Turkishness law 'must change' says minister

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul yesterday backed the amendment of Turkey's controversial article 301, used to prosecute intellectuals including Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and an ethnic Armenian journalist who was later shot dead.

"I want this article amended because it puts a shadow on Turkey's reform process," Gul said at a joint news conference with visiting Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

"It is damaging Turkey's image. It is portraying Turkey as a country where hundreds of journalists and intellectuals are jailed for their speeches. This is wrong."

Gul's remarks came days after a group of trade unions and other non-governmental organizations proposed a new wording to the article, which makes insults to the Turkish state or its people a crime. The groups said the new wording would set clearer limits to what constitutes insult and what is legitimate criticism.

Some non-governmental organizations were demanding scrapping the law completely, but Gul made clear the government favored amending it.

"We want everyone to freely express their thoughts as long they don't incite violence or amount to insult," Gul said. "These cannot be allowed. They are not allowed anywhere else."

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and murdered journalist Hrant Dink were both prosecuted under the broad law criminalizing the denigration of "Turkishness." Both had spoken out about the mass killings of Armenians in the early 20th century. Numerous other writers, journalists and academics have also been prosecuted.

Dink, the editor of the minority Agos newspaper, was shot dead outside his Istanbul office on January 19 and his murder revived a debate about the law. Many said his prosecution under article 301 had made him a target for ultranationalist groups.

The proposal by trade unions and non-governmental organizations would replace the crime of "insulting Turkishness" with wording that would translate as "openly abasing and deriding" Turkishness.

Newspapers, however, have criticized the proposed amendment, saying it would not stop prosecutions because the interpretation of the law is often left to prosecutors, most of whom are nationalists.