Law about ‘Turkishness’ is a diplomatic toy

Altering the ban on insulting ‘Turkishness’ will not help freedom of expression. It is better to get rid of Turkish taboos, says Fréderike Geerdink.

(published in daily newspaper De Volkskrant, opinion page ‘Forum’) 

The Turkish government is working on an amendment to article 301 of the Penal Code, the article that forbids insulting ‘Turkishness’. The European Union has been pressing for that for years, as it is deemed to restrict freedom of speech. After all, lots of academics, writers and journalists, among them Nobel prize laureate Orhan Pamuk and the assassinated Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, were sued and sometimes convicted for breach of this law. In fact they did nothing more than express their opinion.

Article 301 is however mostly a toy in the negotiating circus between Turkey and the EU. Of course it’s no coincidence that Turkey revives moves to change the law after the EU in December decided to continue accession talks with Turkey. Europe can be satisfied for now, but it doesn’t help the writers and journalists prosecuted in the past.
Article 301 is not the real problem. It provides the means for nationalist lawyers and state institutions, like the army, to sue people who are brave enough to criticize the official Turkish view on, for example, the Kurdish question or the mass killings of Armenians almost a hundred years ago. And it is the reason why the legal system cannot succeed in handling these cases independently and dismiss them right away by referring to the freedom of expression.

The nadir was reached with the indictment of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. He wrote an article about his wish that the Armenian community both in Turkey and in the diaspora should focus more on the future instead of on the past. He was totally misinterpreted  and was prosecuted and convicted for violating article 301, after which negative publicity drove a teenage nationalist to assassinate Dink with a few gunshots. In the demonstrations following the assassination, exactly one year ago on January 19th, article 301 was mentioned as indirectly responsible for Dink’s murder. An understandable reaction, but the real problem was the way Dink, as a courageous and pacifist representative of the Armenian community in Turkey, was wilfully misunderstood and indicted.
If article 301 is altered, there are enough other articles that can be used to take writers and journalists to court. All of them, just like 301, are vague enough to allow a broad interpretation. Articles 215 and 216, for example, which forbid setting people up against each other or stirring up hatred and enmity. These articles, and others, are already used regularly, and are even used very selectively against writers, journalists and publishers who oppose the common opinions.

To really achieve freedom of expression, Turkey has to get rid of  the fear of openly discussing matters that are still taboo. That includes not only the mass killings of Armenians almost a hundred years ago, and the way the Kurdish question was handled for so long (and still is handled). It also concerns the glorification of Atatürk, the power of the army and a too strong nationalism. In such a Turkey, even article 301 could exist without being a threat to freedom of expression.

Fréderike Geerdink is a freelance correspondent in Turkey

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