Moments after Isik Yurtcu received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists last week, he walked over to the barred window of the waiting room in a rural Turkish prison. Holding the plaque to the window, he waved at the 100 or so Turkish journalists cheering and applauding on the lawn below.
It was an emotional moment, and one full of optimism. Yurtcu has served more than two years of a 16-year prison sentence he was given for carrying reports in his small newspaper about the terribly violent and destructive war between Turkish government forces and Kurdish rebels in the southeastern part of the country. He is one of at least 78 journalists imprisoned in Turkey -- far more jailed news people than in any other country -- under draconian press control laws. This should be his last couple of weeks in jail.
A 10-person international press delegation, which I led, had just completed five days of talks with Turkish government officials, trying to persuade them that the long-running war did not justify the drastic curtailment of freedom of expression and freedom of the press that is taking place in Turkey. Nor, we said, can it be used as an excuse for the regular vicious assaults on journalists by police and security agents that occur there. Finally, we asked for the immediate release of as many jailed journalists as possible.
To our surprise, each of the newly installed officials we met with (the government had just received its first vote of confidence from Parliament two days before -- the "stamp of approval" that allowed it to begin functioning) immediately agreed with us.
Yilmaz vowed that his government would make the issue of greater freedom its first priority. He promised immediate passage of a law that would free Yurtcu and five other editors. He also promised orders to police to stop harassing and assaulting journalists, and an effort to change both current laws and portions of the current Constitution that have been used to justify such things.
The good news for Yurtcu and his colleagues, of course, is that the law that will free them has already made it through the relevant parliamentary committee and will go before the full body in a few days. With backing from both the government and major opposition parties, it is virtually certain to pass. He will go home, Yilmaz said, probably before the end of the month.
The rest of the promises, though, are not going to be as easy to fulfill. The new prime minister heads a weak, minority coalition government. There remains much opposition to any radical lifting of restrictions on speech and the press, especially from the army.
And the army plays a very strong role in Turkish political life. Some say it is in virtually complete control. The war against the Kurds has distorted a lot of things in Turkey. It has devastated the southeast, where thousands of villages have been destroyed and left empty. It has made and kept the army stronger than any other political force, despite the failure of the military to win the war or even lower the level of violence. It has allowed ultra-conservatives to maintain human rights restrictions that do not fit this basically democratic country.
Yet there has been absolutely no attempt to settle the war politically, through negotiation. Even this new coalition government, perhaps the most liberal in decades, rejects the very idea of talks with Kurdish leaders. And whatever move they make toward freedom of expression, some restrictions are sure to remain concerning reporting on the war.
That is terribly unfortunate. With open and uncensored reporting on the conflict, perhaps the people of Turkey would come to see their enemies as human beings, instead of the monsters they are painted to be by the army. Perhaps they would even come to understand the full cost to them of this war. And perhaps they would force their leaders to take some real steps toward ending it.
King Features Syndicate