In the early morning hours on Wednesday Parliament approved the long-awaited amendment to a penal code article criticized by rights groups, activists and the European Union for limiting free speech. However, intellectuals, journalists and writers say the amendment is not sufficient.
"This amendment is, of course, a welcome step forward and the commission now looks forward to further moves that change similar articles in the penal code, because this article was not the only one addressed ... in order to ensure in fact that unwarranted prosecutions stop," European Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio said on Wednesday.
"Now the Turkish authorities need to focus on implementation of the reform to guarantee full freedom of expression for all Turkish citizens," he told a news conference. The EU has said easing restrictions on free speech is a test of Turkey's commitment to political reform as Ankara looks to advance slow-moving membership talks which began in 2005.
While Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has welcomed the amendment of 301, labeling it "a step forward," Joost Lagendjik, the co-chairman of the Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Commission, said, "It was an acceptable compromise." Cautious in his positive reaction to the amendment, Rehn drew attention to other articles in the penal code curbing freedom of expression that should be changed. "This amendment is a welcome step forward, and the commission looks forward to further moves to change similar articles in order to ensure that ungrounded prosecutions stop," Rehn said, signaling that he would like to see the implementation before a full assessment. "Now the Turkish authorities should focus on implementation of the reform to guarantee full freedom of expression for Turkish citizens," the enlargement commissioner added.
A strong critic of 301 since 2004, Lagendijk said the amendment was an acceptable compromise in the face of fierce polarization within the Turkish community. Expressing his hope that 301 would not be used again, as the new version requires the permission of the minister of justice, Lagendijk said, "The new version has now come, to a great extent, to be parallel with other penal codes of EU members. There are similar laws in the Polish and Italian penal codes." However, Lagendijk made it clear that he was for the abolition of the article once and for all. "This will not win the beauty contest of the legal reforms. But I think the immediate effect will be that there won't be any more cases opened on the basis of 301," he added. Similar to the words of the enlargement commissioner, he voiced his concern over the other articles that could be used with the same purpose.
In its 2007 progress report on Turkey, the European Commission had also cited certain other articles of the penal code that need to be amended.
Changes the amendment introduces
The change to Article 301 of the penal code was approved with 250 votes for and 65 against amid fierce criticism from the nationalist opposition. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which dominates the 550-seat Parliament with 340 lawmakers, was the only party that voted in favor of the amendment, while opposition parties voted against it. The amendment has to be approved by the president before it can go into effect.
The article has been used to prosecute hundreds of writers, including Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, for insulting Turkishness.
After the reform goes into effect, it will be a crime to insult the Turkish nation, rather than Turkishness, and the justice minister's permission will be required to open a case under 301. The maximum sentence will be cut to two years from three.
Although no one has ever been sent to jail on a 301-related charge, the publicity of such cases has done great damage to individuals who were suspects in these trials. Some, such as Armenian-Turkish editor Hrant Dink, have paid dearly. Dink, who was tried for insulting Turkish identity in 2006, was shot dead by a militant nationalist in January of last year.
Defending the reform against criticism from the opposition, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Şahit said there would still be restrictions on insulting Turkey. This change will not allow people to insult Turkishness freely, he told Parliament.
Critics say Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose AK Party is facing possible closure for allegedly violating secular principles, is now keen to be seen as advancing Turkey's EU bid.
Opponents of Article 301, meanwhile, say the government-proposed changes are only cosmetic and will have little impact on Turkey's EU bid. They also state that there are other freedom-curbing laws in Turkey's penal code that need to be changed.
Parliamentary opposition to 301 reform
The bill, passed after eight hours of mostly late-night debate, had been delayed several times amid stiff opposition from nationalists.
Turkey's far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) accused the government of betraying the country's identity and instead pandering to EU demands that it reform laws prohibiting Turks from insulting their nation.
MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli told a meeting of his party ahead of the vote the reform would be a historical mistake. Slandering Turkey's honorable history, insulting the Turkish nation and the values of Turkishness has become a habit in the AK Party's political thinking, which lacks a sense of identity, he said.
MHP Secretary General Faruk Bal, in a meeting of the MHP's parliamentary group on Monday, said the problem with 301 was its image outside Turkey. He said 301 was introduced in the West as an article that incited the murders of journalists, referring to the death of Dink, who had been tried under Article 301. "Article 301 has been accepted as the only obstacle to EU admission, which is a lie," Bal said.
The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) also opposed the reform. The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), whose members often end up in court for expressing views on the Kurdish issue, wanted to abolish the article.
Article 301 has notably been used against writers such as Pamuk for comments on the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915-16. Turkey denies Armenian claims that the killings constituted genocide.