It looks like the attention being paid to Turkey’s abysmal record on speech issues has finally created enough noise to get the government to sit up and take notice. Deputy PM Bülent Arınç said on Saturday that there is a draft law in the works that will change the Anti-Terror Law, which criminalizes making “propaganda” on behalf of a terrorist organization, to have “propaganda” be interpreted more loosely. According to Arınç, he does not want to see any journalists in jail, and he claimed that this issue has been discussed in cabinet meetings and should be resolved soon, although he did not hesitate to add that no parties save the BDP want to see the Anti-Terrorism Law scrapped entirely.
The good news here is that it appears that the efforts of NGOs to highlight the detestable state of press freedom in Turkey are having an effect. Arınç cited the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute, both of whom recently have called out Ankara for jailing journalists. When the CPJ issued its report in October, I was critical of the organization for not calling attention to this issue sooner and for actually providing cover to Turkey in the past by downplaying the scope of the problem. Thankfully Ankara is sufficiently worried about the CPJ report to feel the need to address it publicly, which is why Arınç was trotted out there to talk about how terrible it is for even one journalist to be wrongly imprisoned. If the Turkish government didn’t feel some heat over this issue, it would still be doing what it did when the report was released in October, which is try to sweep the whole thing under the table.
Nevertheless, I am highly skeptical that Arınç’s public relations offensive represents a genuine move to ameliorate Turkey’s draconian treatment of the press. It is difficult to imagine that Prime Minister Erdoğan and his cabinet are seriously considering amending the Anti-Terrorism Law to make it easier for journalists to report on Kurdish issues and to criticize the government at the same time that Erdoğan is calling for the creators of a soap opera to be prosecuted because he doesn’t like the way they are portraying Ottomans sultans, or when members of his government are introducing bills to not only ban the show but to educate Turkish filmmakers on proper Turkish values and morals. On the one hand, the AKP wants to shut down any speech that it finds objectionable in any way at all, and the on the other hand it wants you to believe that it is going to loosen restrictions on speech that it has long claimed to be a security threat that is equivalent to terrorism. It also beggars belief that Erdoğan is considering any real amendments to Articles 6 and 7 of the terrorism law at the same time that dozens of Kurdish politicians are being arrested under these very same provisions and the prime minister is trying to strip BDP deputies of their parliamentary immunity. That Arınç can even say with a straight face that he has a draft of a revised law on his desk and that he hopes it can be passed soon when the campaign to sweep up even more people under these very same articles he claims to want to revise is being prosecuted with even greater ferocity is outrageous. It’s as if the government thinks people have no capacity to independently judge what is taking place, and that everyone should just trust that they will do the right thing despite having no track record worthy of garnering trust.
Furthermore, Arınç’s claim that the law is going to be reinterpreted is a specious one even if you set aside the government’s recent actions. As noted above, after saying that the government was going to relax the law, he made it very clear that the law is here to stay, that all parties other than the Kurdish BDP support it, and that propaganda is going to remain a crime if it lauds terrorism or violence. So, based on Arınç’s interpretation of things, right now Turkey has a law on the books which it uses to throw journalists in prison by claiming that their reporting has supported terrorism, and after these alleged revisions that the government is debating, Turkey will still have a law on the books that will allow it throw journalists in prison by claiming that their reporting has supported terrorism. I fail to see what Arınç claims is going to be tangibly changed aside from a loose promise to reinterpret the word propaganda, which is a meaningless and empty promise if the law as it is currently written is not significantly altered or done away with. In short, given the government’s continuing assault on free speech of all varieties and arrests of Kurdish journalists and politicians, there is little reason for anyone to trust that Arınç means what he says. Until the Erdoğan government takes some actual steps toward relaxing its restrictions on speech, its rhetoric and promises on this issue will remain hollow and meaningless.