Friday, May 9, 2008

Lackluster Amendment to Article 301 Passes Parliament

A surprise that the vote came so early, AKP pushed its amendment to Article 301through Parliament in the early hours of the morning on April 30. Watching the news break on German television while I waited in the Frankfurt airport, it struck me how much this debate has meant to Turkish politics in the past few months and how insignificant the change might really be in terms of actually stopping the prosecutions of journalists, academics, politicians, public intellectuals, activists, and a whole host of other individuals who risk prison sentences each time they say something that might raise the ire of some unknown individual somewhere in the country.

The amendment to the penal code passed Parliament with only the vote of AKP members. DTP refused to vote for the proposal because they considered it a half-measure and doubted the sincerity of AKP in really wanting to promote freedom of speech in Turkey. Although it is true that CHP and MHP viciously opposed the bill as insults to Turkish nationalism and a curtailment on necessary powers the state must take to protect itself from critics, AKP could have surely pushed for a stronger amendment. Unlike an amendment to the constitution, all that is needed to revise the penal code is a simple majority vote in Parliament.

Reaction from Europe over the past week has exuded ambivalence. Joost Lagendijk, co-chairman of the Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Commission, joined many other politicians in praising the reform measure, but like most other EU politicians, argued strongly that much more must be done to curtail restrictions on freedom of speech. Lagendijk said, "This will not win the beauty contest of the legal reforms. But I think the immediate effect will be that there won't be any more cases opened on the basis of 301." EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn echoed Lagendijk and pointedly noted that the real key to the reform being successful will be its implementation, whether the amendment really does render Article 301 prosecutions dead in the water.

However, if this implementation means the end to individuals prosecuted for critical things they say that might be interpreted as an insult of some kind, most will be very surprised. While the change might bring an end to 301 prosecutions, which is itself doubtful, it is unlikely to stop zealous prosecutors from filing charges under other laws that restrict free speech and do not require any sort of approval from the Justice Ministy. In short, if 301 is in fact more or less gone, prosecutors have a host of other legal measures to which to turn and that allow sentences just as heavy as the convenient Article 301 did. For an example, see the case against Atilla Yayla in January.

For criticism of the lack of change embraced by Article 301, read the April 17 press release issued by the Human Rights Association (İnsan Hakları Derneği—İHD), a human rights NGO based in İstanbul.

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