The European Union’s long-awaited decision in December to begin formal talks to admit Turkey would have been impossible without legislative reforms made in recent years, including several aimed at expanding freedom of expression.
A new Penal Code set to take effect in 2005 codifies a number of recent press reforms. Notably, it limits the definition of “inciting hatred” to cases in which the exercise of free expression poses a “clear and present danger.” Prison penalties for “insulting” state institutions were reduced, and the law now requires proof of intent for conviction. A new press law adopted in June abolishes authorities’ power to suspend publications, lifts prison penalties for certain press offenses, and strengthens protection for confidential sources.
Only a handful of journalists are jailed in Turkey today, but that was not always so. Press freedom was under siege in Turkey throughout the 1990s, and dozens of journalists were imprisoned for their work under restrictive laws. Despite the recent improvements, Turkey has a long way to go to reach press freedom standards acceptable for a democracy. Turkish law, even under the reforms, still allows for journalists to be criminally prosecuted and imprisoned for their work.
One of the most prominent recent prosecutions involved reporter Hakan Albayrak, formerly of the Islamist-leaning daily Mili Gazete, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison in May for insulting the memory of Mustafa Kamel Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Albayrak had written an article for Mili Gazete in 2000 in which he observed that the atheist Turkish writer Mina Urgan was buried in the same manner as Ataturk, without funeral prayers. Albayrak was released in November.
In another case, Sabri Ejder Ozic of the Istanbul-based Radio Dunya was convicted on charges of “insulting” Parliament, according to the news Web site Bianet. The charges stemmed from a program during which the host declared that Parliament would be considered a “terrorist” body if it approved the deployment of U.S. troops in Turkey prior to the 2003 Iraq war. Ozic was freed on appeal.
The struggle of the country’s Kurdish minority for greater cultural rights, the role of Islam in politics, and criticism of the military remained the topics most likely to trigger legal action or harassment against journalists. In September, authorities launched a criminal investigation of popular journalist Mehmet Ali Birand, who hosts a talk show on CNN-Turk, for allegedly “aiding” Kurdish rebels. Birand’s offense: interviewing lawyers for the jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. In October, security forces detained Sebati Karakurt, a journalist for the daily Hurriyet, and questioned him for 12 hours after the paper ran an interview he conducted with Kurdish guerrillas.
Short-term improvements in press conditions will depend on the courts, which, under recent legal reforms, have greater discretion to dismiss cases or acquit defendants. Courts appear more inclined now to levy fines rather than imprison journalists, but the fines still dampen journalistic zeal.
Private radio and television stations abound, but the Supreme Radio and Television Board (RTUK), the main regulatory body, continued to impose punitive sanctions against outlets that violated regulations on “instigating … ethnic discrimination,” “national and moral values,” or “the existence and independence of the Turkish republic.” Several broadcast stations were temporarily ordered off the air for violating these proscriptions. One, the Istanbul-based Ozgur Radyo, was closed in August for 30 days for “inciting enmity” after it reported an attack against politicians at a wedding ceremony, according to Bianet. In April, RTUK banned the Diyarbakir-based ART TV for 30 days for threatening the “indivisible unity of the state” after it broadcast Kurdish romance songs the previous year.
A new law took effect in January allowing limited programming in the Kurdish language, but observers said such content was minimal on national stations. The government also licensed a number of private Kurdish-language stations.