments to the 1991 Law on the Fight against Terrorism (Act 3713) that were passed by parliament on 29 June, as they introduce new restrictions on press freedom and above all target the pro-Kurdish media, whose very existence your are threatening.

Article 6, paragraph 2 of this law now provides for a three-year prison sentence for “any dissemination of statements and communiques by terrorist organisations.” The owners and editors of news organisations risk a heavy fine.

Article 7, paragraph 2 of the law says that: “Whoever makes propaganda for a terrorist organisation will be sentenced to five years in prison. If the crime is committed by means of the press, the penalty may be increased by half. Owners and editors will also be sentenced to a heavy fine.”

Reporters Without Borders would very much like the term “terrorist organisation” to be precisely defined in order to avoid any abuse of this provision for the purpose of arbitrary arrest or imprisonment. For example, an official list of organisations considered to be terrorist could help avoid misunderstandings.

Parliament also added a new article (article 8, paragraph b) providing for “chain liability,” under which, for example, a newspaper report with no byline could result in a prosecution being brought against the editor in charge, the editor-in-chief, the newspaper’s owner, the printer and even the translator if it was translated from another language. The amendment says “persons responsible for a programme” or “persons responsible for an issue of a publication” can be prosecuted and sentenced to heavy fines. Parliament introduced this extremely dangerous concept with the aim of extending the range of editors, executives and others liable for prosecution. The entire chain of command becomes potentially guilty.

The persistent legal obstacles to free expression in Turkey have been highlighted by Reporters Without Borders in the past. The government, the armed forces, militant nationalists and any state institution can abuse the law to target journalists commenting on sensitive or controversial issues or episodes in Turkish history such as the Armenian genocide, the withdrawal of the Turkish armed forces from Cyprus or the Kurdish question.

The fight against terrorism is, of course, necessary and legitimate, but Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the possible intention of these new amendments. We think they are especially targeted at pro-Kurdish journalists who are often accused of terrorist collaboration with the outlawed Kurdish separatist organisation PKK/Kongra-Gel.

We could cite the case of Rüstu Demirkaya, a reporter with the pro-Kurdish news agency DIHA, who has been held in Tunceli prison, in eastern Turkey, since 14 June on a charge of “collaborating with the PKK/Kongra-Gel.” A former PKK activist reportedly accused him of supplying PKK members with a laptop computer and 10 virgin CD-ROMs and of tipping them off about an ongoing military operation. He could be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.

The police handling the investigation have not produced any concrete evidence in support for the allegations made by the former PKK member. It is completely unacceptable that Demirkaya should have to remain in prison while the investigation continues.

We could also cite the case Evrim Dengiz and Nesrin Yazar, two young women working for DIHA who were stopped by anti-terrorist police on 15 February in Mersin as they returned from covering a demonstration marking the seventh anniversary of the arrest of the PKK/Kongra-Gel leader Abdullah Öcalan. We have been told that the police took them some distance away from their car, which they then proceeded to search and claimed to have found two home-made petrol bombs inside.

Dengiz and Yazar were accused of making the bombs for the demonstration. The judge in charge of the case has classified it on security grounds. The Mersin prosecutor has requested life imprisonment for a “threat against state unity and territorial integrity” under article 302-1 of the criminal code. Their lawyer, Bedri Kuran, who has not been allowed to see the prosecution case file because it has been classified, says the search violated legal procedure because it should have been carried out in a judge’s presence. He also says there is no forensic report on the petrol bombs.

Prime Minister, we cannot help being troubled by the speed with which journalists are placed in pretrial custody in Turkey even when the evidence against them is very slim. Free expression and press freedom are inviolable democratic principles that must be respected.

We urge you, Prime Minister, to ask parliament to revise the amendments to the Law on the Fight against Terrorism so that they meet international standards.

We trust you will give this matter your careful consideration.

Respectfully,

Robert Ménard Secretary-General




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