Turkey: Legal reforms fall short on freedom of expression

The conviction this month of Fazıl Say, a Turkish pianist for “insulting religious values” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the Turkish authorities could implement a new reform package that has the potential to limit freedom of expression, Amnesty International said. The “Fourth judicial package” – a reform bill confirmed yesterday by Turkey’s President and passed into law today, fails to meet the government’s stated aim of bringing Turkish laws into line with international human rights standards, including European Court of Human Rights case law on the right to freedom of expression.“This legal reform will go down in the history books as yet another missed opportunity for the government to deliver genuine human rights reform,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Director. “It is a small step in the right direction, but still a long way short of Turkey’s international human rights obligations as well as what the people of Turkey demand from their lawmakers.” Amnesty International believes the reform package will allow abusive prosecutions to continue, forcing still more political activists, journalists and human rights defenders to face jail sentences for carrying out their work.Urgent steps neededThe organization calls for the government to abolish the provision on “insulting religious values”, used against the pianist Fazil Say, who was given a 10-month suspended prison sentence for what were deemed offensive comments on Twitter. Amnesty also wants the abolition of Penal Code Article 301 on “denigration of the Turkish nation” and Article 125 on criminal defamation. None of the three were included in the government’s recent reform package.“Yesterday’s conviction of pianist Fazil Say for ‘insulting religious values’ demonstrates the need for Turkey’s outdated and restrictive laws to be changed,” Dalhuisen added.“It is not enough for the government to state that the reform process is ongoing, urgent steps must be taken now.”Open to abuseAmnesty International notes that several other Penal Code articles amended under the reform package could still be open to abuse, leading to further violations of the right to freedom of expression. These include Article 215 on “praising a crime or a criminal” and Article 318 on “alienating the public from military service” – both of which the organization wants to see abolished. The reform package also amends Anti-Terrorism Law articles 6/2 on “printing or publishing of declarations or statements of terrorist organizations” and 7/2 on “making propaganda for a terrorist organization”. Under the reforms, only statements constituting coercion, violence or threats are subject to prosecution under these provisions – but while the proposed amendments do narrow the offences, and may therefore prevent some of the abuses seen in the past, the amendment is still too broad in that it includes the vague concepts of coercion and threat without specifying a link to violence.According to international standards, only people making statements that amount to making propaganda for war or any other sort of advocacy of violence should be prosecuted.Amnesty International calls on the Turkish authorities to amend Article 7/2 in line with these international standards and to scrap Article 6/2 which does not provide for any legitimate prosecution outside what is provided for in Article 7/2.  Amendments also prevent the use of these articles and some offences under the Law on Demonstrations to be used in conjunction with Article 220/6 of the Penal Code “Committing a crime in the name of a terrorist organization” that allows persons to be punished as if they were a member of a terrorist organization. This amendment is welcome in that it should prevent some of the abusive prosecutions for “Committing a crime in the name of a terrorist organization” which have included individuals being prosecuted and convicted for legitimate expressions dissenting opinions in particularly in relation to Kurdish rights and politics through speeches, participation at demonstrations and association with certain recognised political groups and organizations. However, it does not address the broader problem of similar prosecutions being brought for “membership of a terrorist organization” under Article 314 of the Penal Code or other related provisions.Amnesty International calls on the Turkish authorities to abolish the offence of “Committing a crime in the name of a terrorist organization” and to address the broader abuses seen under anti-terrorism prosecutions by amending the overly broad and vague definition of terrorism in line with international standards.“Turkey has a history of broad and vague laws which have been applied in violation of the right to freedom of expression. Turkey’s lawmakers should have put an end to this,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey. “This reform bill afforded the Turkish authorities an opportunity to end the prosecution of individuals for membership of a terrorist organization based simply on the fact that they had written a book, or given a lecture, allegedly supporting the aims of a terrorist organization. Should we now understand that the government wants such abusive prosecutions to continue?” said Gardner. “Ending the abusive and unfair prosecutions under anti-terrorism laws is essential to achieve peace and justice in Turkey.”