Attacks on the Press 2003: Turkey

In an effort to meet European Union criteria for membership, Turkey continued in 2003 to rewrite laws that restrict press freedom. That effort has improved the country’s spotty press freedom record, but many impediments remain. Journalists continued to face criminal prosecution for their work, although the number of jailed journalists has drastically declined in recent years, from dozens in the mid-1990s to at least five in 2003.

In June, Parliament passed a reform bill repealing the infamous Article 8 of the antiterror law. For years, Article 8, which outlaws “separatist propaganda,” was used to prosecute and jail dozens of journalists and writers sympathetic to the country’s Kurdish minority or Kurdish nationalist ideas. The reform bill also formally permits private television and radio stations to use the Kurdish language, which was previously banned in the broadcast media. To the surprise of many, reform-minded President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed the bill, arguing it could “create important dangers to the existence of the Turkish state and the indivisible unity of the state with its country and people.” Parliament, however, overrode the veto.

The reform bill was the latest in a series of legislative initiatives since 2002 that have loosened legal strictures on freedom of expression. However, prosecutors continued to use the laws that remain on the books to bring suits against journalists and writers, particularly those who criticized the army and judiciary, or who wrote critically about sensitive political issues, such as the struggle of the country’s Kurdish minority for greater cultural rights or the role of Islam in politics and society. The Turkish Human Rights Foundation, a local nongovernmental organization, reported that the number of such prosecutions during the first six months of 2003 had decreased from the previous year but still stood at well over 1,000 cases. More encouragingly, however, the report noted that the number of convictions had dropped about 50 percent.

Some of the government’s legal reforms give Turkish prosecutors and judges greater leeway to dismiss or acquit cases. Application, however, was uneven, and the spirit of the reforms did not always filter through to the judicial system, as was evidenced by new prosecutions undertaken in 2003.

In October, Sinan Kara, a muckraking journalist in the southwestern town of Datcha, began serving a one-year prison term for allegedly threatening bodyguards of the son of former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller. According to Kara’s lawyer, Mert Ciller’s bodyguards attacked the journalist in 2000 when he tried to photograph Mert Ciller. Kara’s lawyer maintains that the charges against his client were fabricated, and that witnesses for the prosecution provided dubious testimony. Local politicians and businessmen have targeted Kara with several lawsuits over his reporting on local government. Officials have frequently harassed the journalist through petty administrative measures. In 2002, for example, Kara served jail time for failing to comply with a press law requiring newspaper publishers to send two copies of each issue to the governor’s office.

In October, the trial of editor Mehmet Emin Sert and journalists Emin Karaca and Dogan Ozguden, who lives in exile in Belgium, resumed. They stood accused of insulting the Turkish army in articles in the daily Turkiya’de ve Avrupa’da in 2002 that accused the army of murdering leftists in the 1960s. The journalists face possible prison time and/or fines if convicted. The trial was ongoing at year’s end.

In May, an appeals court upheld the 2002 conviction of publisher Abdullah Keskin on charges of disseminating “separatist propaganda.” Two months later, the government formally abolished the law under which he was convicted. Keskin had published a Turkish-language edition of former Washington Post reporter Jonathan Randal’s book about the Kurds, After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters in Kurdistan. A State Security Court sentenced Keskin to six months in prison, which was later converted to a fine of about US$500. Prosecutors objected to passages in the book that referred to “Kurdistan.”

The number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey continued to drop in 2003, with at least five in jail at year’s end. Most were imprisoned for involvement with the publications of outlawed leftist or pro-Kurdish political groups. At the height of the government’s conflict with Kurdish insurgents in the mid-1990s, dozens of journalists were imprisoned.

Turkey’s airwaves host a multitude of private radio and television stations that opened in the mid-1990s. However, the government has established a highly restrictive regime for regulating them. The Supreme Radio and Television Board (RTUK) is the main body that oversees broadcasting and continues to dole out punitive suspensions to stations that air violent, sensational, or politically controversial programming. During 2003, RTUK closed dozens of stations. In July, RTUK imposed a one-month ban on five stations owned by media mogul Cem Uzan in response to Uzan’s on-air criticism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Uzan had lambasted the government’s decision to annul a contract with power supply plants he owns.

A controversial law passed in 2002 subjects Internet content to Turkey’s laws governing freedom of expression. In October 2003, a Turkish court closed the news sites Ekmek ve Adalet and Ozgur Politika because they “insulted Turkish armed forces,” according to the Web site Bianet. The court provided no further details.

Before the U.S.-led war in Iraq began, about 300 foreign journalists converged on the southeastern border town of Silopi, Turkey, to cover northern Iraq. As in previous years, the government prohibited journalists from crossing the border without a Turkish government escort. In one case, Turkish authorities asked two U.S. journalists–Donald Bartletti, a photographer for the Los Angeles Times, and Alan Weeks, a freelance cameraman for the U.S.-based ABC television–to leave the country in early March after they were caught in a forbidden area while trying to cross the border into Iraq without the required escort. The journalists were held overnight and released the next day after paying a fine of about US$50 each.