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Free speech under threat in Turkey?

April 6, 2012

Much of the hostility to the idea of Turkey eventually joining the EU has centered on several issues: the demographic impact of such a large country joining, the potentially negative effects of opening the EU’s borders to a relatively underdeveloped country (according to the CIA World Factbook, Turkey’s GDP per capita in purchasing power parity terms is slightly above Bulgaria and Romania, currently the poorest countries in the EU), and the cultural ramifications of a majority-Muslim country joining.

In recent times, journalists and international organizations have paid increasing attention to an additional factor that could stymie Turkey’s attempts to join the EU, namely the large number of journalists imprisoned in the country. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) released a report last week detailing the issue. (The full report in pdf form is here.) According to the report, 95 journalists are on prison today, an increase of 38 from a year ago. Most of them were arrested under Turkey’s broad Anti-Terror Law, which prohibits individuals from assisting or propagandizing on behalf of terrorist organizations. It is often open to interpretation what exactly constitutes such assistance or propaganda, but many of the arrestees had reported on the Kurdish insurgency in eastern Turkey. Ragip Zarakolu, for example, was arrested last year on suspicion of having links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK.

Turkey had received criticism from the EU for freedom of speech violations before this mass wave of arrests of journalists. Most infamously, Article 301 of the Turkish penal code made it a crime to insult “Turkishness.” The law gained notoriety in 2006 when the acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was arrested for comments he made in an interview. Specifically, he argued that thousands of Kurds and a million Armenians had died in Turkey and that it was taboo to discuss it. The charges against him were eventually dropped, and Article 301 was amended, but critics have argued that it still stifles freedom of speech even in its amended form. In their most recent ranking of press freedom around the world, the organization Reporters Without Borders moved Turkey down to 148, arguing: “At a time when it is portraying itself as a regional model, Turkey (148th) took a big step backwards and lost 10 places. Far from carrying out promised reforms, the judicial system launched a wave of arrests of journalists that was without precedent since the military dictatorship.”

In response to these criticisms, Turkish leaders have usually emphasized that their country has been engaged in a violent counter-insurgency and that they don’t have the luxury of allowing the degree of expression enjoyed in other countries. In defending Article 301, they could point to laws in EU countries that criminalize Holocaust denial (pdf), hate speech, or denying the Armenian genocide. Whether or not one buys the counter-insurgency argument or accepts the moral equivalence of these various laws, the increasing criticism of the free speech situation in Turkey will certainly not help the country’s membership bid in a climate when majorities in a number of EU states are already opposed to its entry.

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