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Fighting for free speech in Turkey

Hundreds of writers have been prosecuted in Turkey for "insulting Turkishness", but Sarah Rainsford discovers that there are still some people willing to publish controversial books.

It is a very difficult time to be a writer in Turkey.

Books on a shelf (Photo:Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel prize for literature in 2006

Last year the prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was murdered. This year, an ultra-nationalist gang allegedly had the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk on its hit list.

Both men had been prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness".

Today, many writers once known for their forthright views have fallen silent. But one man is still putting himself on the line in a fight for free speech.

I found Ragip Zarakolu in one of the dimly-lit corridors of the Sultanahmet courthouse waiting to be called for his latest trial.

A small man with grey curls and crinkled kindly eyes, Mr Zarakolu is a publisher on a mission to shatter every taboo in Turkey.

Ragip Zarakolu
Ragip Zarakolu: Time to confront the past

As a result, he once admitted to me with characteristic chuckle he is now the most prosecuted publisher in the country.

This time he is also accused of "insulting Turkishness" under article 301 of the penal code.

The case was opened after he published the work of a British writer. It was the story of the writer's family in 1915, when hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians were deported as traitors during World War I.

Turkey's taboos

Ragip Zarakolu is one of very few Turks to challenge the official line, but it comes at a cost.

Shortly before his trial I visited his office just across the tram lines from Grand Bazaar. In a basement beneath McDonalds I discovered an Aladdin's cave of Turkey's taboos.

Map of Turkey showing Ankara and Istanbul

Crammed on to shelves and piled high on tables and on the floor were books on every controversial topic in Turkey, and an American ambassador's memoir of the Armenian massacres side by side with books on Kurdish nationalism.

"My late wife and I began by publishing the history of the Turkish Communist Party. That was the first taboo," Ragip Zarakolu explained, a pretty unlikely looking subversive in his woollen overcoat and brown moccasins.

The book came out in 1982, in the wake of a military coup. It was banned and later burned by the generals as a threat to social order and Ragip's wife was brought to trial.

A decade later the pair shifted focus to the plight of Turkey's Kurds. It was the height of the separatist insurgency and the mainly Kurdish south-east was under martial law.

Undaunted by yet another court case, they then published texts about the fate of the Ottoman Armenians.

"We decided it was time to confront our past and discuss it," Ragip explained.

But in 1993 that approach was not welcome. Ragip's wife was sentenced to two years in jail - under anti-terror legislation - for publishing the work of a French scholar about the Armenian massacres.

EU accession efforts

Turkey has changed enormously since then, working towards membership of the European Union. But the trials of writers and publishers continue.

Ironically, the book Mr Zarakolu is currently being prosecuted for is among his least controversial. It tells how a Turkish official protected the author's Armenian grandmother in 1915 - a Turkish Oskar Schindler.

Our society has traumas that we are avoiding
Ragip Zarakolu

But the insult charge was brought as nationalist feeling began to soar here, partly linked to Turkey's EU accession efforts.

The Justice Ministry recently revealed that 1,700 people were tried under Article 301 in 2006 alone. The best-known cases have all involved comments on the Armenian massacres.

"If you believe you are great, clean, and honest it is hard to face something like 1915," Ragip Zarakolu explained.

"Our society has traumas that we are avoiding.

"Really, we should see a therapist!"

Fuelling discussion

What Turkey has instead is Ragip Zarakolu relentlessly publishing books that delve into the darkest chapters of the past. And, despite the nationalist backlash, he is sure he is making a difference.

His books are read mainly by students and academics, but they have helped fuel a cautious discussion on topics that were once utterly off-limits.

And now the law may be changing too, to protect people's freedom to do just that.

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk
The charges against Istanbul-based Orhan Pamuk were dropped

Under immense pressure from the EU, the Turkish government has proposed softening Article 301 on "insulting Turkishness".

Nationalist politicians are outraged, but for Ragip Zarakolu it was a well-timed move.

His trial was postponed until parliament decides whether the crime he is accused of should actually exist.

As we filed out of the courthouse into the sunshine, the veteran publisher was pleased. But he believes even a "reformed" Article 301 is dangerous, so his fight goes on.

"My wife went to prison for publishing the first book here on the Armenian genocide. Now I plan to print that book again and to include the notes from her trial," Ragip Zarakolu confided.

"Fifteen years later we'll see what happens!" he said.

Then, chuckling as usual, he wandered away from the court and down the street.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 12 April, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Turkey
03 Apr 08 |  Country profiles
Turks fear political turmoil
03 Apr 08 |  Europe
Profile: Orhan Pamuk
12 Oct 06 |  Europe

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