Support freedom of press in Turkey

On 16th April Heidi Hautala addressed the General meeting of the European Federation of Journalists in Istanbul.[:]

 The focus of the meeting was the press freedom in Europe while Ms Hautala was asked to address the issue with special focus on promoting freedom of the media in Turkey.[:]

EFJ GENERAL MEETING 2010; Journalism and Press Freedom in Europe

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am honored to have been invited to address the seminar on Journalism and Press Freedom in Europe. I have often been on the same side with journalists in my efforts to increase the transparency of the activities of governments, both at national and European level. The Right to Know – or access to information – is an important condition of freedom of expression and needs constantly to be defended against secrecy.

To my disappointment I was not able to join you in the beautiful city of Istanbul, and will for this reason send my remarks via this video link.

Turkey is a part of Europe, and I have joined the informal group “Friends of Turkey” in the European Parliament. In recent years I have enjoyed reading novels by Turkish writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, also to understand the way of Turkey to Europe.

I would like to begin by making some remarks about the situation of freedom of speech and media in Turkey.

As I have taken it upon myself to scrutinize the freedom of expression and media in Turkey from the angle of modern and transparent democracy, I must begin by welcoming the evidently increasingly open and critical public debate in Turkey.

Vibrant public debate is the single most important guarantee of the progress in any society. In reflection of these positive remarks I must, however, point out that the Turkish law and authorities quite obviously still do not protect freedom of expression as is required by the European Convention of Human Rights. – Can I also point out that the European Union is now preparing its accession to this important Convention, in order to subordinate itself to external human rights control.

The greatest concern that remains in this remit in Turkey is the Article 301 of the Criminal Code. That article criminalises “denigrating Turkish identity in public” and can lead from six months to respectively three or two years imprisonment. While the article has been amended recently by the Parliament, it remains an immense restriction on freedom of speech in Turkey.

Also, even as it is known that this particular article is not used any longer systematically to limit freedom of expression, there are prosecutions being carried out and convictions imposed on the grounds of other articles of the Criminal Code in the remit of freedom of expression.

The reason I begin my intervention with this notion is that in this remit we must not shy away from the notion that freedom of speech and expression are the cornerstones of any democratic society. Turkey would benefit from vibrant and diverse media, should the restrictions be lessened.

Currently, as it has been observed, the political pressure on the media and legal ambiguities inevitably hamper the exercise of freedom of the press in practice. Let me point out here, that the biggest human rights crisis of the European states for decades, the rendition of people to torture and detaining them in secret prisons in the so called war on terrorism, was uncovered to great extent by the vigilant journalists. The press has been instrumental in debate about accountability and how the Europe should move onwards from these horrifying crimes. My aim as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights in the European Parliament is to revisit this issue until we reach clarity.

The situation of journalists in Turkey in particular in the discussion on freedom of expression in Turkey seems most distressing. The third quarterly Media Monitoring Report of 2009, covering July, August and September of that year, by the Independent Communication Network (BiA) Media Monitoring Board, lists a grim reading.

The cases of “incitement of hatred and hostility” and “spreading propaganda for an illegal organization” dominate the account, while listing prosecution of 190 people, of whom 74 are journalists. According to the report, amongst others, lawyer Eren Keskin, thespian Murat Batgi and author Edip Polat were each sentenced to one year imprisonment for using the term “Kurdistan” and Dicle News Agency (DiHA) journalists Ercan Öksüz and Oktay Candemir received 6 months prison sentence each for an interview with witnesses of the Zilan Massacre.

One can observe a disturbing pattern: authoritarian regimes all contradict sometimes very progressive constitutions by making use of their criminal codes against freedom of expression and other civil liberties. You can take note of this pattern in countries such as China and Russia. This is a major threat to human rights defenders.
Here it is important to note that there can be real democracy neither without functioning civil society.

While laws in Turkey governing the functioning of civil society are broadly speaking in line with European standards, the respect of these laws remains unsatisfactory. Indeed, it seems that these laws are not implemented sufficiently and that the civil society associations suffer from extensive scrutiny.

While stressing the important role of the civil society, I must note that I remain particularly concerned over the judicial harassment and threats against defenders of ethnic and minority rights.

According to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, due to the strong emphasis on nationalism the defenders of minority rights in Turkey have had to operate in a very restrictive, even repressive environment. It also seems they regularly suffer from harassment, including judicial harassment.

I remain deeply distressed about the situation of Mr Ridvan Kizgin, board member of the headquarter office of Association for Human Rights (İnsan Haklari Derneği, IHD) and former Chairperson of the Bringöl Branch of IHD, who is serving two and a half years imprisonment sentence for investigating and publishing a report on assassinations committed in the Kurdish village of Bingöl in 2003. These kinds of sentences have no place modern, democratic state.
Now, if I may, I would like to turn to the wider issue of journalism and press freedom in Europe and beyond.

The struggle for freedom of speech is global. We must not isolate the discussion in Turkey from that of Iran, Azerbaijan and Europe, just to name a few. In all of these countries and regions right to voice ones views has been under attack in recent years. As a side effect we have seen persecution of journalists and human rights advocates, arbitrary arrests and sentencing, inhumane treatment and even loss of life in many parts of the world.

The freedom of expression has suffered also in Europe. Most notably, France, Italy and Slovakia have all faltered in protection of this freedom. According to Reporters Without Borders the main threat here is the new legislation. Many laws adopted have compromised the work of journalists.

For example, recent law adopted by Slovakia has introduced the precarious concept of an automatic right of response and has given the culture minister considerable influence over publications.

Furthermore, there are reports that journalists have been physically threatened in Italy, Spain and in the Balkans, especially in Croatia. In part this harassment is linked to organized crime and mafia in countries like Italy and Bulgaria. France allowed for judicial investigations and arrests of journalists and raids on news media and President Nicolas Sarkozy and other politicians interfered in these cases more than was acceptable.

When the EU fails to keep a good example in respecting civil liberties at home, it has no credibility in condemning human rights violations abroad. To have leverage in promotion of freedom of speech abroad, Europe should first set an example of itself concerning the respect of civil liberties. We in the Europe must not forget that journalism and press freedom must be defended everywhere in the world with the same conviction and the same perseverance.
European Parliament has taken strong stance in protection of human rights in the face of these violations. I will give you some examples.

The European Parliament strongly condemned the brutal crackdown on the Green movement after the Iranian election last year. In a resolution adopted February 10, the Parliament condemned Iran’s “jamming of international radio and TV networks, many international websites, including Facebook and Twitter, as well as local opposition sites and mobile-phone services in Tehran, thereby also causing transmission problems on networks in other Middle Eastern countries and even in Europe”.

Furthermore, the resolution “strongly criticizes international companies, and notably Nokia/Siemens, for providing the Iranian authorities with the necessary censorship and surveillance technology, thus being instrumental to persecution and arrests of Iranian dissidents”.

In addition, the European Parliament called on the EU institutions immediately to “ban the export of surveillance technology by European companies to governments and countries such as Iran”.

After the resolution was passed the Parliament I, coming from a country also called Nokia-land, was contacted by Nokia/Siemens, and we are now discussing possible ways to remedy the situation. I have every hope that as a result we will succeed to achieve better EU telecommunication standards concerning the use and abuse of lawful interception. Also, one should think of a sales ban of monitoring devices to authoritarian or otherwise unstable regimes.

As another example, I held on 17th March an event at the Parliament, together with Reporters Without Borders, to discuss the freedom of Russian speaking media in Europe. I felt it was necessary to discuss the extent of state control of the media outlets in Russia after, seemingly, under pressure from the Kremlin, Eutelsat, the leading European satellite operator, refused to transmit the new Russian-language television channel Perviy Kavkazskiy (1K).

This in effect leaves satellite transmission monopoly over Russian-language audience in the hands of the Russian state. Moreover, discussion relating to Eutelsat, which is partly owned by the French government, seemed necessary after it appeared that this instance of censorship by Eutelsat is only the most recent of a series of such cases. Independent media outlets have been closed with various technical explanations before in equally oppressive China and Iran.

With the new Treaty of Lisbon in place the European Parliament has more powers to look into how the EU functions both within and outside its borders. The Parliament has already demanded better respect for civil liberties by the EU. The best example is the case of SWIFT, where the EU tried to make an agreement with the US government concerning data transfer of EU- and other citizens. The European Parliament did not accept this and the agreement was abandoned. The European Commission`s new negotiating mandate takes into account nearly all of the Parliament´s concerns.

This proves that the European Parliament is determined to use its new powers and as the Chairwoman of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights I intend to oversee that this activity will guard human rights to the highest benchmark.

I would lastly like to touch upon one critical issue in the area of journalism and public debate, the interpretation of the past events.

There is always a debate on whose version of events is right and whose version of the course of history is wrong. It can also be seen as an issue about the right to speak up: who has the right to speak up, say what and about whose past. One single group should not claim to have the exclusive right to interpret the truth.

But a multifaceted view of the events of the past is needed. We should be absolutely clear about the fact that only truly democratic systems can guarantee the best grounds for such a view. In this context it is interesting to note, that all authoritarian states have undeniable similarities in the way they deny and reinterpret their past violations, but that is another discussion altogether.

All of the societies need a comprehensive research account of the wrongs committed in the past. The injustices need to be assessed via an unrestrained dialogue in order to find the best possible solutions. Much of this responsibility rests upon the journalists and free press.
I am convinced that the awareness of history is one of the key preconditions of avoiding violations of human rights in the present and future. Societies that neglect the past have no future.

An excellent example of this is the recent adoption by the Serbian Parliament of the declaration on Srebrenica and apology there attached. Here we should also note the way Russia and Poland have grown to respect the memory of the Polish civilians and soldiers killed in the Katyn massacre by the Soviet officials in 1940. It seems that at times great tragedies can also lead to greater mutual understanding.

In this vein I encourage all of you and your colleagues to be guided by wise words of the late President of Estonia, Lennart Meri: “We can forgive, but we can never forget.”