FREE SPEECH REFORM SAID APPROVED BY TURK PARLIAMENT

ChristianToday, UK
April 30 2008

Turkey's parliament approved a long-awaited revision of a law
criticised by the European Union for limiting free speech in the
candidate country, but writers and activists say the reform does not
go far enough.

Turkey's parliament approved a long-awaited revision of a law
criticised by the European Union for limiting free speech in the
candidate country, but writers and activists say the reform does not
go far enough.

State news agency Anatolian said the reform to article 301 of the
penal code was approved early on Wednesday with 250 votes for and 65
against amid fierce criticism from the nationalist opposition.

The article has been used to prosecute hundreds of writers, including
Nobel Literature Laureate Orhan Pamuk, for "insulting Turkishness".

After the reform, it will be a crime to insult the Turkish nation,
rather than Turkishness, and the justice minister's permission will
be required to open a case. The maximum sentence will be cut to two
years from three.

But writers and publishers fear they will continue to face frequent
trials as they argue that the changes are minor while other laws
restricting freedom of expression remain intact.

Brussels had also given a lukewarm response to the reform. On a
recent trip to Turkey, European Commission President Jose Manuel
Barroso said it was a step in the right direction.

The EU has said easing restrictions on free speech is a test of
Turkey's commitment to political reform as Ankara looks to advance
slow-moving membership talks which began in 2005.

Defending the reform against criticism from the opposition, Justice
Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said there would still be restrictions on
insulting Turkey.

"With this change, it is not a question of letting people insult
Turkishness freely," he told parliament.

NATIONALIST OPPOSITION

The reform has been controversial in Turkey, where nationalism has
grown in recent years along with disillusionment with the EU. The
bill, passed after eight hours of mostly late-night debate, had been
delayed several times amid stiff opposition from nationalists.

Armenian-Turkish editor Hrant Dink, who was shot dead by an
ultra-nationalist youth last year, had been convicted under article
301.

Turkey's far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) accused the
government of betraying the country's identity, and instead pandering
to EU demands that it reform laws prohibiting Turks from insulting
their nation.

MHP leader Devlet Bahceli told a meeting of his party ahead of the
vote the reform would be a "historical mistake".

"Slandering Turkey's honourable history, insulting the Turkish nation
and the values of Turkishness has become a habit with the AK Party's
political thinking, which lacks a sense of identity," he said.

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) also opposed the
reform. The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), whose members
often end up in court for expressing views on the Kurdish issue,
wanted to abolish the article.

Article 301 has notably been used against writers such as Pamuk
for comments on the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in
1915-16. Turkey denies claims by Armenians and many Western historians
that the killings constituted genocide.