Turkey's Censorship Could Harm Bid to Join EU

According to the PEN association of writers, about 60 publishers, writers, and journalists are under judicial process in Turkey. Many are charged with the crime of "insulting the Turkish state." European officials have warned Turkey that assaults on freedom of expression could derail the its bid to become the first Islamic country to join the European Union.


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Turkey offers a more open society than some Muslim countries, but that openness has its limits. According to the worldwide association of writers, PEN, about 60 publishers, writers and journalists are under judicial process in Turkey. Many are charged with the crime of `insulting the Turkish state.' European officials have warned Turkey that assaults on freedom of expression could derail the country's bid to become the first Islamic country to join the European Union. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Four years ago, columnist Burak Bekdil wrote a satirical essay, published in the English-language Turkish Daily News, slamming Turkey's judicial system.

Mr. BURAK BEKDIL (Turkish Journalist): The main thrust of the article was probably saying that without strong connections, an ordinary Turk would have a one in a million chance of a fair trial.

WATSON: Soon after, Bekdil found himself standing trial for the crime of insulting the judiciary. The judges found him guilty and this month, he lost his appeal to a high Turkish court to overturn a 20-month suspended jail sentence.

Mr. BEKDIL: In my case, the judges felt it personally. I mean, they're extremely sensitive about the ordinary people criticizing our honorable judges because they somehow feel that they're a privileged class, immune to any criticism.

WATSON: Bekdil is not the only writer facing these types of charges in Turkey. Fatih Tas runs the Aram Publishing House, which for the past four years has routinely put out books focusing on Turkey's long-oppressed population of some 12 million ethnic Kurds. Tas sifts through the stack of books he's published that have all landed him in legal trouble.

Mr. FATIH TAS (Aram Publishing House): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Tas says he's currently facing six to 12 years in jail for publishing the Turkish translation of the book, "Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade." The book's American author, John Tirman, is director for the Center for International Studies at MIT. On the phone from Cambridge, Tirman said Turkish prosecutors allege that his book insults the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.

Mr. JOHN TIRMAN (Author, "Spoils of War"): Now it is some of these things that the state is objecting to, the insulting of Ataturk, the likening of him to Mussolini, the criticism of Turkey's extreme forms of nationalism. The irony here, if irony is the right word, is that the Turkish state that I was describing in "Spoils of War" I thought had changed.

WATSON: For the past several years, Turkey has been pushing through dramatic legislative reforms, banning torture and the death penalty, improving women's and minority rights and limiting the interference of the military in politics, all this aimed at boosting its prospects for eventual membership in the European Union. Hansjorg Kretschmer is the ambassador for the European Commission to Turkey.

Ambassador HANSJORG KRETSCHMER (European Commission): We should not forget that what Turkey is trying to achieve in these years is rather a revolutionary change of attitudes which have been ingrained in Turkey for many decades.

WATSON: After much internal debate, last October the European Union agreed to begin a 10-year accession process with Turkey. But Kretschmer says that process is now in danger due to the recent crackdown on freedom of expression here.

Amb. KRETSCHMER: If one of these very fundamental freedoms is not respected, systematically not respected, then, of course, this would appear to be a major obstacle for the process of accession.

WATSON: The prosecutions have embarrassed the pro-reform government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has made EU membership its top priority. A senior Turkish government official accuses conservatives in the judiciary of deliberately opening politically oriented cases that tarnish Turkey's image. That's a view echoed by "Spoils of War" author John Tirman, who adds that he will not travel to Turkey now for fear of arrest or imprisonment.

Prime Minister Erdogan's own commitment to freedom of expression is dubious, say democracy activists here. Last summer, Erdogan successfully sued a political cartoonist for drawing the prime minister as a cat.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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