Free Speech on Trial in Turkey: Murat Belge Speaks

What is embraced in Turkey as valuable by the international community is anathema to Turkish nationalism.

Feature by Anna Battista | 16 Apr 2006
In March, the Human Rights Association of Turkey awarded the 2006 Ayse Zarakolu Freedom of Thought Prize to journalists Dogan Özgüden and Inci Tugsavul. Özgüden and Tugsavul founded the NGO Info-Türk in 1974, which reports on issues that are considered controversial in Turkey, such as the Armenian genocide. Info-Türk is based in Belgium.

Discussion of the genocide remains taboo in Turkey. Last September İsmet Berkan, editor in chief of the 'Radikal' newspaper, along with 'Radikal' columnists Erol Katırcıoğlu, Murat Belge and Haluk Şahin and 'Milliyet' columnist Hasan Cemal, were put on trial for criticising the cancellation of an academic conference on the issue. The conference should have taken place in May 2005, but it was stopped by ŞÃƒÂ¼krü Elekdağ, a Social Democratic Party MP, and Cemil Çiçek, the Minister of Justice. They called the event "treason".

The conference was postponed until September, but the evening before it was to take place the Jurists' Union, a Turkish pro-nationalist association of lawyers, asked the Fourth Administrative Court of Istanbul to stop it, claiming it would damage the nation's reputation. The court decided the conference needed to be postponed until an investigation could take place. In the end, the conference was held anyway at Bilgi University, the only institution that hadn't received a formal court notice.

Belge and the other four journalists were accused of insulting the judicial authorities under Article 301 of the criminal code and of interfering with the judicial process under Article 288.

Murat Belge, is editor at Iletisim Publishing House and Yeni Gündem, a weekly political magazine. He also heads the Department of Comparative Literature at Bilgi University. "The decision to charge us came with the justification that we had insulted the administrative court that had postponed the Armenian conference," he explains. "Of course, this prosecution is another travesty of law and, for that reason I do not have any misgivings about it."

The first hearing of the trial took place in February. "It was a sight to see," Belge remembers. "The group of 'lawyers' who complained about us insulting Turkish courts insulted and bullied that particular court, defied the judge and fought against the policemen summoned to take them out of the room."

In the end the trial was postponed until the 11th of April. Other publishers and editors will also stand trial this month, having been accused of insulting the state, its organs and officials or "Turkishness". Although the charges against novelist Orhan Pamuk were dropped in January, freedom of speech in Turkey still has a long way to go.

"Pamuk's case was annulled because of a technical detail about timing," Belge explains. "In that sense it cannot be considered as a model for the other cases. These trials are a source of embarrassment to the government and, eventually, all or most of them will be cleared away. Ordinary citizens have a lot of fear and do not have a high opinion of 'Turkish Justice'. Yet, at the same time, they are not terribly interested in these trials because the issues are quite beyond them. It's the usual 'I mind my own business' attitude, which is inevitable in a society where civic contribution is either deprecated or entirely ignored. I would say that students are supportive of freedom of speech and human rights, but there is a very strong militaristic-nationalistic reaction among them, because these ideologies are so deeply embedded in the education system."

Lars Grahn, Chair of the International Publishers' Association's Freedom to Publish Committee, stated in a recent IPA press release that Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code should be repealed in its entirety. Belge doesn't agree with this proposal: "Such articles exist in the codes of many 'democratic' societies. What is necessary is to purify it of ambiguous concepts, such as 'Turkishness', and to define more rigorously and legally what constitutes an insult and how that is different from criticism."
There is a division between politicians and intellectuals in Turkey, especially those intellectuals who have become well-known in other countries, such as Pamuk. As Belge puts it, "When Turkish nationalism creates such a particularistic, xenophobic and aggressive 'Turkish identity', this Turkishness rejects and is rejected by the value system of the international community. At the same time, what is embraced in Turkey as valuable by the international community, by the same logic, becomes anathema to Turkish nationalism."

Belge reckons that at least another 15 years will have to pass before Turkey will be able to become part of the European Union. But in the meantime, he sees plenty more chances to organise new events on the Armenian issue, "both in Turkey and abroad."