The Initiative for Freedom of Expression republished state-banned materials to fight back against restrictions on freedom of expression in Turkey.
Turkish laws limit freedom of expression in ways that some activists find to violate human rights. Article 162 of the Media Law, for example, is often used to try both writers and publishers for perceived seditious publications. In 1995, a well-known Turkish writer wrote a book about the Kurdish population, a minority group in Turkey, and was accused by the state of writing separatist propaganda. Many people got involved in support of this writer and began attending his court sessions.
This event marked the beginning of the Initiative for Freedom of Expression campaign. 85 prominent and well-respected members of Turkish society began a signature campaign. Each week, volunteer publishers printed booklets containing one state-banned article. The banned articles were chosen specifically because they did not encourage crime or violence and did not include insulting language, which called attention to the unnecessary nature of the censorship by the Turkish state. Ten “Freedom of Thought” articles were published in total, and the campaign gathered 1,080 signatures. Even publishers who didn’t agree with the content of the articles participated because they supported free thought. The booklets were successful, selling rapidly.
The publication of these ten articles and their signatories took the form of a civil disobedience campaign, in which so many people participate in the “crime” that the action ceases to appear seditious. The campaign gained momentum through media coverage and through the support of famous people, including other authors, actors, and musicians. On the international level, activists provided support through the communication networks of professional organizations. The campaign was also helped financially by volunteers and signatories, who paid their own expenses from campaigning. Eventually, over 80,000 people were involved in carrying out the Initiative for Freedom of Expression campaign, though there was no formal organization, executive board, office, or official membership.
The Initiative for Freedom of Expression activists also tried to force the Turkish government to prosecute the publication of banned materials in order to call more attention to their campaign. They wanted to use court cases to bring about amendments to laws that violated freedom of expression and also to encourage the Turkish judicial mechanisms to exercise the law in ways that comply with human rights.
The Initiative for Freedom of Expression campaign generated a significant response from the Turkish government. Over eight and a half years of activism, 1,148 people were arrested, 108 radio and television stations closed, 169 publications prohibited or confiscated, and 108 billion Turkish Lira (at least 40 billion US dollars) levied in fines. Students and teachers were particularly affected. Seventeen teachers were suspended, 370 students were banned or dismissed from school, and 55 of those students were prosecuted.
In all, there were 185 court cases revolving around the free thought issue. The cases were complicated by the fact that the laws used to support them were under review at the Turkish constitutional court at the time. Prosecutors insisted that the cases be dismissed, but the judges did not agree. After two and a half years, the judiciary concluded that those convicted and sentenced under Article 162 of the Media Law would have their sentences suspended, but only if they did not commit such a crime again. Publishers were successful in getting their penalties postponed by arguing that Article 162 did not apply to them. As the Initiative for Freedom of Expression activists anticipated, court cases regarding censorship and free thought engendered international attention. Twenty countries from the Professional Authors Association came to support the accused, which helped the issue gather a wider range of interest.
In the end, the Initiative for Freedom of Expression campaign called attention to the problem of censorship in Turkey by engaging in civil disobedience and court cases, but it was not successful in changing laws. The judicial system remained unclear and unfair in its prosecution of the activists and government procedures were not always followed. Many prominent people did not have charges brought against them, while those not well known were tried, convicted, sentenced and jailed. Some activists were acquitted by a military court but others were still convicted. Laws were applied based upon individual discretion. This made it more difficult for the Initiative for Freedom of Expression to fight censorship because they could not trust the judiciary to act fairly.
New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.
This tactic is a good reminder of the limits of civil society in changing government procedures. While the Initiative for Freedom of Expression was successful in raising national and international public awareness of a problem in Turkey, they were unable to make any legal changes to Turkey’s censorship laws. It is not bad to have legal changes as a long-term goal, because that is one way that an organization can make an important, lasting difference in a country’s respect for human rights, but organizations should be aware of the difficulties inherent in working with governments and judicial systems. It may be more feasible and less costly to focus on a civil society campaign.