Turkey’s parliament softens law restricting free speech
By C. Onur Ant
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkey’s parliament approved a government-backed proposal Wednesday to soften a law restricting free speech that has been used to prosecute intellectuals and dissidents.
The legislators voted 250-65 in favor of amending that section of Turkey’s penal code, under which thousands of people have been prosecuted and 745 convicted since 2003, including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
The change cuts the maximum sentence for denigrating Turkish identity or institutions from three years in prison to two, possibly suspended for first-time offenders. The justice minister will have to approve investigation of possible violations of the law.
The new version also bars insults to the "Turkish nation," rather than the more vague "Turkishness" used by many prosecutors to clamp down on dissident voices.
The European Union has been pressing Turkey to abolish or overhaul the law as part of its campaign for EU membership. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been criticized for slow progress on changes to Article 301 of the penal code and other EU-backed reforms.
But Turkey’s opposition, resentful of what it calls EU interference in its affairs, wanted the law to remain.
"I am making this call for the last time: come back from the brink of making a mistake. Do not pave the way for insults to Turkish values," Devlet Bahceli, who heads the Nationalist Action Party, said before the amendment was approved.
Opponents of the change say the government-proposed changes are only cosmetic and will have little impact on Turkey’s EU bid. They also say there are other freedom-curbing laws in Turkey’s penal code that need to be changed, including Turkey’s anti-terror law and laws on crimes against the national founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Fatma Kurtulan, a pro-Kurdish party lawmaker, said it was "illusive" to believe that the amendment would advance free speech, saying that it was designed to please the EU but did not bring substantial changes.
"What needs to be done is to abolish (Article) 301 altogether," said Kurtulan.
The ruling party, which dominates the 550-seat Parliament with 340 lawmakers, was the only party that voted in favor of the amendment while opposition parties voted against it. The amendment has to be approved by the president before it can go into effect.
Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian journalist who was gunned down in 2007, was prosecuted under Article 301 for referring to the mass killings of Armenians by Turks in the early 20th century as "genocide."
Dink’s alleged killer was a teenager influenced by extreme nationalists, and mourners attributed his death to the atmosphere of animosity surrounding the journalist’s legal problems. Dink had received numerous death threats.
Pamuk, who won the Nobel literature prize in 2006, also went on trial for comments on the mass killings of Armenians, but the charges were later dropped.