Free speech in secular democracies

The trial resumes next month for internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who commented last year in a Swiss newspaper on the massacre of 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians on Turkish soil during World War I. He was charged by public prosecutors under a controversial Turkish law, Article 301, for "denigrating Turkishness." The criminal insult provision in this law states: "Where insulting being a Turk is committed by a Turkish citizen in a foreign country, the penalty to be imposed shall be increased by one third." The Turkish Penal Code also stipulates that when an offence is committed through the print or other mass media, the penalties are automatically increased. This is an outrageous measure against free speech. The trial, which opened in December, was postponed for whatever reason. Around the same time, several nationalist lawyers petitioned Turkish prosecutors to file criminal charges against Mr. Pamuk for insulting the military. This stemmed from Mr. Pamuk's reported remark to the prominent German newspaper, Die Welt, that the military was a threat to democratisation in Turkey. Prosecutors decided there were no grounds for these charges, and some nationalist lawyers plan to appeal this decision. Although Mr. Pamuk has made it clear he is unwilling to be perceived as the poster boy of Western democracy, these events have raised international concerns about the criminalisation of free speech in Turkey. A group of observers from the European Parliament went so far as to say that if Turkey did not modify Article 301, the chances of its being admitted into the European Union would be severely diminished.

The sequence of events also adds definition to an observed phenomenon that Mr. Pamuk discusses in a recent article in The New Yorker, which is the rise of nationalist fanaticism (which is distinct from religious extremism) in rapidly growing economies. According to him, this trend can be seen in secular countries where globalisation has fostered rapid growth. The newly rich ruling class becomes fiercely protective of the country's international image in the interests of preserving its standing in the international `market.' It does this by brandishing its nationalism and frequently using state power to suppress and undermine dissent in society in the name of national unity. This then injures a nation's commitment to freedom of expression, a core value that ranks high when it comes to assessing democracy and long-term stability in a country. Mr. Pamuk's caveat is that the West's credibility in this regard has been severely damaged by the lies told about the war in Iraq. As far as Turkey is concerned, although changes to offending laws may be on the drawing board, the need honestly and urgently to confront the often painful truths of history through free debate and critical discussion must be placed at the heart of its effort to emerge as a truly secular and democratic nation.

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