Turkish court to hear criminal charges against five journalists

Istanbul, Turkey, February 6, 2006—Five prominent Turkish journalists are due to appear in court on Tuesday on charges of insulting the judiciary for criticizing a court decision to ban an academic conference on the killing of Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. The case has embarrassed Turkey, which is in negotiations to join the European Union.

An Istanbul state prosecutor charged the five journalists—Murat Belge, Haluk Sahin, Erol Katircioglu and Ismet Berkan of the daily Radikal, and Hasan Cemal of the daily Milliyet—under Article 288 of the penal code with attempting to influence the outcome of a trial through their writing. All except Berkan also face prosecution under Article 301 for publicly denigrating “Turkishness” and the institutions of the Turkish state. If convicted, they could face prison terms of six months to 10 years.

Local journalists believe the accused are unlikely to go to jail, especially in light of the dismissal of a high-profile case under Article 301 by an Istanbul court on January 24 against internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk referred in a Swiss magazine interview to the mass killings of Armenians during World War I as a taboo subject for many Turks.

Sahin, who is a university professor of journalism as well as a Radikal columnist, told CPJ that the prosecutions were instigated by a group of six nationalist lawyers angered at what they see as a loss of Turkish sovereignty through the European Union accession talks.

“They think Turkey has been hijacked by the EU,” Sahin said. He said the nationalists were using the legal system against journalists and writers as a means of embarrassing Turkey and hindering its EU bid.

“Turkey has made important progress in reforming restrictive media laws as it seeks to join the European Union, and the court should not allow hard-liners to take the country backward,” Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said from New York. “We urge the court to dismiss all charges against these journalists.”

CPJ Senior Editor Robert Mahoney is in Istanbul to monitor the court proceedings. The charges, filed on December 2, 2005, stem from columns published in Radikal and Milliyet that strongly criticized Turkish court rulings banning an academic conference last year on the Armenian massacres. Court orders stopped the conference from taking place at two Istanbul universities, in May and again in September, but organizers held the conference on September 24, 2005, by moving it to a third university at the last minute, according to press reports.