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Listening Post
Turkey's media 'charm offensive'
Listening Post asks if reform of controversial press law is enough to gain EU entry.
Last Modified: 16 May 2008 09:45 GMT

Hrant Dink was murdered in January 2007 [GALLO/GETTY]

Turkey has altered one of its most controversial press laws in an effort to court the European Union. The Listening Post host Richard Gizbert asks if this will be enough to ease entry into the European club.

It is rare that a law or a piece of legislation becomes part of a country's national identity and its international image.

However, even Ali Baba Jan, Turkey's foreign minister, has said that Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code is to his country what Levi 501s are to jeans. The press law has become part of Turkey's international brand.

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In the three years of its existence, the infamous article has represented one of the most serious obstacles to freedom of speech in the country by making it a crime to insult a vague concept of "Turkishness".

"Basically, what it said was that it gave up to three years in jail for those insulted Turkishness and various organs of the Turkish state including various military organs, the Parliament and various other different parts of the Turkish state," Nicholas Birch, a freelance journalist working in Turkey, says.

The law enabled prosecutors in Turkey to open cases against writers, intellectuals, journalists and others who they believe insulted the Turkish state.

Turkey has been trying to enter the European Union for more than 20 years, but the EU has made it clear that laws like Article 301 are detrimental to the country's chances of joining the European club, since they impede free speech.

The law has previously been used by the Turkish authorities to shut down websites such as YouTube after critics of Turkey, presumed to be Greek, have used the sites to mock the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Other casualties of the law include Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel Prize winning author, who was charged after he gave an interview in which he said at least a million Armenians had died at Turkish hands in World War One.

Changes

Hrant Dink the editor of Agos, a Turkish Armenian newspaper, also wrote about that period of history.

He was charged three times under Article 301, was convicted once and ultimately paid for his writings with his life when he was murdered in January 2007.

"He [Dink] was shot to death in broad daylight in the streets in Istanbul by a young man who appears to have been ... just acting out of nationalist instincts," Birch says.

"He was offended, or he claims to have been offended, by what Dink had said. He shot him three times in the back of the head. Dink dies. So ... he's the most obvious and famous victim of 301."

These high-profile cases finally led the government to adjust the law last month.

The main changes mean that prosecutors who, under the old law, could launch investigations under 301, now must refer such cases up to the political level, to Turkey's Minister of Justice.

Whereas the old law made it illegal to insult "Turkishness" - a difficult term to define - the new law specifies that attacks against the Turkish nation are illegal.
 

Dink was charged three times under 301
before he was killed [EPA]
There are also changes in the penalties. Previously conviction under 301 could mean up to three years in prison. That is now down to two years.

The amended law made news domestically in Turkey, but the reaction the government in Ankara was looking for came from the European Union.

Amadeu Altafaj, a spokesman for the European Commission said: "The reform of Article 301 is a very much welcome step forward. It indicates that this issue is going in the right direction. We are still not there, but we are progressing."

Mehmet Ali Birand from Kanal D channel says it is purely European considerations that have prompted the government into action.

"If it wasn't for the European Union, nobody would touch 301.

"Thanks to the European Union, 301 is changed and now we will have to wait and see the implementation."

Nicholas Birch says that while the EU was "very, very keen" that article 301 was changed and seems happy that it has been, there are various other articles remaining in the penal code that are used repeatedly by prosecutors to restrict people's freedom of speech in the country.

'New 301'

"There are articles that prevent any insults to the courts or trying to talk about any court case going through the legal system," Fadi Hakura, a Turkey analyst, says.

"There are also articles that prevent insults to the president for example. And there are also articles that talk about trying to incite racial hatred that again because of the nebulous and vague definitions, can perhaps be used in the future to try to limit freedom of speech in Turkey."

Hakura says these articles could very well become the "new 301" and that, although the EU has welcomed the changes to Article 301, the bloc has informed Turkey that this is not the end of the road and they also have to change the other articles.

With the other laws still in existence it will be up to Turkish journalists to determine, through their reporting, if things have really changed for the Turkish media.

Mehmet Ali Birand said: "It will depend on the implementation because our laws ... are quite liberal but the problem comes from the interpretation and the implementation of those laws.

"One judge reads it differently or commences differently from another one. So that is the problem."

Some analysts see laws like Article 301 as mere symptoms of larger problems in the way Turks perceive the media and the media's relationship with the state.

"Generally Turkey suffers from a deep-rooted problem, namely that the legal system considers its job as to protect the state rather than the individual or ... civil rights and civil liberties," Hakura says.

"So this mentality pervades the legal system - pervades the political system. So that's really ... the challenge that lies at the root of the Article 301 problem in Turkey."

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