September 17, 1999—On August 28, the Turkish parliament approved an amnesty bill that will secure the release of a number of journalists and writers who were jailed on the basis of their published work. The law was signed by President Suleiman Demirel on September 2.
The new legislation “freezes” court cases or jail terms against individuals charged or convicted of “crimes” committed through the media for a period of three years. A number of journalists and writers–32 according to the government–are expected to be released from prison in the coming weeks. Dozens of other cases pending in court will also be suspended, including many of those documented in this report.
The new law is a welcome development, but only a temporary solution to Turkey’s press freedom problem. According to the law’s text, if a similar “offense” is committed within the three-year period, those amnestied will be required to serve their previous sentence in addition to any new sentence confirmed by the courts. Similarly, court cases pending against journalists would be reactivated. And journalists who committed “crimes” prior to April 23, 1999 will not qualify for the amnesty.
In August 1997, the government of then-Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz pushed a similar, but more limited amnesty through parliament, resulting in the release from prison of at least eight jailed responsible editors–those legally designated as responsible and subsequently convicted on the basis of material published in their newspapers–and suspended a number of other cases pending in the courts. Yet almost as soon as the law went into effect, authorities began flooding the judicial system with new court cases against editors.
In the absence of comprehensive legal reform to abolish repressive laws that punish expression in Turkey, journalists will continue to find themselves in court, and possibly prison, for merely practicing their profession. Hence, the cases that appear in CPJ’s report on press freedom in Turkey remain relevant examples of the types of discourse that can trigger criminal prosecutions under Turkish law.
Successive Turkish governments have expressed reservations about the likelihood of comprehensive legal reform and amendments to the current constitution, which underpins many of the restrictive laws against free expression now on the books, given the lack of required support in parliament for such proposals. Nonetheless, statements made earlier this month by Appeals Court chief justice Sami Selcuk have jolted the establishment and helped bring the topic of reform to the forefront.
In an impassioned speech delivered at a ceremony marking the start of the judicial year, Selcuk criticized the jailing of journalists and other restrictions on freedom of expression in Turkey. “I must issue a stark warning,” he said. “Turkey cannot enter a new a new century with a constitution whose legitimacy is almost zero, and it must not.” The comments prompted a response from Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who promised to put constitutional reform on the government’s agenda. In the coming months, we will see just how seriously Ecevit and parliament take Justice Selcuk’s challenge.
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