Freedom of Expression and the Failure of Reform in Turkey

Dr. Tim Jacoby*

Turkey’s incumbent Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) government was elected at a pivotal moment. The catastrophic earthquake of 1999 had energized civil society, a sharp decline in pro-Kurdish violence had resulted from the capture of Abdullah Öcalan (the now-imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkareni Kurdistan, PKK)) the same year, the 2001 economic crash, and a series of human rights abuse scandals had all combined to lead to what Ioannis N. Grigoriadis calls the “the corrosion of the state icon”(1). Initially dismissed by many as merely a protest vote more indicative of the secular center-right’s corruption and fragmentation than the Turkish people’s discernment, the AKP’s unequivocal victory was, in fact, a result of its success in capturing the reformist mood. The European Union’s decision to offer Turkey official candidate for membership status at the 1999 council meeting in Helsinki had inspired the previous administration to pursue the criteria for accession laid down at Copenha- gen in 1993 with three large reform packages, but the AKP promised to go much further. Its manifesto specifically referred to the need to bring Turkish society into line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Paris Charter, and the Helsinki Final Act.

Acting on the premise that “the more Turkey was distanced from the West – and the EU in particular the stronger would be the dominance of the army that treated the Islamic groups as an anomaly and threat, it brought forward six further harmonization packages which, according to the European Commission’s annual report, further “shifted the balance of civil-military relations towards the civilians and encouraged public debate in this area”(2). Prosecutions based on ethnic or separatist incitement were made more difficult to pursue, Article 8 of the 1990 Anti-Terrorism act which had been widely deployed to silence pro-Kurdish and religious activists was abolished and the jurisprudential scope of military courts was limited. Additional legislation strengthened civil society organizations (Law 5231, July 2004) and restricted the security forces’ surveillance powers (Articles 133-135 of the 2005 Penal Code), thereby improving human rights monitoring. Prime Minister Erdoğan accompanied these measures with several groundbreaking speeches in which he acknowledged the limitations of Turkey’s hitherto highly monist approach to national identity and a continuing need for greater democratization. Such an apparently profound shift from the emergency rule restrictions of the 1990s has prompted some commentators characterize the reform period as creating an ‘unprecedented political space to press for human rights and to draw attention to the need for political dialogue between Turkey and the Kurds’, leading to a ‘palpable “Kurdification” of civil society’(3). According to Murat Somer, this helped to ‘facilitate the expression of Kurdish interests and the bargaining, deliberation, and voting processes that are necessary for democratically determining Kurdish rights’(4).

However, these have not easily translated into greater liberties for Turkey’s citizenship in general and its Kurds in particular. The largest Kurdish-majority political party in the country, the People’s Democracy Party (Halkın Demokrasi Partisi, HADEP), was, for example, shut down by the constitutional court during the height of the harmonization reform program in 2003. Its successor merged with a party recently formed by the 1995 Sakharov Prize Winner, Leyla Zana (following her release from prison in June 2004), to become the Democratic Society Party (Demokratik Toplum Partisi, DTP) (5). This survived until December 2009 when it was charged with becoming a “focal point of activities against the indivisible unity of the state, the country, and the nation” and replaced by the equally harassed Peace and Democracy Party (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi, BDP). The same catch-all allusions to national integrity have also been used to ensure that the PKK’s switch from violence to civil disobedience following its ceasefire of 1999 did not result in a rise in illegal expressions of cultural identity. In May 2002, for instance, the Ministry of the Interior instructed the gendarmerie to search the birth registry for forenames that did not comply with the law – specifically the legal requirement that all children be named in accordance with “Turkish customs and traditions”. Some 76 prosecutions resulted that year. The harmonization reforms removed the registration law’s references to national culture in June 2003, but explicitly retained the prohibition of non-Turkish spellings.

Indeed, the letters q, x, and w (that are used extensively in Kurdish languages) remain illegal today under Article 222 of the 2005 Penal Code, despite the obvious ease with which “non-political” commercial entities (such as the national broadcaster Show TV) are able to claim a derogation (6). A similar process has occurred in relation to toponyms. More than 25,000 place names were “Turkicised” during the 1960s and 70s, the great majority of which were in the south-east. While attempts to reverse these by the Şırnak MP, Hasip Kaplan, have yet to make significant progress, the municipalities of Batman and Diyarbakır did succeed in renaming some of their thoroughfares and public spaces. These were, however, carefully circumscribed by the high court and the provincial governors’ offices. References to Halabja (a town in northern Iraq gassed by Saddam Hussein in 1988), insan hakları (Turkish for human rights), Zembilfroş (an early-eighteenth century Kurdish poem), and many others of the cities’ suggestions were, for instance, rejected on the grounds that they may encourage sedition (7).

Resistance to the reforms can also be found in the area of media dissemination. Despite now being fully decriminalized, Kurdish music has been regularly confiscated when deemed to constitute separatist propaganda or when vocalizing support for proscribed organizations (8).







Even greater obstacles have been placed in the way of Kurdish language broadcasting. Although legalized in 2002, it was not until 2004 and the launch of the widely popular Danish-Kurdish channel Roj TV that the TRT state network began five hours per week of minority language broadcasting (with the stated intention of ‘reinforcing the people’s trust in, and respect for, the state… as indivisible with its territory and nation’) (9). This was accompanied by legislation that permitted privately owned firms to begin Kurdish transmission, but licensing was impeded by the control board’s requirement that a series of complex profiling studies be undertaken before approval. When permission was finally granted in 2006, programming had to include Turkish subtitles (thereby preventing live broadcasts) and was limited to four hours per week (10).

The advent of a minority languages channel, TRT 6, in 2009 was similarly disappointing. Inaugurated with Prime Minister Erdoğan’s broken Kurmanci welcome (TRT şeş bi xêr be), its schedule has been carefully de-politicized and its staff, guests and focus have been accused of being mostly pro-AKP and almost entirely anti-BDP (11). The facts that it has been broadcasting to all areas that receive Roj TV and has been accompanied by a sustained campaign to persuade the Danish authorities to ban the channel have led some analysts to conclude that the initiative is principally ‘another tool for the state to assimilate Kurds by diminishing the intensity of Kurdish cultural symbols’ and by countering ‘the growing influence of [unregulated] Kurdish broadcasting’ (12). Indeed, by continuing to prohibit local stations from ex- tending their Kurdish languages provisions, the state is now virtually operating a nationwide monopoly.

Other forms of media have also been subject to considerable state interference, similarly preventing or distorting the implementation of the harmonization reforms. The courts banned, for example, more than 1,800 websites in 2008, including blogging exchanges such as WordPress and video-sharers like YouTube (on which there is a considerable amount of footage of Turkish state officials perpetrating human rights abuses) (13). Newspapers and periodicals covering Kurdish issues have been similarly targeted (19 were closed between August 2006 and November 2008 alone) and, while sometimes flouted, restrictions on the use of non-Turkish languages remain (14). In many cases, these operate at de facto (and thus largely unreported) levels rather than through more official de jure channels. A Bingöl human rights NGO, for instance, was instructed to replace its English language office sign with one written in Turkish. It was apparently felt that announcing the presence of human rights monitors in the town would impair the local council’s attempts to attract foreign tourists (15). Similarly, public safety instructions printed in Kurmanci and distributed by a public utility firm were seized by the gendarmerie on the legally groundless instructions of Diyarbakır’s provincial governor in 2005, while a human rights office in Elazığ was given an “informal” reprimand for distributing multi-lingual pamphlets during its 2009 campaign for the repeal of Article 301 (16).

The ad hoc and ex officio character of these interventions has produced some bizarre judgments. The dismissal of Abdullah Demirbaş (mayor of the multi-lingual Sur district of Diyarbakır) in May 2007 was, for instance, based on a ruling that ‘since the language of education and teaching in our country is Turkish and every literate citizen can read and write Turkish, there can be no reasonable justification for the provision of municipal services in any language other than Turkish’ (17). As the Minority Rights Group observes, this extraordinary statement ‘effectively disqualifies those Turkish citizens who have not received any formal education and thus cannot speak Turkish from receiving any public services’ (18). Although eventually overturned, it served to maintain the dissolution of the Sur council until the local elections of March 2009 (despite a constitutional requirement to organize a by-election within 110 days) (19).

It also clearly demarcates the limits of the much-lauded language reforms of the third harmonization reform package of August 2002. The right to a mother-tongue education to which it refers is not properly defined and has been left to the Ministry of National Education to interpret. The authorities insisted that new schools be created specifically for this purpose, that staff must hold relevant degrees from linguistics faculties (of which, none was offering Kurdish languages courses) and, through further regulations, that children under the age of 14 not currently enrolled in a state school are de- barred (20). Despite these restrictions, a number of Kurmanci classes were established during 2004, but within a year all were closed citing a lack of demand born of limited disposable incomes and abstruse application procedures (21). The BDP responded by announcing its support for a nation-wide boycott of the state schooling system until the right to a mother-tongue education is introduced. Inspired by Demirbaş, this was accompanied by what the party’s deputy parliamentary leader, Kamuran Yüksek, called the holding of ‘symbolic’ classes at demonstrations throughout the region (22).

Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence testifying to the debilitating effects of arriving at primary school unable to understand the medium of instruction. In contrast to the AKP’s view that ‘if you study and read in class, you will do well’, clearly depends on the language of the home (23). A former headmaster, now a BDP volunteer in Bitlis, recounted that ‘before coming to school, my family and I only spoke Kurmanci so, like many others, I learnt nothing in school until I was able to learn Turkish. In my case, it took 5 years, by which time I was at a significant disadvantage and thus ultimately unable to proceed to university’ (24). This very fundamental issue contributes to the fact that the region’s secondary school enrolment ratio is less than half that of the rest of the country and that the average amount of schooling for Kurds is 25 months fewer than the national average (25). As a consequence, the need for mother-tongue lessons is acute particularly for Kurdish women, of whom almost a quarter are estimated to be illiterate (26). In all, it is apparent that, despite being a founding signatory of the OSCE, Turkey is failing to meet the demands of its widely adopted Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities of 1993. Article 5 of these obliges participatory states to ‘create conditions enabling institutions which are representative of members of the national minorities in question to participate, in a meaningful way, in the development and implementation of policies and programmes related to minority education’ (27).

To conclude, it is obvious that, despite improvements relative to the parlous human right situation of the 1990s, the institutionalization of Kurdish identity remains, contrary to those that speak of entering a period of “post-exceptionality”, embryonic at best. Discourses on the pluralization of authority within the south-east, the formalization of Kurdish political engagement, and rise of civil society actors in the interstices of the PKK-state confrontation that regularly appear in the literature seem to be mostly relevant to changes that occurred during, and perhaps as a result of, the cease-fire of 1999-2004. Insofar as these have a legacy, it is difficult to link them causally to the overall direction of the harmonization reforms and the ways in which these have been implemented. Instead, it is important to note that the continuation of language and media restrictions, the neutering of TRT 6 and the failure to make the education sector more inclusive reveal the limitations of the constitutional amendments themselves, rather than simply the inevitable imperfections of implementation and transition. As the European Commission noted in its most recent progress report, ‘the Turkish legal framework still fails to provide sufficient guarantees for exercising freedom of expression and, as a result, is often interpreted in a restrictive way by public prosecutors and judges’. Consequently, the report continues, ‘full respect for and protection of language, culture, and fundamental rights, in accordance with European standards have yet to be fully achieved’ (28). Addressing these issues can only result from a new constitution that explicitly includes Kurdishness (and not the usual catch-all allusions to citizenship).

As TESEV point out, though, ‘a constitution based on democratic, egalitarian, and rule-of-law principles is no doubt necessary but not sufficient’ (29). It must be accompanied by a comprehensive legal commitment to multilingual provisions throughout the public sector. Courts, mosques, schools, the armed forces, council chambers, parliament, and so on must not only be permitted to use Kurmanci, Zaza, Arabic, and others, they must be obliged to provide them as part both of their civic service and of a more general recognition of Turkey’s diversity. PR


* Tim Jacoby is Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester.
1) Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, Trials of Europeanization: Turkish Political Culture and the European Union (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009).
2) İhsan Dağı, “Rethinking Human Rights, Democracy, and the West: Post-Islamist Intellectuals in Turkey,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2004), p. 143, European Commission, Regular Report on Turkey’s Progress towards Accession (Brussels, 2004), p. 23.
3) Kerim Yıldız, The Kurds in Turkey: EU Accession and Human Rights (London: Pluto, 2005), p. 30; Nicole Watts, “Turkey’s Tentative Opening to Kurdishness,” Middle East Report Online, June 14, 2004, pp. 3-4.
4) Murat Somer, “Resurgence and Remaking of Identity: Civil Beliefs, Domestic and External Dynamics and the Turkish Mainstream Discourse on Kurds,” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 38, No. 6 (2005), p. 618.
5) Zana served 10 years imprisonment (partly) for ending her 1991 (the year that Kurdish languages were legalized – in private only) parliamentary pledge with a sentence in Kurmanci: “I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people”.
6) Senem Aslan, “Incoherent State: The Controversy over Kurdish Naming in Turkey,” European Journal of Turkish Studies, No. 10 (2009), pp. 12-14. Numerous prosecutions for breaching alphabet restrictions continue. Former DTP parliamentarian, Mahmut Alıcak, was recently sentenced to six months imprisonment for using the letter w in a 2007 communiqué (“Playing Kurdish Card [sic],” Hürriyet, January 2, 2009. h t t p : / / w w w . h u r r i y e t . c o m . t r / e n g l i s h / domestic/10683033.asp?scr=1).
7) Joost Jongerden, “Crafting Space, Making People: The Spatial Design of Nation in Modern Turkey [sic],” European Journal of Turkish Studies, No. 10 (2009), pp. 12-16.
8) Ioannis Grigoriades, “Türk or Türkiyeli? The Reform of Turkey’s Minority Legislation and the Rediscovery of Ottomanism,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vo. 43, No. 3 (2007), p. 427.
9) For a broader discussion of this (and a slightly different translation), see Nesrin Uçarlar, “Between Majority Power and Minority Resistance: Kurdish Linguistic Rights in Turkey” (PH.D. dissertation, University of Lund, 2009), pp. 144-145.
10) Aliza Marcus, Blood, and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York University Press: New York, 2007), pp. 293-294.
11) The correct form is, in fact, li ser xêrê be. Prompted by Erdoğan’s words and the fact that TRT 6 had broadcast a translated speech of his a day earlier, DTP leader, Ahmet Türk, used UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day (February 23, 2009), to switch to Kurmanci during a parliamentary address. Although he avoided punishment (underlining the changes that have taken place since Zana’s ill-fated oration in 1991), the fact that television coverage was immediately suspended demonstrated an obvious double-standard (see Robert Olson, Olson, Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey 2007-2009 (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, 2009), pp. 172-176). Indeed, the channel has, more generally, been careful to avoid areas of contention by prohibiting songs that evoke particularly Kurd- ish historiographies. It has also been especially keen to offer coverage of the AKP’s March 2009 election campaign (to the apparent detriment of other parties) and unable to retain arguably its biggest star (the singer-presenter Rojin) who resigned, citing efforts ‘to deprive [her] show of any content” (quoted in Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere, “Turkey: Regional Elections and the Kurdish Question”, Caucasian Review of International Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2009), p. 293).
12) Emre Uslu and Önder Aytaç, “Can ‘TRT Şeş li ser xêrê be’ Secure Diyarbakır for Erdoğan?” Today’s Zaman, January 1, 2009. web/ Efforts to pressure the Danish administration have continued for some years and included, in April 2008, the fining of 53 DTP mayors for writing to Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in support of the channel. These endeavors succeeded in August 2010 when Copenha- gen announced that Roj TV had been indicted for ‘promoting the terrorist activities’ of the PKK (Michael Gunter, “Turkey, EU, and International Relations,” in Turkey Civic Commission, ed., Fifth International Conference on the EU, Turkey and the Kurds (Brussels, January 28-29, 2009), p. 70).
13) Claire Berlinksi, “Turkey’s YouTube Ban is Cause for Concern,” Radio Free Europe, July 8, 2009. http:// w w w . r f e r l . o r g / c o n t e n t / T u r – keys_YouTube_Ban_Is_Cause_For_Concern/177200 3.html.
14) Serhiy Holovaty, Post-Monitoring Dialogue with Turkey (Brussels: EU Committee on the Honouring of Obligation and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe, April 7, 2009), p. 7.
15) Personal interview, Bingöl, May 2010. 16)Personal interview, Elazığ, May 2010.
17) For the original ruling, see Kerem Öktem, “The Pa- tronising Embrace: Turkey’s New Kurdish Strategy,” Stiftung Forschungsstelle Schweiz-Türkei, February 2008, pp. 6-7. user_upload/dateien/OP_Oktem_08-02.pdf.
18) Minority Rights Group, A Quest for Equality: Minorities in Turkey (London, September 2007), p. 19.
19) Demirbaş was eventually acquitted and won the elections, but was subsequently imprisoned for five months having been convicted of new charges under Article 301.
20) Nurcan Kaya, Forgotten or Assimilated? Minorities in the Education System of Turkey (London: Minority Rights Group, 2009), p. 18.
21) US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Turkey (US Department of State: Washington DC, 2006).
22) Turkish Daily News, “DTP will Push for Education in Kurdish,” September 12, 2008. http:// push-for-education-in-kurdish-2008-09-12.
23) Personal interview, Bitlis, May 2010. 24)Personal interview, Bitlis, May 2010.
25) İsmet Koç and Turgay Ünalan, “The Extent of Internal Displacement in Turkey and its Consequences on the Child Educational Attainment and Health in Turkey,” paper presented at 25th IUSSP International Population Conference, Tours, July 18-23, 2005.
26) Kerim Yıldız, Rachel Bernau, and Julianne Stevenson, The Situation of Kurdish Children in Turkey (London: Kurdish Human Rights Project, January 2010), p. 96.
27) The full text of these recommendations is available h e r e : h t t p : / / w w w . o s c e . o r g / d o c u m e n t s / hcnm/1996/10/2700_en.pdf.
28) Commission of the European Communities, Turkey 2009 Progress Report (Brussels, October 14, 2009), pp. 18, 29. key_documents/2009/tr_rapport_2009_en.pdf.
29) Türkiye Ekonomik ve Sosyal Etüdler, A Roadmap for a Solution to the Kurdish Question: Policy Proposals from the Region for the Government (Ankara, 2008), p. 17.

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