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Media allowed to use Kurdish language but still forbidden to discuss Kurdish issues freely, says RSF

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders hails the lifting of the last restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language by the Turkish news media. "This is an important and symbolically-charged step but its impact will be very limited as long as the media cannot tackle Kurdish issues without risking prosecution," the press freedom organisation said.

The government gazette published a directive on 13 November 2009 indefinitely lifting all remaining restrictions on the broadcast media's use of minority languages. Use of Kurdish had been allowed in the print media and the national public TV station TRT 6 since January 2004, but privately-owned radio stations were limited to five hours of Kurdish programming a week while privately-owned TV stations were limited to four hours.

Furthermore, all Kurdish-language TV programmes had to be subtitled in Turkish, which made live broadcasts impossible. As a result, the only TV stations that offered any Kurdish programmes were the local station Gün TV and, in the past two months, the satellite TV station Su TV.

"What is the point of broadcasting in Kurdish if coverage of Kurdish issues from an independent or activist viewpoint is banned in practice," Reporters Without Borders said. "The lifting of language restrictions must not be allowed to eclipse the fact that the media are still the victims of intimidation and self-censorship when they try to tackle sensitive issues."

The press freedom organisation added: "There will be no real progress for free expression in Turkey until the repressive legislation has been repealed and the media are finally allowed to tackle the subjects that the Turkish state has declared off limits."

More than 15 journalists are currently being prosecuted under Anti-Terrorist Law No. 3713 and criminal code article 216 (on inciting hatred) just for referring to the demands of the outlawed Kongra-Gel, also known as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), or for quoting its leaders, even in an article that criticises them.

The Turkish legislative arsenal - including criminal code article 301, under which "insults to the Turkish nation" are punishable by up to two years in prison - imposes considerable restrictions on democratic debate by defining the limits that cannot be crossed as regards such subjects as the armed forces, police, judicial system, torture, secularism and the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

And in practice this legislative arsenal allows many local judges and prosecutors to resist the government's declared policy of making Turkish society more open.

Around 20 charges of "spreading PKK propaganda," condoning criminal activity and being a member of an illegal organisation have been brought against Vedat Kursun, the editor of the only Kurdish-language newspaper, "Azadiya Welat". Although he has been detained since January, the first hearing in his trial was not held until 10 September; he will continue to be detained until the next hearing, which has been set for 2 December.

His lawyer, Servet Özen, told Reporters Without Borders, "he is in prison for comments that his newspaper was the first to make, but which are now being debated in all the Turkish media."

Pro-Kurdish publications are even silenced online. Access to the website of the daily newspaper "Günlük" was blocked on 18 November. "Günlük" itself, like the weekly "Özgür Ortam", has repeatedly been closed temporarily under the Anti-Terrorist Law, while "Günlük"'s owner, its editor and one of its journalists are all currently facing possible sentences of 7½ years in prison.

The newspaper "Demokratik Açilim" was closed in September, just a few weeks after it was launched to replace "Günlük", which was itself closed at the time. On 20 October, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Turkish government to pay several hundred thousand euros in damages to 26 journalists working for four other pro-Kurdish newspapers that had been closed - "Ülkede Özgür Gündem", "Gündem", "Güncel" and "Gerçek Demokrasi".

Even media that show little sign of sympathising with Kurdish autonomy demands are exposed to repression. Hasan Cakkalkurt, the editor of the Kemalist daily "Milliyet", and one of his journalists, Namik Durukan, are facing possible 7½-year jail sentences and fines of 9,000 euros for reprinting a local news agency interview with a PKK leader. The next hearing in their trial is set for 26 January.

Hülya Avsar, a famous singer, and "Milliyet" journalist Devrim Sevimay are being prosecuted on charges of inciting hatred because Avsar, who has Turkish and Kurdish parents, said in an interview that the government's policy of openness should not "under-estimate or ignore the rights of the Kurds" and that it would be "hard to convince the terrorists of the separatist PKK to lay down their arms."

Aside from Kurdish issues, it is still very difficult for Turkish journalists to criticise the behaviour of the judicial system, armed forces or police. Haci Bogatekin, the editor of the fortnightly "Gerger Firat", was sentenced in absentia by a local court on 18 November to 26 months and seven days in prison under criminal code article 125 for allegedly libelling the former prosecutor and police chief of the southeastern district of Gerger after he accused them of harassing his newspaper and colluding with Islamists.

Worn out by a legal battle that has dragged on for more than a year, Bogatekin did not attend the final hearing for health reasons. He wrote a letter of apology to the court, but the court ignored it on the grounds that it was not sent by registered mail.

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