Relief as Turkish penal code put back

In a last minute decision, Turkey's parliament has voted to postpone plans to introduce a new penal code which had been slammed by journalists and human rights activists.

    Ridiculing the government could land journalists in jail

    The new code had been due to come into force on 1 April - known as April Fool's Day in many countries, but for Turkey's journalists, a day that had taken on a much less comic connotation.

    After protests that the code would see a return to the bad old days when Turkey's journalists could find themselves behind bars for saying a wrong word, deputies voted to suspend the code until 1 June.

    "We're very pleased with this," Oktay Eksi, the president of the World Association of Press Councils and chairman of Turkey's Press Council, told "It shows we have made our message heard."

    Next week, legal experts from the Press Council will meet with government officials to hammer out their differences over the code's controversial articles.

    "Its articles are weighted against us and open to misuse," says Eksi. "It will very much harm our freedom," Eksi says.

    The code appears to be a backwards step by Turkey, which has been pushing hard to reform its legal codes to bring them into line with European Union legislation.

    Ongoing offensive

    It also comes after a sustained period of attacks on the press by the government and by Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan in particular.

    Journalists were criticised for
    their coverage of the protest

    After Turkish TV broadcast images of female protesters being beaten by the police at an international women's day rally earlier this month, Erdogan had attacked the media, while conceding the police had made "mistakes".

    "All television channels heaped criticism on the police," he said in an interview after the incident with TGRT TV. "Our media basically denounced Turkey to Europe and the world."

    The EU protested over the police behaviour, drawing criticism from Erdogan that Turkish journalists had been disloyal to their country.

    Cartoonist targeted

    Meanwhile, Erdogan was also taking to court newspaper cartoonist Musa Kart, who had drawn the prime minister's head on a cat tied up in a ball of string.

    The cartoonist was fined about $4000 for "publicly humiliating the prime minister".

    "You might see Tony Blair portrayed as a poodle or President Bush as a chimpanzee in the UK or US, but the Turkish government gets very angry with these sort of things"

    Esra Arsan,
    Istanbul Bilgi University, media and communications faculty

    This drew protest from cartoonists at the satirical magazine Penguen, where eight artists promptly drew cartoons on the front cover depicting Erdogan's head on a variety of animals. The prime minister has now taken out lawsuits against each of them and the magazine.

    "The government doesn't like being criticised," says Esra Arsan, of Istanbul Bilgi University's media and communications faculty. "You might see Tony Blair portrayed as a poodle or President Bush as a chimpanzee in the UK or US, but the Turkish government gets very angry with these sort of things."

    This anger will also have stronger judicial teeth if the new penal code comes into operation unaltered.

    Criminal charges

    The code comes after a new press law removed many restrictions on Turkey's press. Now though, journalists' groups say, criminal law could be used instead to prosecute news gatherers.

    "Before, it was not the penal code that was used to send journalists to jail, but the constitution - if, for example, you wrote something about the [Kurdish separatist guerrilla group] the PKK, or its leader Abdullah Ocalan. But now you can go to jail just for doing your job."

    Journalist groups say the new penal code gives room for wide interpretation of terms such as "insult", while even indirect criticism of the country's leaders could lead to jail terms. An insult against a parliamentarian could also be interpreted as an insult against the parliament as a whole, allowing all 550 deputies to file individual suits against a single person.

    "Article 327 of the penal code, for example," says Eksi, "says that whoever obtains information which is supposed to be confidential and which is related to state security or the interests of the state, externally or internally, is liable to imprisonment for three to eight years.

    Severe penalties

    Publishing such material carries another penalty of five to 10 years. Yet it is not clear what state security or the interests of the state are.

    "If, for example, someone published a story on whether or not Turkey would intervene in Iraq, they could end up going to jail."

    Investigative journalism becomes almost impossible, with strict rules on personal privacy meaning permission will be needed before photographs of public figures, for example, can be printed.

    Yet Justice Minister Cemil Cicek has denied that the new penal code represents any threat to press freedom.

    Justice Minister Cemil Cicek (2L)
    says the code is no threat

    He told reporters last week that the government was committed to "strengthening press freedom" rather than limiting it.

    "We - most good journalists - are in favour of a code of ethics," says Arsan. "But you can't make such a thing work with penal codes and putting journalists behind bars."

    Eksi, however, is confident that the code will now be changed.

    "We will overcome this," he says. "Turkey is no longer the kind of country where these kinds of sanctions and threats can work. The justice minister was on the phone on Monday saying that after the government has studied the law again, he will ask us for consultations. This is not a situation which is a matter of us or them winning."

    With parliament's vote, "the first round is ours," Eksi says. However, "the match is not yet over."

    Legal challenge

    Meanwhile, in the case of the cartoonists, a glimmer of hope for satirists also came on Tuesday, when a court in the Anatolian city of Eskisehir threw out the case against Kart, creating a legal difficulty for further prosecutions.

    "People who are in the public spotlight are forced to endure criticism in the same way that they endure praise," Judge Mithat Ali Kabaali said after his ruling. He then reminded Erdogan that not so long ago he too had faced the courts over freedom of speech.

    Before he was prime minister, Erdogan had received a two year jail sentence for reciting a poem in public that the now-abolished state security courts had ruled was an incitement to religious hatred - the old official buzzword for Islamism.

    "A prime minister who was forced to serve a long jail sentence for reciting a poem should show more tolerance to these kinds of criticisms," the judge commented.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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