2/02/2007

Office of Joost Lagendijk

Open letter to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and opposition leader Deniz Baykal

Brussels, February 1 2007

Dear Mr Erdoğan and Mr Baykal,

Tomorrow it will be two weeks since Hrant Dink was killed. Last week at his funeral more than 100,000 people made it clear they want to live in a country where writers and journalists do not have to fear for their lives if they express controversial opinions or touch on sensitive issues. Now the time has come for you to act.

After being present at the funeral I stayed for a couple of days in Istanbul: talking to people, trying to understand what the mood in the country was. Some were pessimistic, believing that there was little reason to hope for change, as similar tragedies have occurred in the past. Others were optimistic and hoped that the developments in Turkey over the last couple of years would make it possible this time to make a break with the past.

All of them made a link, in one way or another, between the murder of Hrant Dink and the climate of rising intolerance and aggressive nationalism that has been growing in Turkey over the past two years. Article 301 of the new Penal Code is a symbol, which represents this climate.

In your reaction to the many calls from the Turkish media to abolish or fundamentally change article 301 you have both used similar arguments. It is true that the Penal Codes of various EU member states contain articles penalising the denigration or insult of the state organs and the administration. The German and Austrian texts are among the most explicit. Insult of or contempt for the State is punishable by imprisonment of up to three years. In my own country, the Netherlands, insulting the authorities or a public body or institution can lead to imprisonment. So why is article 301 different?

There are two points. First there is the word 'Turkishness' (Türklüğü) in the first paragraph of article 301. This is an expression which you will not find in any European Penal Code: denigrating 'Germanness' or 'Austrianness' is not forbidden. In these countries, the issue at stake is insult of the state. It is the word Turkishness that led to the proliferation of prosecutions against journalists and writers in Turkey. It was for insulting Turkishness that Hrant Dink was convicted. The word is vague, open to various interpretations and lacks legal certainty for the Turkish citizens: what can they say, what not?

The second point concerns the reasoning behind the article. In the Netherlands and in other European states, the reason is pragmatic: it serves the orderly functioning of the public service. Due respect for the administration is important in a democratic society. It serves the general interest. Convictions on the basis of these articles in member states of the European Union concern insults of police officers on duty, threats against civil servants or against members of the government. The added value of these articles for society seems obvious, and they are consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights article on freedom of expression.

None of the high profile cases against writers and journalists brought before Turkish courts under article 301 correspond to this type of reasoning. The articles written and opinions expressed did not constitute a threat to the general interest. Prosecution of the authors was therefore not necessary in a democratic society.

You have always said: let us wait and see how the article is interpreted, let us see what the judges make of it. We cannot wait any longer. Hrant Dink was convicted for insulting Turkishness and his appeal was rejected. This conviction made him a target for his murderer. How much more proof do you need? Article 301 in its present form and with the present interpretation by the judiciary, leads to life threatening situations.

Assuming that is was not the intention of the Turkish government or the Turkish parliament to create such situations, there is only one solution. Apparently the legislators have not been clear enough. Therefore, the article needs to be withdrawn. If it is deemed that protection of the state against insult is necessary for the functioning of the Turkish democracy, an article should be adopted that no one can misinterpret or exploit for criminal purposes.

I sincerely hope both of you have the courage to confront those people in Turkey that want to break with the reforms that have brought your country closer to Europe. With so many more challenges ahead, Turkey needs political leaders that take the country forward not backward; leaders that realise that Turkey’s long term interests are not served by giving in to extreme and violent nationalism; leaders that are willing to lead the country in the direction of more democracy, tolerance and respect for divergent views.

Yours sincerely,

Joost Lagendijk MEP