Turkish PM consults over freedom of speech law

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Turkey's prime minister met with representatives of trade unions and other non-governmental organizations yesterday to listen to suggestions for possible changes to an article in the country's penal code that has been used to charge dozens of writers, journalists and academics for expressing their opinions.

The closed-door meeting in Istanbul was held just three days before the European Union is to issue a report reproaching the country - which started EU membership talks last year - for dragging its feet on reform and failing to meet minimum human rights standards.

The government indicated this week that it could change the problematic article 301, which has been used to prosecute this year's Nobel prize-winner, Orhan Pamuk, and novelist Elif Shafak on charges of insulting "Turkishness."

Charges against Pamuk were dropped over a technicality earlier this year, and Shafak was acquitted.

"If there are certain problems that arise from the abstractness of article 301 of the penal code, we are open to suggestions to make the article more concrete," Erdogan told reporters at the start of the meeting.

Erdogan, however, reiterated his belief that the problem did not arise from the article itself, but with the way it has been interpreted by some prosecutors.

"There is a need for a change of mentality, and this will take some time," Erdogan said.

"If 301 is interpreted in a liberal way in line with the aims of the legislators, there will be no problem concerning freedom of opinion and speech," he said.

The government has long argued that, despite the trials, no one has ended up in prison for expressing opinions.

Critics say the trials and threat of prosecution act as a deterrent to free speech.

During the two-hour meeting, NGO representatives spoke of the need to change the wording of the article to set clearer limits for what would constitute insult and what would constitute criticism, Davut Okutcu who heads the Istanbul-based Economic Development Foundation, told reporters.

Erdogan adjourned the meeting to give the NGOs time to prepare written suggestions, Okutcu said.