The Japan Times
September 29, 2006, Friday

Half a glass in Turkey


The case of Turkish novelist Elif Shafak makes it hard to decide
whether the glass that is Turkey is half-full or half-empty.

Ms. Shafak is the author of a best-selling novel titled "The Bastard
of Istanbul." The book, set in the waning years of the Ottoman
Empire, features an Armenian character who uses the term "genocide"
to describe the Turkish deportations of 1915 in which almost a
million Armenians died. Turkey denies there was a genocide, and its
recently updated penal code makes use of that term, or others deemed
critical of the government, a criminal offense.

Earlier this year, Ms. Shafak was charged under the code with
"insulting Turkishness," punishable by up to three years in prison.
The glass certainly looks half-empty when one considers that this was
even possible, particularly in a country that casts itself as a
modern, secular bastion of democracy with credible aspirations to
join the European Union. Nor was Ms. Shafak alone. Her case followed
a string of others, including the arrest last year, on the same
charge, of Turkey's best-known writer, Orhan Pamuk.

The glass looks half full, however, since an Istanbul court acquitted
Ms. Shafak on Sept. 21, citing lack of evidence. It would have done
better to cite the simultaneous frivolity and menace of the charge -
and to remind prosecutors that censorship of fictional characters is
incompatible with freedom of speech - but the decision came as a
relief nonetheless. Its speed and clarity presumably makes it less
likely that the law will be used against other artists anytime soon.

Turkey's problem is that it is under pressure from two directions:
the European Union, which is urging the government to improve human
rights, and nationalists at home who would like nothing better than
to scuttle the country's chances of joining the bloc. Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted that the government might revise the
part of the code used to prosecute Ms. Shafak. Revising it isn't
enough: If Turkey is serious about freedom of speech, not to mention
the EU, it ought to abolish it. That would make the glass far less
murky.