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This report is based primarily on research conducted by Christopher Panico, then a researcher at Human Rights Watch, in Turkey in August, September, and November 1997. It was written by Mr. Panico, and edited by Jeri Laber, senior adviser to Human Rights Watch, and Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. Parts were edited by Elizabeth Andersen, advocacy director, Human Rights Watch, and supplemental research was conducted by Kumru Toktamis. Invaluable production assistance was provided by Patrick Minges, publications director, and by Alexandra Perina and Joshua Sherwin, associates, Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch would like to acknowledge and thank the many individuals whose contributions made this report possible.

Excerpts from Relevant Laws and Decrees 111

You can say there is no freedom of expression, you can say there is press freedom, and you are right in both statements. It’s not like in a typical dictatorship—the borders are not clear, you can’t know where they are. The application of the law is arbitrary. But in many ways the arbitrariness is worse. You don’t know when you will get into trouble.

Ahmet Altan, novelist and political columnist

Something that occurred in 1985 is indicative of free expression, as well as the general level of democracy in Turkey. Emil Galip was meeting with someone from a foreign human rights organization and showed her a book outlining violations of human rights that had just been published here. The visitor lamented the abuses, but commented that things were not that bad if you could publish a book about them. Emil Bey called me later and was worried that he gave the wrong impression. But that is the situation here.

Erbil Tüsalp, political columnist, Radikal


This report examines the state of free expression in Turkey. It focuses largely on the print and broadcast media, and to a lesser extent on freedom of speech in politics. The report deals with the period from 1995 to the present; when necessary, however, earlier periods are also explored. Given the plethora and ideological breadth of the media and of political parties in Turkey, this study cannot hope to deal with each and every newspaper, author, or political group. Rather, it uses representative cases to highlight violations of the internationally-protected right to free expression.

The press in Turkey—in the vernacular of psychiatry—suffers from multiple personality disorder. When reporting on the vast majority of issues, such as domestic party politics or the economy, the media today is lively and unrestricted—indeed often sensational. Nearly all points of view are expressed, from radical Islamist to Kurdish-nationalist and dyed-in-the-wool Kemalist. The boundaries of criticism are nearly limitless when reporting on most issues.

Such freedom, however, ends at the border of a number of sensitive topics. Alongside the arena of free discussion there is a danger zone where many who criticize accepted state policy face possible state persecution. Risky areas include the role of Islam in politics and society, Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish minority and the conflict in southeastern Turkey, the nature of the state, and the proper role of the military.

Repression for reporting or writing on such topics includes the killing of journalists by shadowy death squads believed linked to or tolerated by security forces, imprisonment and fines against journalists, writers, and publishers, the closing of newspapers and journals, the banning of books and publications, denial of press access to the conflict in southeastern Turkey, the banning of political parties, and the prohibition on the use of Kurdish in broadcasting and education. Media owners and editors sometimes serve as ideological overseers, forcing journalists to practice self-censorship and, at times, firing obstreperous reporters and columnists. In addition, since mid-1997, the powerful military has started to pressure newspaper owners and editors to support its anti-fundamentalist campaign.

For its part, the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey for the past fourteen years, has exerted a deleterious influence on the press and press freedom. It has kidnapped and killed journalists, instituted bans against press operations in southeastern Turkey that forced most papers temporarily to close their Diyarbak1r bureaus, and pressured journalists working at Kurdish-nationalist papers to practice self-censorship.

Even when writing on sensitive topics, however, a wide latitude holds sway, and different realities exist for different individuals. Recent films, such as Reis Çelik’s Let there be Light (Is1klar Sonmezsin), a frank account of the conflict in southeastern Turkey, or the depiction of police torture in Mustafa Alt1oklar’s Heavy Novel (A_1r Roman), have pushed barriers.

Well-known columnists at mainstream papers can—and for the most part do—write critically on such topics, usually with little fear of prosecution. The introduction of private broadcasting in the early 1990s has also expanded the range of debate and discussion.

Journalists working at a Kurdish-nationalist publication, however, face likely punishment or worse for similar boldness. In 1997, for example, three journalists—two from the now defunct Kurdish nationalist Demokrasi paper and a reporter for the mainstream private television channel ATV—were arrested for interviewing two former PKK members. The state prosecutor charged that the trio of reporters had pressured the men to make their statements, which were deemed detrimental to state interests. The pair, however, had earlier given similar accounts without incident to other newspapers and to two popular television news programs. They even testified before a commission of the parliament of Turkey. The three journalists were later acquitted.

Timing also plays a role. During periods of liberalization, the doors of expression swing open, and repressive press laws, while still on the books, are often ignored by state prosecutors. During periods of crisis, on the other hand, such as an escalation in the conflict in southeastern Turkey, those very same doors are slammed shut, and state authorities invoke the full measure of the law, including against well-known journalists and writers. Oral Çalislar, a columnist for the daily Cumhuriyet, interviewed the PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and the head of the Socialist Party of Kurdistan, Kemal Burkay, in early 1993. His interview ran as full-page articles without incident for eighteen days. When the interviews were published in book form in September 1993, however, the State Security Court of Istanbul banned the publication and charged Mr. Çalislar and his publisher with “separatist propaganda” under Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law. The interview appeared in Cumhuriyet during an unofficial cease-fire, while the book came out during an escalation of the conflict in the fall of 1993.

Repressive actions are facilitated by Turkey’s antiquated legal system and restrictive constitution, which reflect the country’s more authoritarian past. The present constitution was introduced in 1982 by military authorities after the coup of 1980. It replaced the liberal constitution of 1961 which, ironically, was adopted after the coup of 1960. The penal code, while amended many times, was adoptedin 1926 and is based on the Italian penal code of 1889. Some of the amendments, however, actually increased penalties.

The legal system and the constitution are negatively influenced on two concepts: an omnipotent state and the ideology of Kemalism, introduced by Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the modern Turkish state. While some may indeed argue that such concepts were necessary seventy-five years ago when the Republic of Turkey was founded and certainly were not unique to Turkey, they have little place in a world that prizes the individual and seeks to make government transparent to its citizens.

The notion of an all-powerful state, which appears to exist as a goal in and of itself, is sown throughout the 1982 constitution. Until amended in 1995, the preamble of the constitution even spoke of a “sacred state.” Such concepts are also found in Turkey’s legal framework. The penal code, for example, grants corporate state bodies, such as the judiciary or the army, “moral identities” that can be “insulted.” Aptly titled, State Security Courts (Devlet Güvenlik Mahkemesi) exist to protect the state. In an effort to protect the inner workings of the state from prying eyes, civil servants are forbidden by law from speaking to the press.

The legacy of “Kemalism”—the attempt to build a homogeneous, modern society based on secular, Westernizing principles and a monoethnic Turkish identity—is manifested in the law either through vague warnings or, conversely, through absolute prohibitions. The preamble of the constitution, for example, threatens that, “No protection shall be given to thoughts or opinions that run counter to Turkish national interests, the fundamental principle of the existence of the indivisibility of the Turkish state and territory, the historical and moral values of Turkishness, or the nationalism, principles, reforms, and modernism of Atatürk, and that as required by the principle of secularism there shall be absolutely no interference of sacred religious feeling in the affairs of state and politics.”1 One statute of the Political Parties Law, similarly, criminalizes the creation of “ethnic minorities” while Article 312.2 of the penal code prohibits “incit[ing] people to enmity and hatred by pointing to class, racial, religious, confessional, or regional differences.”

Whether officially acknowledged or not, however, society has moved beyond many of the principles of Kemalism and the “sacred state mentality.” The myth of monoethnic Turkish identity has been exposed, and Turkey’s citizens are increasingly aware of their different ethnic backgrounds—whether Kurdish, Circassian, Georgian, Chechen, or Laz. Attempts to attribute dubious Turkishethnic backgrounds to non-Turkish groups, such as calling Kurds “Mountain Turks,” have been abandoned. Even in indictments to close political parties, prosecutors have begun to acknowledge the existence of minorities. Furthermore, some principles of Kemalism have been dropped outright, such as the belief in the state ownership of enterprises and central economic planning. In fact, since 1986, the government has been aggressively pursuing a privatization campaign. Transparency, the antidote to the “sacred state,” is sought by all, whether businessmen who want to change a Banking Law that conceals the identity of insolvent financial institutions or journalists who want the right to interview civil servants.

The principle of secularism as defined by Kemalism remains the most muddied and manipulated concept of all. Since the transition to multi-party democracy in 1946, all the center-right parties have appealed to religious sentiment in campaign messages despite manifest prohibitions to the contrary. Furthermore, in 1982, the military—ostensibly the guardians of the Kemalist revolution—for the first-time introduced constitutionally-mandated religious instruction in elementary and secondary schools.

The legal framework still lags far behind developments in society. Recognizing this, successive governments since 1990 have sought to liberalize laws that are used to punish free expression—without, however, addressing the underlying rationales for creating such legislation in the first place. Subsequent results have been palliative, at best. In 1991, the government repealed a law passed in 1983 that prohibited the use of Kurdish (Law No. 2932) together with Articles 141,142, and 163 of the penal code that penalized, respectively, writers found guilty of communist, Kurdish-nationalist, and Islamist activities. In place of these laws, however, the government passed the Anti-Terror Law. Articles 7 and 8 of that law are often used to punish free expression dealing with the Kurdish question. Furthermore, laws still exist that prevent broadcasting in Kurdish, teaching Kurdish in private or state schools, and using Kurdish in political campaigns. In 1995, the government was forced to amend Article 8 to narrow its scope, resulting in the releases of scores of writers and others from jail. In August 1997, the government of then Prime Minister Mesut Y1lmaz suspended the sentences of a number of so-called responsible editors who had been imprisoned on free expression charges. Despite these improvements, individuals are still being charged and imprisoned on free expression charges.

Every state has a duty—indeed an obligation—to maintain public order, and Turkey faces legitimate security threats. But that responsibility must be seriously weighed against the right of the individual to express his opinions and to argue for change peacefully within a democratic system.
1 Emphasis added.

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