Freedom of expression is hostage to the Armenian question

If Erdoğan or someone else said “You know how to kill very well,” to the members of an institution in Turkey, let us say against the military commanders, he would be charged with the crime of “insulting an institution” under the infamous Article 301 of Turkish Penal Code (TCK).

The other component that is also punishable under Article 301 is “insulting Turkishness.” Article 301 is a symbol of the lack of freedom of expression in Turkey. Many believe that this article was responsible for the murder of Hrant Dink. Dink became a target of ultranationalist groups in Turkey after being tried under this article. Some suspects in the Ergenekon case used to follow 301 cases and incited militants against the accused in those trials. Luckily, after the beginning of the Ergenekon investigation, we have not witnessed such hate-mongering campaigns.

This 301 issue had always been on the agenda of the EU, and every single delegation from the EU has raised their concerns and their wish for the annulment of this article. However, the government has made merely cosmetic changes and introduced a permission clause which stipulates that for anyone to be tried under this article the minister of justice should allow it first.

But why can we not get rid of this article all together? It is obvious that the article has been seen as the last bastion against undesired remarks about the Armenian question. For example, if someone says “Turks know how to kill very well,” he would be punished under this article. Temel Demirer, a journalist, has been on trial under Article 301 just because he said “The Armenian genocide did take place in this country.” Then-Justice Minister M. Ali Şahin gave permission for the trial, noting, “I will not let anyone call my state a murderer.”

Very recently, the Human Rights Agenda Association (HRAA), which I chair, made an application to the Ministry of Justice to get statistical information to find out what is going on under this article in relation to the permission process. The ministry gave an official answer to the request of the HRAA and stated: “As of 27.04.2009, 766 files had reached the ministry, for 73 files, permission for trial has been granted and 74 have been under review to be granted trial permission for the time being.” We cannot understand “for which statements” these permissions are granted. However, it is obvious from these numbers that that Turkey’s freedom of expression problem just continues. If a significant portion of these permissions turn out to be related to remarks about the Armenian question, I will not be surprised.

In my opinion, the biggest insult to Turkishness is the lack of freedom of expression in this country. Having this article and saying, “The debate about Armenian question should be left to historians” is not an honest approach. How can we discuss the Armenian question when there is a legally sanctioned ban?

The prime minister recently said: “For years those of different identities have been kicked out of our country. … This was not done with common sense. This was done under a fascist approach.” These remarks have a historical importance. But is it also a step to get rid of Article 301? Will the prime minister grant the Turkish nation the same degree of freedom of expression as he has been exercising? We will see. One thing is certain: We need a much broader freedom of expression to make sure that this “fascist approach” goes to the dustbin of history.