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Proposed bill promises to loosen restrictions on the press

(RSF/IFEX) – 9 February 2012 – Reporters Without Borders takes note of a government bill aimed at loosening Turkey's legislative straightjacket, especially as regards the media, and hopes that it represents a first step towards more significant reforms, or else its impact will be minimal.

“By finally addressing certain major failings in the Turkish judicial system, this bill is a step in the right direction,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This recognition of the shortcomings is welcome, contrasting as it does with the usual denial on the part of senior officials.

“But the bill envisages just a few adjustments whose effects will be very limited if legislators think they suffice and refrain from more thorough reforms. Patching holes is not enough. Civil liberties will not be properly guaranteed until the Anti-Terrorism Law, the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure are completely purged of the repressive attitudes that pervade them.”

Drafted by the justice ministry and approved by the cabinet, the bill was sent last week to the national assembly, where it will soon be put to a debate and vote. Its declared aims are to “make the services provided by the judicial system more effective” and to introduce a generalized “suspension of prosecutions and sentences in media cases.”

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled against Turkey for violating freedom of expression. The country's legislation and the tendency of the courts to prioritize security concerns are both largely to blame. Reporters Without Borders presented its recommendations on this issue in a report released in June 2011.

Generalized three-year suspension

The most spectacular aspect of the bill seems to be the suspension of a range of prosecutions and sentences affecting journalists.

“We await the releases of journalists with impatience,” Reporters Without Borders said. “But there will not be enough of them, because what are really media cases are more often than not defined as terrorism cases by the judicial system and most of them will be excluded from this provision. Furthermore, the many journalists prosecuted in connection with their writing who benefit from a three-year suspension will in practice be forced to remain silent during this period.”

Prosecutions and sentences for “media and opinion offences” committed before 31 December 2011 and carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison will be suspended for three years and the cases will thereafter be closed for good if the persons concerned have not committed another similar offence during this period. If they have, the suspended investigation or prosecution will resume. According to the justice ministry, this provision could affect 5,000 cases involving journalists.

The nature of the crimes covered by this provision is vague. Commentators think it will cover “disseminating a terrorist organization's statements” and “propaganda for a terrorist organization” under the Anti-Terrorism Law. If this is so, then the cases against Irfan Aktan, Ragip Zarakolu and Hakan Tahmaz will, for example, be suspended. Other detained journalists such as Vedat Kursun, Bedri Adanir, Ruken Ergün and Ozan Kilinç may also partially benefit. Some could even be freed because of the length of time they have already been held, but not those who have been arbitrarily charged with “membership of a terrorist organization.”

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