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Turkey: Parliament Approves 'Cosmetic' Free-Speech Reform

Journalist Hrant Dink received a six-month suspended sentence for "insulting Turkishness." He was later killed by a militant nationalist (AFP) Turkey's parliament has voted to amend Article 301, a controversial law that limited free speech by permitting the prosecution of people for "insulting Turkishness."

Under the changes, which must still be approved by the country’s president, insulting Turkishness would no longer be a crime, but insulting the Turkish nation could still land you in prison.

According to Amberin Zaman, the Turkey correspondent for "The Economist" magazine, the distinction between insulting Turkishness and insulting the Turkish nation isn’t any clearer in Turkish than it is in translation. That leaves many people wondering how to interpret the revision to Article 301.

"A lot of people are asking the same question, and the change seems to be more cosmetic than anything else," Zaman says. "Indeed, what is the difference? And equally, what do they mean by the 'Turkish nation'? Does it mean ethnic Turks? Does it encompass Kurds, as well? Nobody really understands what this means."

In recent years, thousands of people have been prosecuted in Turkey for “insulting Turkishness,” as set out in Article 301. They include academics, historians, journalists, and writers -- including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

Dink Assassination

Pamuk was tried for stating, in an interview with a Swiss magazine, that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it." The charges against Pamuk were later dropped. But contrary to his claim, Pamuk was not the only person in Turkey discussing the Armenian issue -- and getting into trouble for it.

In 2006, the well-known Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was prosecuted under Article 301 for insulting Turkishness, and received a six-month suspended sentence. He was subsequently assassinated by a militant nationalist.

The European Union demanded that Turkey drop restrictions on free speech as a precondition to eventually joining the bloc. The government-sponsored amendment to Article 301 appears to be an attempt to satisfy the EU, as well as Turkish nationalists. And in Zaman’s assessment, it will probably do neither.

"I think that this was a sort of balancing act," Zaman says, "and I think in the process they fell off the tightrope, because neither the nationalists -- who they were trying to appease -- sound terribly happy, nor does the EU. In fact, we've heard many EU officials, at least in private, complain that this was just a cosmetic change and didn't go anywhere near addressing their concerns about free expression in Turkey."

If the amendment becomes law, much will depend on how Turkish prosecutors and judges choose to interpret what constitutes “insulting the Turkish nation.” The one concrete change from the amendment is that the maximum jail time for the offense will now be two years, rather than the previous three.

But Zaman is skeptical that the amended law will offer more protection to those who touch sensitive political and historical subjects.

"I think we will continue to see writers like Orhan Pamuk and others who dare to challenge the official history -- be it on the issue of the massacre of Armenians in 1915 or the fate of the Kurds," she says. "I think that such prosecutions will continue."

The EU presidency, currently held by Slovenia, has issued a statement calling the amendment to Article 301 "a constructive step forward in ensuring freedom of expression." But several human rights groups say the amendment does not go far enough. They are calling for a change to other laws that restrict expression, including Turkey's antiterror law and its laws on crimes against the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.