The issue is far from settled, however, as conflicting signals keep coming from the government and its parliamentary group over when and how the media bill will proceed to becoming a law. Ministry of Justice officials told Today’s Zaman that the bill will be open to signatures from Cabinet members at the next meeting. However, ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) officials in Parliament said the agenda is simply so packed and congested that they do not think there is enough time to debate and pass this bill before the upcoming election.
The way in which the current law is applied to journalists continues to be a major concern for media professionals who fear the country is inching toward increasingly curbing freedom of expression.
The issue has grown around the center of the Ergenekon trial, a landmark trial of a clandestine group accused of trying to topple the democratically elected government. For editors in the mainstream media, coverage of the Ergenekon trial has turned out to be a “hot potato” issue as their reporters were summoned to the courthouse for writing articles that inform the public about ongoing proceedings in the case. Trumped-up charges leveled on reporters by overzealous prosecutors are based on the claim that the “articles may impact an ongoing case.” Faced with an increasing number of cases, media professionals have been asking the government to produce a liberal media law that would allow them to cover cases such as that of Ergenekon and others without risking being jailed due to archaic laws that limit freedom of speech and provide ammunition to overreaching prosecutors. The fact that the number of journalists who have been taken to court has already surpassed the 5,000 mark is reason enough to make urgent reforms.
The government initially seemed to have dropped the ball on this case and shelved the bill, which would have brought relief to thousands of journalists in Turkey. The Cabinet sent the earlier draft back to the Ministry of Justice to make some changes, creating an impression that the government had left the bill until after the June election. That claim was denied by Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, who told Today’s Zaman that they will be forwarding the revised bill for approval by the Cabinet at the next meeting, which will likely be held on March 7.
Others in the AK Party did not sound optimistic, though. Commenting on the issue for Today’s Zaman, AK Party parliamentary group deputy chairman Bekir Bozdağ said a full agenda at Parliament is making it difficult to pass new legislation before elections. If that is the case, given the parliamentary schedule, passing any such law may not be possible before 2013.
If the bill is approved in Parliament, it will allow thousand of cases to be dropped because charges leveled by prosecutors would no longer be considered valid or the scope of their interpretation would be limited to the extent that prosecutors would need hard evidence to open cases against journalists. The revised bill would also make it a crime to publish illegally obtained wiretaps, even if that information was revealed somewhere else by others.
Professor Ersan Şen said problems occur due to the application of current laws. “The application of laws concerning these cases may differ from one prosecutor or judge to another. Freedom of the press is very important, but there should be a limit to such freedom. The important thing is to draw the line.” According to Ministry of Justice reports, cases against journalists covering the Ergenekon case number over 5,000. In the bulk of these cases, the journalists stand accused of invading the privacy of the investigations.
There are two well-publicized examples of this issue. Mehmet Baransu, a correspondent from the small and independent Taraf daily, was taken to court for covering the Cage (Kafes) Action Plan, another coup plan allegedly cooked up by a number of generals. Although all charges against Baransu were thrown out by the judge in this case, Star daily columnist Şamil Tayyar was sentenced to 20 months in prison and a five-year ban on covering the Ergenekon trial over a book he wrote about the Ergenekon trial based on public evidence unveiled in the indictment. These two well-known cases aside, there are dozens of other journalists who have been taken to court for their coverage and commentary. Last month, 24 reporters and journalists from the Zaman daily had to appear in court to respond to accusations by a prosecutor who claimed their coverage of and commentary on the Ergenekon case violated existing laws.
Prosecutors base most of their charges on Articles 285 and 288 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which deal with “invasion of privacy, meddling in an investigation and influencing a fair trial.”