Home Page > News Item > PEN International calls for changes in legislation to protect freedom of expression in Turkey

November 2012

Turkey has an extraordinarily high number of writers and journalists in prison, and many other writers, journalists and publishers are currently on trial or facing trial. Most have been prosecuted or face prosecution because of their alleged affiliation with or support for organisations that advocate violence. However, PEN International believes that a significant number of the writers, publishers and journalists who are in prison or on trial in Turkey have been targeted for what they have written or published, and that Turkey’s broadly framed anti-terror laws are empowering overzealous state prosecutors to pursue cases where no material links to terrorism exist. The number of cases PEN International is monitoring in Turkey has increased alarmingly in the past year: more than 70 writers and journalists are currently in prison, and at least 60 other writers, publishers and journalists, are on trial, ensnared in legal processes that can last years.

This recent surge in prosecutions of writers, publishers and journalists in Turkey is reminiscent of the situation in Turkey in the 1990s, when PEN International protested the use by previous governments of overly-broad anti-terror laws to suppress writers and freedom of expression.

Since then, Turkey has gone through a period of significant political and economic development
that has included increasing democratization, growing civilian authority over the military and, until recently, a steadily diminishing number of individual writers, publishers and journalists in prison or on trial for their work.

But the current increase in prosecutions of writers, publishers and journalists threatens to overshadow and undercut these achievements. PEN International is specifically concerned that:

The majority of these writers, publishers and journalists have been or are being prosecuted under the Anti-Terror Law which defines offences too broadly, is applied inconsistently across jurisdictions and has been used against writers, publishers and journalists who have not supported, plotted, or carried out acts of terrorism or violence.

Seventy percent of those jailed are of Kurdish origin or are writers, publishers, journalists and intellectuals who support Kurdish political and cultural rights. This includes at least 36 journalists who are in prison in connection with the case against supporters of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), under which more than 1,000 people are currently on trial.

The Anti-Terror Law has also been used to prosecute journalists in the Ergenekon case, including some who had merely reported on the police and the judiciary.

PEN International recognizes that among the anti-terror cases there may be some that demand judicial scrutiny. However, a lack of clarity surrounding judicial proceedings, the absence of public evidence and the widely varying interpretations of the Anti-Terror Law create the conditions in which security laws may be used to penalize activity that is clearly protected by Turkey’s national laws and by international laws guaranteeing freedom of expression.

In addition to the Anti-Terror Law, freedom of expression is suppressed under other laws as well. These include legal prohibitions on obscenity, praising offenders or offences, and incitement to ethnic or religious hatred. While some of these laws predate this government, and convictions under these laws have decreased in recent years, regulations such as Article 301—which criminalizes “denigrating the Turkish Nation, the State of the Turkish Republic and Organs of the State”—remain on the books, creating the potential for continuing abuse. Freedom of expression is also threatened by recent legislation targeting digital media.

A series of legal reforms over the past decade has brought modest improvements in protections for freedom of expression.

Under the July 2012 Third Judicial Reform Act, for example, judges can now offer non-custodial sentences and suspend trials and prosecutions against writers, journalists and publishers accused for their writings and publications in cases that carry penalties of up to five years in prison.

The impact of these reforms remains limited, however, because journalists continue to receive prison sentences under the Anti-Terror Law, and few media crimes cases have been suspended.

At the same time, structural and procedural practices remain in place that contribute to the high numbers of writers, publishers and journalists in prison or facing trial.

PEN International is especially concerned that:

The Turkish legal system imposes extremely long periods of pre-trial detention on suspects. PEN International is currently following cases of writers, publishers and journalists who have served up to four years in prison and still have not been convicted of any crimes. These conditions create an atmosphere of intimidation for writers and journalists, who risk lengthy spells in prison when they publish controversial but legitimate comment even if they are eventually cleared of any crime.

Even in cases without pre-trial detention, writers, publishers and journalists in Turkey face lengthy trials that may last for years. Many cases end with acquittals or minor fines, suggesting that the original basis for prosecution was weak under Turkish law. Instead, those who bring these cases do so to harass and intimidate the authors (who face draining, debilitating defences that can drag on for months or years) and thereby to send warnings to others.

The large number of writers, publishers and journalists who are in prison or are on trial under broadly framed and inconsistently applied laws, often in obscure proceedings, affects all who wish to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Many writers, publishers and journalists in Turkey have expressed concern to PEN International about a climate of intimidation and fear that is fostering widespread self-censorship. Many dread publishing controversial but completely legitimate opinions and ideas that are protected under national and international free expression guarantees. This climate is clearly at odds with, and a threat to, the emergence of stronger, more diverse and more accountable democratic institutions in Turkey.

PEN International therefore requests that the government of Turkey take the following actions:

• Undertake an immediate review of all cases of writers, publishers and journalists to ensure that none is being penalized for the legitimate practice of his or her right to peaceful freedom of expression and association.

• Release all those currently detained, imprisoned or facing prosecution in violation of their right to freedom of expression.

• Reform the Anti-Terror Law to protect freedom of expression, especially Articles 6 and 7, which are often misused to prosecute writers, publishers and journalists. The Act remains the most serious threat to freedom of expression in Turkey.

• Revise the Penal Code Articles that have been used to launch court cases over legitimate political comment or speech.

• Ensure that changes to both the Anti-Terror Law and the Penal Code make “a clear distinction between incitement to violence and the expression of non-violent ideas,” as recently suggested by the European Commission.

• Revise the Law on the Internet, which limits freedom of expression and restricts citizens’ right to access to information, again as recently suggested by the European Commission.

• Improve on the reforms of the Third Judicial Reform Package by eliminating unnecessary pre-trial detention and debilitating lengthy trials; introduce stringent means of vetting cases before trial so that weak indictments are not used to imprison, harass or intimidate writers, publishers and journalists.

PEN International celebrates literature and promotes freedom of expression. Founded in 1921, our global community of writers now comprises 144 Centres spanning more than 100 countries. Our programmes, campaigns, events and publications connect writers and readers for global solidarity and cooperation. PEN International is a non-political organization and holds consultative status at the United Nations and UNESCO. www.pen-international.org

For more information contact Sara Whyatt, sara.whyatt@pen-international.org, +44 (0)78 753 1071 738 or +44 (0)207 405 0338