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TURKEY: William A. Orme, Jr., Tel: 90 212 251 4560
NEW YORK: Judith Leynse, Tel: (212) 465-1004, x105

Turkish Prime Minister Promises Release of Jailed Editor Yurtçu, Support for Major Press Reforms

Ankara, Turkey, July 14--Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz promised a joint delegation of foreign and Turkish journalists today that his new government will take immediate steps to free imprisoned prize-winning editor Ocak Isik Yurtçu and other jailed newspaper editors and present a sweeping press law reform package to parliament later this year.

The jailing of journalists and other restrictions on press freedom “were explained away in the past by the fight against terrorism,” Yilmaz said. “That was unacceptable then, and it is unacceptable now.”

He said journalists and others should no longer be prosecuted on the basis of “their thoughts and their opinions.”

Yilmaz said that next week his government would introduce a bill annulling the convictions of Yurtçu and as many as six other newspaper editors who were prosecuted under a statute which makes managing editors legally responsible for all information and opinions reported in their publications. Independent reporting and commentary about the conflict with Kurdish insurgents are effectively criminalized under several Turkish laws.

The prime minister also said that President Suleyman Demirel had today requested detailed legal information on Yurtçu’s case in order to prepare grounds for a presidential pardon. The delegation of foreign and local journalists, led by Terry Anderson, vice chairman of the board of directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), had asked President Demirel Sunday to use his pardoning power to release Yurtçu, who is serving a 10-year sentence. Yurtçu is a recipient of awards from CPJ and other international journalism associations and has been the focus of a CPJ campaign for the past eight months. The pardon and the legal reform should “guarantee his release,” Yilmaz said.

When parliament reconvenes after a summer recess, the new government plans to introduce a reform package, currently being prepared by a cabinet task force, which would abolish many of the laws under which journalists are now imprisoned, Yilmaz said. The reforms would have to be preceded by an amendment of constitutional provisions, introduced under past military governments, which specifically forbade the granting of clemency to people convicted of “terrorism”-related offenses.

“Our goal is to create a modern, civilized working environment for the press,” Yilmaz said.

Organized by CPJ and the Press Council of Turkey, the delegation includes directors and members of the Newspaper Owners Union of Turkey, the Vienna-based International Press Institute, and Reporters Sans Frontières of France. Representing CPJ in Ankara are Anderson, board members Peter Arnett of CNN and Josh Friedman of Newsday, CPJ Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna, and executive director William A. Orme, Jr. The mission is endorsed by leading journalism and freedom of expression organizations around the world, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, World Press Freedom Committee, Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression, North American National Broadcasters Association, Independent Journalism Centre of Nigeria, Network for Defense of Independent Media in Africa, International PEN Writers, Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka, Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information of Indonesia, Periodistas of Argentina, ARTICLE 19, Freedom House, International Federation of Journalists, and Pacific Freedom of Information Network.

The delegation held a series of high-level meetings in Ankara today and yesterday, including sessions with President Demirel, Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, Justice Minister Oltan Sungurlu, and the leaders of all major parliamentary factions. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, a former journalist, said the reform of laws imprisoning journalists was “the highest priority” for the new government. “This should apply not just to journalists, but to writers and intellectuals as well,” Ecevit said.

Anderson today again urged the release from jail of “as many journalists as possible, as quickly as possible.” CPJ documented 78 cases of journalists in jail in Turkey at the beginning of the year, far more than in any other country, he noted.

“There are more journalists in jail in Turkey than in Ethiopia, China, Kuwait, and Burma combined, the countries which come next on this list,” Anderson told Prime Minister Yilmaz. “This is not a list which Turkey should be heading.”

Yilmaz said he agreed, and promised change. “I acknowledge that this is a ridiculous situation,” he said.

“The number of journalists in jail is not a record of which we can be proud, especially as it has worsened over the past year. There were specific reasons for this, and those reasons no longer exist,” said the prime minister, who was confirmed in his post in a parliamentary vote of confidence Saturday.

Political observers in Ankara said that Yilmaz’s statement was the strongest criticism of Turkey’s history of press freedom abuses yet voiced by a Turkish prime minister. They cautioned, however, that his minority government may face strong resistance to its promised legislative reforms. Yilmaz acknowledged today that the three-fifths majority needed for constitutional reform could prove “difficult” to obtain.

On Wednesday, July 16, the delegation will travel to Saray Prison, two hours by road northeast of Istanbul, where Anderson will present Yurtçu with the International Press Freedom Award he was given in absentia by CPJ in New York in November.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that documents and responds to violations of press freedom worldwide. CPJ’s Web site is http://www.cpj.org.

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