The Turkish Problem

In recent months, the suppression of the freedom of expression in Turkey has reached new heights. An embarrassingly extensive list of journalists and writers are embroiled in the process of court sentencing, intimidation, imprisonment or legal proceedings. Among those cases has been the trial of Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk at the end of 2005 after the author claimed in a Swiss newspaper that 30,000 Kurds and one million Ottoman Armenians were killed in Turkey yet nobody would talk about it – a trial dismissed earlier this year by the Ministry of Justice.

The charges have been brought against many authors under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which prohibits “insulting Turkishness” or insulting Turkish military service. Recent court decisions have further exacerbated the situation for writers, following the appeals against acquittals made by Kemal Kerincsiz, a leading member of a high-profile right-wing organization of lawyers named ‘The Unity of Jurists.’ The charges of “publicly insulting Turkishness” stem from the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. After previously reviewing the trial of Orhan Pamuk, it is clear that there is now an extensive list of journalists and writers whose freedom of expression continues to be intimidated and suppressed.

Recent estimates produced by the EU-funded ‘Network in Turkey for Monitoring and Covering Media Freedom and Independent Journalism’ suggest that after only one and a half years of freedom of expression cases heard by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Turkey has already been summoned to make compensation payments of over 332,000 YTL (USD 207,500). The surveillance reported in the network’s second quarterly report, dated up until June, also says: “While the reforms on the road to European Union memberships were important steps for freedom of expression, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has not only ignored the grave consequences created by the Criminal Code in just a year but has even passed a new form of the Anti-Terror Law (TMY) knowing it only brought more sentences at the ECHR …” The report also goes on to publicly record 56 new freedom of expression cases that have been filed against 67 individuals from the period April to June alone.

In recent days, EU Enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, has demanded that Turkey rewrite its laws which restrict free expression, in particular Article 301 of its penal code – a word of advice which immediately followed the Turkish courts upholding a suspended prison sentence against the editor of Agos, Hrant Dink. Since the 19th July, Hrant Dink faces renewed charges from the Sisli Public Prosecutor’s Office following an interview with Reuters in which he declared his views on the Armenian Genocide. If prosecuted, the sentence will require him to serve his previously suspended six month sentence. I have also discovered that the Turkish citizen, Elif Shafak – author of Father and Bastard – also continues to face renewed charges of “insulting Turkishness” under the notorious legislation.

Alongside Shafak, the magazine writer Perihan Magden produced an article entitled ‘Conscientious Objection is a Human Right.’ Magden is awaiting trial but not without solidarity – Orhan Pamuk has lately taken to defending the controversial female columnist in the British press. Neither is Magden alone in court trials expressing the freedom of conscientious objection. Gokhan Gencay, working for the newspaper, Birgun, interviewed a conscientious objector only to discover that – like Magden – this reporting may soon lead to a three year sentence of imprisonment. Of those sentences, a terrifying trial awaits Birgul Ozbaris for her seven charges of news coverage on conscientious objection – if found guilty, she could face 21 years imprisonment.

There is a purposeful clan of intellectuals, writers and journalists in Turkey attempting to prove a basic issue: this basic requirement for the freedom of expression must not be meddled with. For a country eager to prove its fundamental liberal credentials, in addition to supporting a European package of equally accessible social rights, it might do well to celebrate those writers, not persecute them. All in support of one another, the collaborative clan are gradually being brought to the Turkish courts, tried on the charges of attempting to influence a fair trial. Murat Belge, writer for the newspaper, Radikal, was acquitted recently after criticizing the court’s decision to prevent a Turkey-based conference on Ottoman Armenians. Murat Yetkin, among other writers for the Radikal newspaper, has not been as fortunate – Yetkin criticized the court proceedings against Orhan Pamuk, for which the writer may now face a 4.5 year term of imprisonment. This new ‘free expression club’ of author’s has some way to go in order to prove a reform of Article 301 and curb the authorities’ intervention over free expression. Who knows – perhaps that impractical socialist cognoscenti club, the European Union, will increase its sanctioning power over the Turkish government until it can promise to not intervene and so enable to the conditions of free expression.

If Europeans are to insist on free expression, among other tenets of a modern society that each individual is able to enjoy, then they must provide its basic status and justification. That capacity to express oneself freely has been most ably articulated when it comes to propagating the personal freedom to express with regards to religious matters.

I recently began a debate with a blogger, writing my reply on whether I mistook the Turkish problem to be based – as I suggested – on the freedom of expression suppressed by Islam, rather than by the interventions of secular nationalists. I disagreed with the critic and in my defence suggested that if we remove ourselves from the specific charges – often meaningless – brought against author’s, and instead look at the meaning of the charges and why they are made, then I do think the Turkish problem is concerned with the suppression and intimidation of free expression vis-à-vis Islam. After all, author’s such as Orhan Pamuk had only been brought to court for disturbing Islamic orthodoxy in Turkey, discomforted by the open discussion on Armenian genocide and the persecution of the Kurds. The fact that the prosecutor, the legislative originators were not Muslims does not determine if the Turkish problem is about religion. It is about the intrusive status of religion in public life because of the nature of the charges. Free expression and the personal freedom of the individual are branches in the history of Christian liberal thought; a pattern of development severely at odds with the creation and modern inner-dynamics of the Islamic project.

Whichever way one chooses to look at it – and to give credit to my debating blogger – the free expression of differing religious, political and ethical doctrines must prevail in a modern European society. In the clearest doctrine on the freedom of expression, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty of 1859, it is clear that the most fundamental principle of a modern liberal society is the right to the “freedom of opinion.” The only possible exceptions or limitations to this rule, which Mill believed were possible, were if we were to impose severe harm onto others, even though he declared these exceptions to be rare. Any state intervention into a literary controversy is not a viable option for a modern government, in particular one hoping for rapid and fluid EU entry.