Intellectuals sceptical as government lifts publication bans

Critics call for wide-ranging reform to secure freedom of expression.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 28/12/12

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The looming expiration of bans on hundreds of publications falls short of needed reforms to protect freedom of expression, media critics told SES Türkiye.

  • Journalists and human right activists protest in front of a courthouse in Istanbul during the trial of author Ahmet Sik. [AFP]

    Journalists and human right activists protest in front of a courthouse in Istanbul during the trial of author Ahmet Sik. [AFP]

Scores of books, periodicals, banners and other printed materials have been outlawed over the last half-century. Most were targeted for their political views, obscenity or contents that allegedly offended public sensitivity. Some of the bans were based on laws that have since been overturned, while others were issued during periods of emergency rule that have ended.

An amendment to the press law made last July as part of the third judicial reform package stated that publication bans issued prior to December 31st 2011 would be lifted absent a fresh court order issued within five months of the new law's publication. The deadline for new legal decisions comes out to January 5th of next year.

Defne Ozonur, a media expert at Istanbul-based Yeditepe University, said ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression make it hard to be optimistic about the reform.

"It is a tragic situation to free up some banned books while the writers and journalists of this country are still behind bars," she told SES Türkiye.

"A decision like this one would only be truly gratifying if provisions of laws enabling restrictions on freedom of expression and, more importantly, encouraging self-censorship were addressed and there was a government that could actually safeguard democracy and freedom of expression," Ozonur said, adding that the anti-terror law, penal code and press law especially need to be revised.

But Ayhan Sefer Ustun, chairman of the parliamentary Human Rights Commission, said the amendment allowing publication bans to expire was a long-overdue step to secure greater freedoms.

"The system used to outlaw books and publications up until present was totally wrong, so it was necessary to revisit the court decisions and appeals process," the AKP Istanbul deputy told SES Türkiye.

"We are completely against any prohibitive mindset. In fact, in the era of internet communication, it's not rational to restrict the spread of the ideas contained in those books unless they make a call for violence, extremism or hate crimes," Ustun said, adding that books criticising the government are freely available in Turkey.

Author Mine Kirikkanat countered that people who hold controversial views are still punished, highlighting the need for more wide-ranging reform.

"Lifting bans on books is a sobering comedy in a country where publishing an article about Darwin can get you fired and where there's still governmental pressure over Kurdish books or internet forums about atheism," she told SES Türkiye.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey imprisons more reporters than any other country. The government denies that the journalists have been targeted for their professional work. Instead, AKP officials have said they're locked up as part of a struggle against violence.

In a controversial case, copies of an unpublished book by journalist Ahmet Sik were confiscated following a March 2011 court decision. The writer was also imprisoned for a year before being released pending conviction. The book, The Imam's Army, addressed the alleged influence of the Fetullah Gulen movement in Turkey's police force.

During a speech at the European Parliament in April 2011, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied responsibility for the incident while comparing Sik's manuscript to a bomb.

"It's a crime to use a bomb and to use the components a bomb is made of. So, if there was necessary information, the judiciary gave the decision and told the police to go and take it," Erdogan said, according to media reports.

Referring to the courts' involvement in regulating the publishing industry, Sabri Kuskonmaz, secretary general of PEN Turkey Writers' Association, said that literary criticism should be left to readers.

"Although a court decision interdicts a piece of literature, its reader has the power and the best judgment to acquit it," he told SES Türkiye.

Muge Ayan, a professor of sociology at Istanbul Bilgi University, said the lifting of bans on publications was "for show" but took a more optimistic view than other critics.

"In my view, it's not possible to see this as an indication that Turkey's democratising," she told SES Türkiye. "But I find it important for two reasons: because it [helps] erode a pro-censorship mindset and because it opens an opportunity for differences to be seen."

Among the publications to become legal are The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, a volume by poet Nazim Hikmet, and a 1996 human rights report by the Human Rights Association of Turkey.


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