A wave of criminal prosecutions against the press reignited doubts about Turkey’s commitment to Western-style democracy and a free press just one year after the nation began formal talks for European Union membership. Journalists and writers found themselves the repeated targets of criminal lawsuits initiated under vaguely worded, restrictive statutes that remained on the books despite recent legislative reforms. Those who tackled controversial topics such as the country’s ethnic Kurds, criticism of the military and the courts, the mass killing of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, or criticism of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, were the primary victims.
Over the last decade, Turkey made noticeable progress in improving its press freedom record. Among the world’s leading jailers of journalists in the 1990s, Turkey has nearly ended the practice of putting reporters behind bars; at year’s end, there was one reporter in prison for his work. Much of the improvement was the result of comprehensive legal reforms undertaken by the government in recent years. In an attempt to bring its laws in line with European legislation, Turkish authorities have amended or abolished restrictive statutes that had once been used to jail journalists by the dozens.
However, repressive laws remain on the books, and in 2006 they were frequently invoked to haul outspoken writers before the courts. Turkish nationalists opposed to EU membership were a driving force behind many of the prosecutions, which they hoped would derail accession. In doing so, they frequently sought out sympathetic public prosecutors across the country to launch criminal suits against journalists, writers, and academics.
In what was billed as a test case for the country’s commitment to freedom of expression, prominent journalists Murat Belge, Haluk Sahin, Erol Katircioglu, and Ismet Berkan of the daily Radikal, and Hasan Cemal of the daily Milliyet stood trial in February, accused of attempting to influence the outcome of a trial and publicly denigrating “Turkishness” and the institutions of the Turkish state—crimes under Articles 288 and 301 of the Turkish penal code. CPJ Senior Editor Robert Mahoney monitored the court proceedings in Istanbul, producing a special report in March titled “Nationalism and the Press.”
The charges were initiated by a group of nationalist lawyers in response to articles the five columnists wrote in 2005 challenging the decision of an Istanbul administrative court to ban an academic conference on the mass killing of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1917. The Ottoman authorities, allied with imperial Germany, killed or forcibly relocated Armenians whom they accused of sympathizing with Russia. The Armenian massacre is still taboo in Turkey. Armenians contend that the killings constituted the first genocide of the 20th century, a characterization that Turkey rejects. The case against Sahin, Katircioglu, Berkan, and Cemal was dismissed in April, but the prosecution appealed the ruling. Belge was acquitted in June.
During the year, 17 journalists who discussed human rights cases, the Armenian conference ban, and torture cases were charged under Article 288, according to the press freedom group Bia. Criminal charges were brought against Radikal journalist Ismail Saymaz under Article 288 in response to a report alleging the torture of children by authorities. He was later fined 20,000 Turkish lira (US$13,600).
Another Radikal journalist, Murat Yetkin, was charged under the statute in relation to a 2005 column he wrote criticizing the prosecution of Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, who was tried for denigrating “Turkishness” but had the charge dropped in January. If convicted, Yetkin faced up to four and a half years in prison.
In July, Turkey’s High Court of Appeals upheld the six-month suspended prison sentence of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink for violating Article 301 in a case launched by nationalists. Dink is managing editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos. His prosecution followed a series of articles in early 2004 dealing with the collective memory of the Armenian massacres of 1915-17.
Dink said he would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to clear his name. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn criticized the ruling and called on Turkey to amend its law to guarantee free expression. He said Turkey would have to rewrite its penal code again to meet EU standards.
Other repressive legal statutes were exploited by press freedom adversaries during the year. In June, Perihan Magden, a columnist for the weekly magazine Yeni Aktuel, was tried on a charge of violating Article 318 of the penal code when she defended conscientious objectors. The complaint was filed in response to a December 2005 article in which she took up the case of Mehmet Tarhan, who had received a record four-year sentence in a military jail for refusing to wear his uniform. Magden faced up to three years in prison if convicted. She was acquitted in July.
In yet another case, journalist Ipek Calislar was charged with insulting Atatürk during an interview about her upcoming book on Atatürk’s wife. Calislar recounted an episode in which Atatürk wore women’s clothing in order to escape assassination. She faced up to four and a half years in jail but was acquitted of the charge in December.
While none of those charged during the year was jailed, Turkish journalists said the rash of new criminal cases had a chilling effect on their work. “These cases lead to self-censorship. Before you write about issues like the army or the Kurds, you will think two or three times,” said Turkish journalist and press freedom advocate Nadire Mater.
At least one newspaper was a casualty of the judicial crackdown. In August, a Turkish court ordered the 15-day closure of the pro-Kurdish daily Ulkede Ozgur Gundem for allegedly disseminating terrorist propaganda under a newly enacted antiterror law. It reopened after five days when the paper appealed the ruling.
Over the last two decades, attacks against Turkish media have been a disturbingly common occurrence. The trend continued in 2006 when the offices of the daily Cumhuriyet , the secular, republican flagship of Atatürk’s followers, were targeted in three separate hand grenade attacks. No one was injured in the attacks, and the suspects remained at large at year’s end.