ANKARA (Bloomberg)–Turkey’s parliament Wednesday altered a law to ease curbs on freedom of speech, a step designed to advance the nation’s bid for European Union membership.
The assembly in Ankara approved the changes to article 301 of the penal code today by 250-65, Deputy Speaker Meral Aksener told lawmakers after the vote in a televised address.
Article 301 has drawn criticism from the EU after prosecutors used it to try hundreds of people for "insulting Turkishness," including Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who was later shot and killed by a Turkish nationalist. The EU says it may halt Turkey’s membership talks if it fails to meet the bloc’s standards for democracy.
"This is certainly a step in the right direction, but I think a lot of people in the EU would have liked the clause to have been withdrawn altogether," said William Hale, author of a 2002 history of Turkish foreign policy, in a telephone interview from Istanbul. "It all depends how the law is applied. Other countries in Europe have similar strange laws on their statute books, but they are rarely, if ever, applied."
Parliament Wednesday removed the reference to "Turkishness" in the law, instead inserting a clause allowing court prosecutors to try defendants if they insult the Turkish nation. Prosecutors must seek approval from the Justice Ministry before starting an initial probe, which might lead to charges.
Turkey is inching toward EU membership and has started talks in six of 35 policy areas and completed one. The EU blocked discussion of eight of these so-called "chapters" to protest Turkey’s trade embargo against the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, an EU member.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, welcomed the "step forward" and "looks forward to further moves to change similar articles in order to ensure that ungrounded prosecutions stop," said EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn.
"Now the Turkish authorities should focus on implementation of the reform to guarantee full freedom of expression for Turkish citizens," Rehn said in an e-mailed statement issued by his office in Brussels.
Turkey is facing opposition to its membership in the EU from politicians including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who says the nation isn’t European enough in terms of its geography.
Human rights groups say the changes to 301 don’t go far enough and say the article should be struck from Turkey’s law books altogether.
"The government’s half-hearted revision is a real disappointment," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a statement on the group’s Web site on April 17. Turkey "has missed an important opportunity to reinvigorate the reform process and underscore its commitment to free speech."
People convicted of crimes under article 301 will now face a jail sentence of between six months and two years, down from three years in the old law. Judges may suspend the sentences.
The article has been used by Turkish prosecutors targeting people who question Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide, or who criticize Turkey’s treatment of its ethnic Kurdish minority.
Insulting parliament, the government, judiciary, the military or the security forces still carries a jail term, according to the amendment. Mere criticism of those institutions is not a crime, the law states.
President Abdullah Gul must approve the legal changes before they can be implemented.