Press Freedom Under the Dragon Can Hong Kong’s Media Still Breathe Fire?

After serving nearly 32 months in prison for his newspaper’s critical coverage of Turkey’s ongoing conflict with Kurdish insurgents, editor Ocak Isik Yurtçu was freed from Saray Prison on August 15, one day after Turkey’s parliament unanimously passed an amnesty law allowing for the release of several jailed editors.

During the next week, five other editors were freed under the amnesty. They are Naile Tuncer, formerly of the magazine Devrimci Proletarya; Hatice Onaran, of the magazine Devrimci Cözüm; Mustafa Demirdag, of the magazine Ozgür Gelecek; Fatih Yesilbag, of Ozgür Gündem; and Bülent Balta, also of Ozgür Gündem.

The six editors had been sentenced by State Security Courts under the sweeping provisions of Turkey’s anti-terror law and penal code between 1992 and 1997 as a result of their publications reporting on the 12-year-old conflict between the Turkish army and Kurdish insurgents in the country’s southeastern region.

Yurtçu, the former editor of the pro-Kurdish daily Ozgür Gündem, was sentenced in December 1994 to more than 10 years in prison for news articles that appeared in the newspaper during his tenure as editor from 1991 to 1992. A State Security Court convicted him of a number of charges including disseminating “separatist propaganda.” In November 1996, Yurtçu received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in recognition of his courage and integrity in resisting Turkey’s harsh treatment of independent journalists covering the Kurdish conflict.

The new limited amnesty granted three-year suspended sentences to editors convicted for a wide range of articles that appeared in their newspapers, the majority of which concerned Turkey’s battle against the Kurds. Turkish law holds that editors are legally responsible for what appears in their papers. The amnesty provision requires that if a similar “offense” is committed within the three-year period, those amnestied must serve their full sentence in addition to any new sentencing by the courts.

CPJ vice chairman Terry Anderson, who presented the award to Yurtçu last month in Saray Prison, said: “This is important to me personally because Yurtçu is now free. But it is also important because it is the first step that the Turkish government has taken toward improving freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

In July, Anderson led an international delegation of press freedom organizations to Turkey to urge government officials to release the country’s approximately 80 imprisoned journalists. The six editors’ release fulfills the July 14 promise made by Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz to Anderson and representatives from CPJ, the Press Council (Turkey), the International Press Institute, Reporters Sans Frontières, and the Union of Newspaper Editors (Turkey) that he would seek a limited amnesty for a group of imprisoned editors before parliament adjourned for a summer recess. The prime minister also pledged that his government would pursue more comprehensive legislation in the fall in order to secure the release of other jailed journalists.

According to CPJ’s research, even with the release of these editors, there will be more journalists in prison in Turkey than in any other country worldwide. In a letter sent to Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, CPJ Executive Director William A. Orme, Jr., welcomed the government amnesty, calling the initiative an “important first step toward addressing the many obstacles facing independent journalism in Turkey.”