Gov’t to expand freedom of speech, avoid hate crime loopholes

Ankara, Turkey - The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, which introduced a democratization package over the summer to resolve Turkey's decades-long Kurdish problem, is now working on a reform package that will expand freedom of speech in Turkey and will include precautionary measures to prevent gaps that could lead to hate crimes.

In its latest progress report released in October, the European Union, which Turkey aspires to join, asked Turkey to expand freedom of speech in the country, noting that this expansion should not be at a level that would encourage hate crimes. The bloc found the amendment of a much-debated Turkish Penal Code (TCK) article, Article 301, which criminalized insulting Turkishness, insufficient for maintaining freedom of speech in Turkey. After drafting the democratization package, which includes steps to solve the Kurdish problem, the Interior Ministry formed a team to work on the reform package addressing the expansion of freedom of speech.

This reform package is seen as one of the significant legs of the democratization initiative.

In order to establish a balance between freedom of speech and the possibility of it leading to hate crimes, this team, which includes experts from the Interior Ministry and jurists from the Justice Ministry, has been working on amendments to the 215th, 216th, 220th and 301st articles of the TCK.

The majority of European Court of Human Rights verdicts against Turkey over the past decade involve cases in which Turkey charged its citizens with violating freedom of speech as stipulated by the TCK and these citizens then turning to the European court for redress. Most of the cases violating freedom of speech in Turkey were launched based on Article 216, which prescribes jail sentences of one to three years for presenting a clear and present danger to public security and for instigating hatred and enmity between one segment of society and another on the basis of social class, race, religion, sect or regional characteristics. The number of these cases increased significantly.

As recently as September a probe was launched into Turkish celebrity Hülya Avşar by public prosecutor Ali Kılıç following her remarks in an interview expressing support for the government’s democratic initiative. In the interview, the celebrity said she is a Turk, adding that to ignore the existence of Kurds in Turkey and put ethnic pressure on them is wrong. After the interview, Kılıç launched an investigation into Avşar’s remarks on the charges of inciting people to hatred and enmity. The launch of a case against Avşar drew widespread criticism from the public.

Content of reform package

The reform package also includes amendments to the Political Parties Law, the Election Law, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) Law and the Counterterrorism Act.

The amendment to be made to the Political Parties Law for the expansion of the scope of freedom of speech foresees the amendment of an article titled “Prevention of the Creation of Minorities.” Thanks to this amendment, politicians will be able to use a language other than Turkish in materials such as banners, placards and brochures they use in election campaigns. But the language to be used in such materials will be one that is spoken in that region.

Another change is planned for Article 318, which rules against discouraging people from performing their military service. Anyone who discourages the performance of military service is to receive a two-year prison sentence. If the act is committed through press organs, then the sentence is increased by one-half. The European court asked Turkey to amend the article in 2007, which was a driving force behind the government’s decision to include the change in its new reform package.

The government is also considering amending Article 7 of the TCK, which stipulates a jail term from one to five years for anyone who spreads the propaganda of a terrorist organization. If the act is committed through press organs, then the sentence is increased by one-half. Members of the press who publish the propaganda face fines. After this article is amended, cases will be opened against media organs that encourage the use of violence.

Another TCK law to be amended deals with crimes committed against symbols of state sovereignty and the dignity of state organs. Hurdles presented by this law to freedom of the press and expression will be removed through amendments.

Amendments will also be made to the TCK law addressing crimes committed against public peace. Article 215 concerns praising crime and criminals and envisages up to two years in prison for those praising a crime or a criminal for a crime they committed. This article is seen as one of the major obstacles to freedom of speech in Turkey.

Article 220, which states, “Any person who commits a crime in the name of an organization, even if there is no membership, shall also be punished for the crime of being a member of the organization,” will be among the articles to be amended.

The RTÜK Law will see restrictions on broadcasts in the mother tongue removed. Furthermore, politicians will be allowed to campaign in elections via TV.