Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Fighting for free speech in Turkey

News from Turkey, EU ('Unity in Diversity') applicant

BBC News

Hundreds of writers have been prosecuted in Turkey for "insulting Turkishness", but Sarah Rainsford discovers that there are still some people willing to publish controversial books.
It is a very difficult time to be a writer in Turkey.
Last year the prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was murdered. This year, an ultra-nationalist gang allegedly had the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk on its hit list.
Both men had been prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness".
Today, many writers once known for their forthright views have fallen silent. But one man is still putting himself on the line in a fight for free speech.
I found Ragip Zarakolu in one of the dimly-lit corridors of the Sultanahmet courthouse waiting to be called for his latest trial.
A small man with grey curls and crinkled kindly eyes, Mr Zarakolu is a publisher on a mission to shatter every taboo in Turkey.
As a result, he once admitted to me with characteristic chuckle he is now the most prosecuted publisher in the country.
This time he is also accused of "insulting Turkishness" under article 301 of the penal code.
The case was opened after he published the work of a British writer. It was the story of the writer's family in 1915, when hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians were deported as traitors during World War I.
Turkey's taboos
Ragip Zarakolu is one of very few Turks to challenge the official line, but it comes at a cost.
Shortly before his trial I visited his office just across the tram lines from Grand Bazaar. In a basement beneath McDonalds I discovered an Aladdin's cave of Turkey's taboos.
Crammed on to shelves and piled high on tables and on the floor were books on every controversial topic in Turkey, and an American ambassador's memoir of the Armenian massacres side by side with books on Kurdish nationalism.
"My late wife and I began by publishing the history of the Turkish Communist Party. That was the first taboo," Ragip Zarakolu explained, a pretty unlikely looking subversive in his woollen overcoat and brown moccasins.
The book came out in 1982, in the wake of a military coup. It was banned and later burned by the generals as a threat to social order and Ragip's wife was brought to trial.
A decade later the pair shifted focus to the plight of Turkey's Kurds. It was the height of the separatist insurgency and the mainly Kurdish south-east was under martial law.
Undaunted by yet another court case, they then published texts about the fate of the Ottoman Armenians.
"We decided it was time to confront our past and discuss it," Ragip explained.
But in 1993 that approach was not welcome. Ragip's wife was sentenced to two years in jail - under anti-terror legislation - for publishing the work of a French scholar about the Armenian massacres.
EU accession efforts
Turkey has changed enormously since then, working towards membership of the European Union. But the trials of writers and publishers continue.
Ironically, the book Mr Zarakolu is currently being prosecuted for is among his least controversial. It tells how a Turkish official protected the author's Armenian grandmother in 1915 - a Turkish Oskar Schindler.
But the insult charge was brought as nationalist feeling began to soar here, partly linked to Turkey's EU accession efforts.
The Justice Ministry recently revealed that 1,700 people were tried under Article 301 in 2006 alone. The best-known cases have all involved comments on the Armenian massacres.
"If you believe you are great, clean, and honest it is hard to face something like 1915," Ragip Zarakolu explained.
"Our society has traumas that we are avoiding.
"Really, we should see a therapist!"
Fuelling discussion
What Turkey has instead is Ragip Zarakolu relentlessly publishing books that delve into the darkest chapters of the past. And, despite the nationalist backlash, he is sure he is making a difference.
His books are read mainly by students and academics, but they have helped fuel a cautious discussion on topics that were once utterly off-limits.
And now the law may be changing too, to protect people's freedom to do just that.
Under immense pressure from the EU, the Turkish government has proposed softening Article 301 on "insulting Turkishness".
Nationalist politicians are outraged, but for Ragip Zarakolu it was a well-timed move.
His trial was postponed until parliament decides whether the crime he is accused of should actually exist.
As we filed out of the courthouse into the sunshine, the veteran publisher was pleased. But he believes even a "reformed" Article 301 is dangerous, so his fight goes on.
"My wife went to prison for publishing the first book here on the Armenian genocide. Now I plan to print that book again and to include the notes from her trial," Ragip Zarakolu confided.
"Fifteen years later we'll see what happens!" he said.
Then, chuckling as usual, he wandered away from the court and down the street.

TURKEY SEEKS TO BLOCK KNESSET DEBATE ON ARMENIAN GENOCIDE By Barak Ravid, Haaretz CorrespondentHa'aretzApril 11 2008IsraelThe chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in theTurkish parliament, Hasan Murat Mercan, has asked the Prime Minister'sBureau to cancel a scheduled discussion in the Knesset on the Armeniangenocide.Mercan was in Israel this week at the head of a Turkish parliamentarydelegation for talks with their Israeli counterparts.Talks included discussions on Iran, the Palestinians and Syria, butthe main issue the Turkish delegation raised was an upcoming Knessetdebate on the Armenian genocide.Advertisement"The Armenian issue is very sensitive for Turkey," the visitors toldYoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman, two of Prime Minister EhudOlmert's most senior aides, adding that, "We would prefer if thisdiscussion would not take place at this time in the Israeli parliamentbecause it may harm the relations between the two countries."Turbowicz offered Israel's official response, that the issue neededto be resolved between Turkey and Armenia in a professional manner,through the involvement of historians."Israel certainly recognizes the strategic importance of its relationswith Turkey, but there are subjects and parliamentary initiativesthat are not related to the government," Turbowicz said."As a government, we have no interest in undermining our ties withTurkey.""I am convinced that Israel recognizes the negative implications thismay have on ties between the two countries," Mercan said.

EU WARNS TURKEY OF 'LONG WAY TO GO' BEFORE MEMBERSHIPby Sibel Utku BilaAgence France PresseApril 10 2008European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso urged Turkey on Thursdayto speed up democracy reforms, saying that "there is a long way to go"before it catches up with membership criteria.Barroso, accompanied by Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, wasvisiting Ankara amid simmering political tensions that pose a newthreat to the country's struggling membership bid."It is important to keep the path of reform," he told reporters aftertalks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "There is still along way to go... a lot of work to do."He urged Ankara to focus on improving freedom of speech, the rightsof women, trade unions and religious and ethnic minorities.Barroso said he was confident that two new policy areas would beopened for negotiations with Turkey by July, bringing the total toeight out of 35 chapters that candidates are required to complete.With his government under fire for slackening its EU reform drive,Erdogan reassured that Ankara was "putting all its efforts anddetermination" behind the country's accession bid."Our common objective is membership and we cannot accept any otheralternative," he said, referring to opposition by EU countries suchas France and Germany, who advocate special partnership rather thanfull accession for the mainly Muslim nation.A pending court case threatens Erdogan's ruling Justice and DevelopmentParty (AKP) with closure on charges that it is seeking to undermineTurkey's secular order and replace it with an Islamist regime.The case "is not common, to say the least, in a normal, stable anddemocratic country," Barroso said, urging the verdict, expected to takeup at least six months, should be compatible with European standards.Rehn has earlier signalled that Turkey's accession talks could bederailed if the AKP is banned.AKP supporters see the court case as a fresh attack by hardlinesecularists, whose prominent members include senior judges, themilitary and some academics, after the party's re-election for asecond term in July with almost 47 percent of the vote.The AKP has disowned its roots in a now-banned Islamist movement andpledged commitment to democracy, launching a series of reforms thatled to the start of Turkey's EU accession talks in 2005.But critics argue that the AKP aims to advance its Islamist ambitionsunder the guise of improving religious freedoms in line with EUnorms, and point to the abolition of a ban on the Islamic headscarfin universities and the prohibition of alcohol in restaurants run byAKP municipalities.Many Turks are frustrated with what they see as inadequate EU supportfor the country's much-cherished secular system.Keen to mend its pro-EU credibility, the government submited toparliament this week a proposal to amend a law the EU has denouncedas a threat to freedom of speech in Turkey.Barroso welcomed the draft as "a step in the right direction."The proposal aims to soften Article 301 of the penal code, whichcalls for up to three years in jail for "insulting Turkishness"and has been used mainly against critics of Turkey's official lineon Armenian massacres under the Ottoman Empire.The provision has landed dozens of intellectuals, among them 2006Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk, in court.Some -- including slain ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink --were convicted, but their sentences were suspended and no one hasyet been jailed.Turkey's membership bid took a serious blow in 2006 when Brusselsfroze negotiations on eight chapters over Turkey's refusal to granttrade privileges to EU member Cyprus, which Ankara does not recognise.Erdogan stressed Thursday that Ankara was in favour of a rapidsettlement to Cyprus' 34-year division between its Turkish and Greekcommunities, which lies at the core of the dispute.

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