I was the guest of a Turkish family for a few days. The mother of the family sometimes likes to watch Roj TV, the Kurdish channel that broadcasts from Denmark and has for ages been a pain in the ass for Turkish citizens and the government, which labels it as a PKK propaganda channel. The mother watches Roj TV I think mainly to get herself worked up over obvious things like the news from a Kurdish perspective, but also over the weather forecast for ‘Kurdistan’ which includes some Turkish territory. But this time when she switched it on, there was nothing irritating. There was a nature programme. She just looked and said nothing. So I egged her on a bit. I sighed and said: “Kurdistan is beautiful, isn’t it?” “What are you saying?”, she replied with gaping eyes. “That’s Turkey, not Kurdistan! Kurdistan doesn’t exist!” Then she saw my eyes and started laughing, and I did too. I just love it when simple jokes work out.
Yesterday, there was a trial in Ankara concerning article 301, the infamous Penal Code Article on ‘insulting Turkishness’. Thursday there’s one in Istanbul, Friday in Iskenderun. I get an update on trials that concern ‘freedom of expression’ every week. The trials are not only about 301, but also about other articles that are misused to limit the freedom of expression. In total, there will be six ‘freedom of speech trials’ this week, involving 66 people – that’s not a typing error, all together it actually involves 66 people.
In fact one of the trials takes place today, when 56 mayors from the southeast of Turkey who are members of the (pro-Kurdish) Democratic Society Party (DTP) will face court. They wrote a letter to Mr. Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, to ask him not to shut down Roj TV, a Kurdish language channel broadcasting from Denmark. Roj TV is considered a PKK propaganda station by the Turkish government. The mayors are being brought to court under article 220, which prohibits knowingly and voluntarily helping a terrorist organization.
Now, in other news today it was reported that the ruling AK Party will not be making changes to article 301 any time soon. One of the reasons is that the ultra-nationalist party MHP, as well as other opposition parties, will offer loud and strong opposition to changing the article. That would embarrass the AK Party at a time when it is embroiled in political rows about other issues (the headscarf issue of course is still ongoing, as are debates about the quick withdrawal of the Turkish army from northern Iraq). As for me, I’m not convinced that changing 301 will help freedom of speech a lot. Some politicians in Turkey feel the same way. They think it is not the law that is the problem, but the lack of ‘free thinking’ by judges and prosecutors. They support the training programs on freedom of speech that are offered to people working in the judicial system.
I agree. But I don’t think training judges and prosecutors is enough. The other thing that should change is the attitude towards people who criticize the official policies on issues like the mass murder of Armenians almost a hundred years ago or the Kurdish question. These people should be listened to, debated with, written about, and, in short, should be taken seriously. The state can do a lot about it. The army is one of the institutions which takes the initiative in prosecuting people. Even for a prosecutor or judge who has had all available training in human rights, it’s not easy to challenge the army’s power. Any politician likely to burn his (or, slight chance: her) fingers on this one?
(Update on the case against DTP mayors later)
You could have seen it coming: Turkey’s highest prosecutor will start a procedure to close down the pro-Kurdish DTP (Democratic Society Party). They are accused of taking orders from the PKK and promoting its aims and therefore being a threat to national unity. The DTP denies having ties with the PKK and says its aim in politics is to make a contribution to democratization in Turkey, but on the other hand they refuse to call the PKK a terrorist organisation, they call PKK fighters ‘brothers’ and the PKK ‘a valid interlocutor’. The party has come under stronger attack since ties with the PKK were revealed by its successful negotiation of the release of Turkish soldiers from PKK captivity.
More than ten years ago, in 1994, the predecessor of the DTP, the DEP, was banned for having ties with the PKK. As a result the DTP was formed, and when that is closed down, some other party will be established to take its place. In the meantime, Kurds will once again be unrepresented in parliament. The writer Vedat Türkali said when the DEP was banned, (and it reflects perfectly the current situation with the DTP), that closing down the DEP was the worst thing that could have happened. He explained: “We were trying to extinguish a fire, but they cut the hose.”