New York, November 16, 1999 — A Turkish criminal court today officially “froze” its case against American journalist Andrew Finkel, the Associated Press reported. Turkish authorities informed Finkel in June that he had been charged with “insulting the Turkish military,” an offense that carries a penalty of up to six years imprisonment.
The charge was filed in response to an article that Finkel wrote for the mass-circulation Turkish daily Sabah in February, 1998. Titled “Sirnak 1998,” the piece described a recent media tour organized by the military to the southeastern garrison town of Sirnak. In the article, Finkel compared what he saw in Sirnak in 1998 with his impressions of the town from an earlier visit some years ago. Quoting military officials, he wrote that the Turkish military was apparently trying to win the “hearts and minds” of local inhabitants, adding, “this is a long way from being an army of occupation.” Even so, prosecutors concluded that Finkel had insulted the military.
Finkel¹s case was suspended under an amnesty for writers and journalists that the Turkish parliament approved on August 28. The legislation, which went into effect on September 2, “freezes” court cases or jail terms against individuals charged or convicted of “crimes” committed via the media for a period of three years. Since then, several writers and journalists have been released from prison under the amnesty. Others, like Finkel, have had their cases temporarily suspended.
After his hearing today, Finkel, who covers Turkey for Time, The Times of London, and The Economist, expressed disappointment that the court’s decision merely suspended legal proceedings against him, without absolving him of wrongdoing. “I think I am not guilty. I should have been acquitted,” Finkel told the AP. “I have the right to a verdict.”
Finkel’s reaction highlights the shortcomings of the new amnesty law. 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” after April 23, 1999 will not qualify for the amnesty.
While the amnesty is a welcome development, it is only a temporary solution to Turkey’s press freedom problem. 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.
This week U.S. president Bill Clinton expressed concern for Turkish press freedom, encouraging more reform. “There has been impressive momentum in the last few years, and I hope there will be continued progress, especially in the area of freedom of expression,” he said at a news conference in Istanbul with Turkish President Suleiman Demirel.