Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Turkey's Slow March to Freedom

There's more good news from Turkey on the freedom of speech front. As I first mentioned here in February, five Turkish journalists were facing six months to ten years in prison for criticizing a court's decision to ban a conference on the Armenian genocide in Istanbul.

Charges against four of these journalists have now been dropped. Yesterday, Hasan Cemal, Ismet Berkan, Haluk Sahin and Erol Katircioglu were let off the hook "on grounds that prosecutors had not filed charges within the required two-month period following the publication of the articles." The fifth writer, Murat Belge, a columnist for the liberal Radikal newspaper, is still in jeopardy.

This is a partial victory, but a victory nonetheless for free speech advocates. All five journalists were being prosecuted under a nasty law called Article 301, which criminalizes insulting the Turkish republic, state institutions (including the military), and "Turkishness". It's a unbelievably broad law that was obviously designed less to protect the Turkish people than to keep internal dissent to a minimum. The fact that charges against four of the five writers were dropped on a technicality shows that Turkey—poised to enter the European Union but facing mounting criticism from the EU because of laws like Article 301—is having second thoughts about enforcing this draconian provision.

The best-known example of Turkey's reticence on 301 came in January when charges against world-famous novelist Orhan Pamuk were dropped, also on a technicality. The fact that charges against Belge still stand speaks to a deeper ambivalence in contemporary Turkish culture. Modernizers, since Kemal Ataturk himself, have always been keen on Westernization, but not at the expense of the integrity of the republic. Turkish nationalists, who have been at the fore in pursuing Article 301 prosecutions, see threats to the republic around every corner. They fear that open discussions on such thorny issues as the Armenian genocide or the Kurdish "problem" in the south and east of the country—not to mention more monumental issues like the place of Islam in the national identity—open the door to the enemies of the Turkish republic, both internal and external.

Tuesday's announcement indicates that things may be going in the right direction, but until Turkey can finally abolish Article 301 and the mentality that goes along with it—until they allow Turkishness to stand on the strength of ideas alone rather than legal coercion—as much as they strive toward the West, they will never reach it.
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