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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 March, 2005, 17:52 GMT
Turkish press under fire
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News website

Cartoon showing the head of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a cat's body
The cartoonist was fined for showing Erdogan in a 'humiliating' way
Turkey may have made big strides towards greater press freedom - but a series of high-profile court cases have highlighted how far it still needs to go.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - who has in the past presented himself as a champion of free speech - has just sued a political cartoonist who poked fun at him.

And human rights activists have raised the cases of some 60 Turkish academics, publishers and journalists who currently face prosecution or are in prison.

Their concern is backed by the US state department's annual report, released on Tuesday, which said Turkey's "state and government continued to limit freedom of speech and press".

"Harassment of journalists and others for controversial speech remained a serious problem," it added.

Rights reforms

Mr Erdogan's successful suing of Musa Kart and his newspaper, Cumhuriyet, over a cartoon portraying him as a cat entangled in a ball of wool, has provoked fierce criticism from Turkish activists.

The prime minister - whose government has pushed through many rights reforms - was himself once imprisoned for a month for reciting a poem deemed anti-state.

Just as we thought those dark days were over, we have been confronted with this
Metin Peker
Turkish Cartoonists' Association

Nonetheless, Mr Kart was ordered by an Ankara court to pay a $3,500 (1,880) fine for "publicly humiliating the prime minister" by printing the image, which was a comment on problems he was having pushing a bill through parliament.

Metin Peker, president of the Turkish Cartoonists' Association, accused Mr Erdogan of trying to stifle free expression.

"We cartoonists have long faced pressure from politicians," he says on the Cartoonists' Rights Network International website.

"Just as we thought those dark days were over, we have been confronted with this."

'More tolerance'

Campaigners may take some comfort from another court, which threw out the case against a small paper which reprinted the cartoon.

"People who are under public light are forced to endure criticism in the same way that they endure applause," said Judge Mithat Ali Kabaali in his ruling.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Erdogan was once imprisoned for reciting an 'anti-state poem

"A prime minister who was forced to serve a long jail term for reciting a poem should show more tolerance to these kinds of criticisms."

However, Mr Erdogan filed another successful suit against a cartoonist for the left-leaning daily Evrensel last year, who drew him as a horse being led by an adviser.

Questions have also been raised by the acquittal on Wednesday of Fikret Baskaya, a prominent Turkish academic charged with "insulting" the Turkish authorities after he questioned the actions of the police.

The case prompted the head of the Turkish parliament's human rights commission, Mehmet Elkatmis, to say the part of the penal code used to prosecute him was undemocratic and should be abolished.

Keep promises

Amnesty International in Turkey said such prosecutions meant it still had "major concerns about the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression in Turkey".

Turkey has, however, made important progress towards greater liberty of speech.

Measures bolstering press freedom were included in a package of reforms passed by the Turkish parliament in May 2004, as part of its push to start EU membership talks.

Kurdish women from Turkey carry a portrait of their imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan during a protest
Kurdish media rights have improved under pressure from the EU

And in June, the Turkish state broadcaster TRT began to broadcast a Kurdish-language programme for the first time, after a decades-long ban on the use of Kurdish.

But Fehmi Koru, a columnist for the Turkish pro-Islamist daily Yeni Safak, told the BBC News website the latest court cases came amid worrying setbacks for press freedom.

"This government, when it was first set up, claimed it would introduce new press laws which would be much more freedom-loving," he said.

However, he said, late last year parliament passed a law renewing Turkey's penal code which adds some 20 articles restricting freedoms. It should come into force on 1 April.

"We are trying to urge the government to change these articles in accordance with their promises when they came to power, that our press would be more free," Mr Koru said.

"This was a promise and I expect them to make good on their promises."

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