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Arbitrary and senseless laws are seriously impinging on free expression in Turkey, according to an in-depth study released today by Human Rights Watch.

The report comes on the eve of April 18 elections in Turkey, after a pre-election campaign period characterized by many of the kinds of violations described in the report, including the prosecution and harassment of Islamist and Kurdish political figures.

"Elections are not the only measure of a democracy," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Some of Turkey's laws seriously infringe upon the right to free expression that is guaranteed under international law and are a sign that democracy and respect for human rights have a long way to go in Turkey."

According to the Human Rights Watch report, entitled "Violations of Free Expression in Turkey," Turkey enjoys a vibrant political and media culture in which many points of view can be expressed on most issues. No such freedom applies, however, to certain sensitive topics perceived as a threat to national security. Those who report or write on these topics risk repressive measures, including imprisonment, fines, or the closing and banning of their publications. Some journalists have even been killed by shadowy death squads believed linked to Turkish security forces.

In addition to restrictions on the media, political and educational rights are also circumscribed in Turkey. Political parties linked to the Kurdish and Islamist movements have been banned and use of the Kurdish language is prohibited in broadcasting and education.

The Human Rights Watch report also describes violations of press freedom by the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey. PKK repression ranges from the kidnapping and murder of journalists to putting pressure on Kurdish-nationalist newspapers to practice self-censorship.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Turkish government to repeal and amend all laws that violate international human rights standards for free expression, including:

The preamble of the constitution, which states 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..." Provisions of the constitution that give prosecutors and others the right to confiscate publications without first obtaining a court order (Articles 28.5 and 28.7); that allow courts to close publications (Article 28.10 and additional Article 2 of the Press Law); or that prohibit publication in languages "prohibited by law (Article 28.2)."
Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law, which prohibits so-called "separatist propaganda." Provisions of the penal code that prohibit publishing articles that "make people unwilling to serve in the military (Article 155)," "insult[ing] the President of the Republic (Article 158), "insulting the moral personality of Turkishness, the Republic, the Parliament, the Government, State Ministers, the military or security forces, or the Judiciary (Article 159)," or "incit[ing] people to enmity and hatred by pointing to class, racial, religious, confessional, or regional differences (Article 312.2)."
Article 8 of the Police Duty and Responsibility Law, which gives police the administrative right to close down plays, films, or lectures.

The report also presses the United States government, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, and the European Union to raise concerns relating to restrictions on free expression with the Turkish government and to insist on improvements in this area as a condition for enhanced relations.

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