SARAY–Turkey (Reuter)–An American journalist formerly held hostage in Lebanon presented a Turkish newspaper editor with a press award Wednesday in a jail where he is serving a 15-year sentence for his paper’s stance on the Kurdish issue.
"We would like to present this award to you for your fight for press freedom in Turkey and to honor you for your courage and integrity," said Terry Anderson–head of a delegation from the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Anderson–a former Associated Press reporter held for seven years by Lebanon’s Moslem militant Islamic Jihad group–praised Ocak Ucik Yurtcu in a short ceremony at Saray prison in western Turkey.
Anderson–CNN television reporter Peter Arnett–Turkish author Yasar Kemal and Yurtcu hugged each other after the presentation of the group’s International Press Freedom Award in a sparsely-decorated room inside the prison.
Yurtcu was jailed in 1994 for a series of articles about a Kurdish campaign in southeast Turkey which appeared in the pro-Kurdish daily Ozgur Gundem.
"I would like to share the honor of this award with everybody struggling for press freedom not just in Turkey but all over the world," said the gray-haired–bearded Yurtcu.
He was the newspaper’s "responsible editor," which means he managed the reporting staff and was legally responsible for articles appearing in the paper.
Ozgur Gundem often published interviews with leaders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and drew attention to alleged human rights abuses by Turkish forces.
The paper was shut down in April–1994 for publishing "separatist propaganda." Nine of the paper’s reporters died in unexplained killings.
Yurtcu–like many others–fell foul of article 8 of Turkey’s anti-terrorism law which forbids the publication of propaganda from "terrorist" organizations–and article 312 of the penal code which bans "provoking enmity."
The CPJ says 78 journalists are in jail in Turkey–the highest number of any country in the world.
New Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz said at the weekend he would ask parliament soon to ease Turkey’s strict freedom of expression laws–often criticized by Ankara’s Western allies.
Turkey’s human rights record–along with poor economic performance and bad relations with Greece–have hindered its bid to join the European Union.
"It is not the people who are put in jail for their opinions who are the condemned–but the people who put them in jail," said Turkish author Yasar Kemal–himself sentenced for criticizing government handling of the Kurdish problem in an article for German magazine Der Spiegel.
"We have to believe that one day Turkey will no longer be an anti-democratic country," said Kemal–whose own sentence was later suspended.
Yilmaz said a draft law would be presented to parliament next week to release "responsible editors" held in prison on political charges.
"We have every hope Yurtcu will be out in a short time–in just a matter of weeks–all the government is promising this and I don’t see how they can go back on their promises," Anderson said.
But while Yurtcu and other editors will benefit from the proposed amnesty–many other jailed writers and ordinary journalists may remain behind bars–rights activists say.
"I know this is just a small step–but I hope it is not the last," said Anderson–kidnapped and held in Beirut from 1985-91.