Tuesday, March 29, 2005

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Turkey is preparing stringent laws to curb the nation’s vocal press, which could criminalize criticism of government.

The press restrictions are to be applied beginning Friday in the form of amendments to the criminal code, under which journalists can be jailed on 20 different counts.

The measure was described by the opposition as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “iron fist.”

The stiffening of the government’s attitude toward the press comes after a period of growing tension between Mr. Erdogan and the media.

Mr. Erdogan first sued cartoonist Musa Kart for portraying him as a cat, entangled in a ball of yarn. Mr. Kart was convicted of “publicly humiliating” the prime minister and fined $3,700.

In support of Mr. Kart, eight other Turkish cartoonists published other caricatures of Mr. Erdogan as a frog, snake, giraffe and cow. They have all been charged with “attacking his individual rights,” the Chicago Tribune reported this week. The cartoonists face fines of up to about $30,000 if convicted.

Even before the application of the penal code amendments, about 60 Turkish journalists were either in jail or facing prosecution.

Under the amended law, journalists and publishers face prison sentences of up to five years if they “insult the state, discourage military service or publish classified information.”

Amnesty International said the new laws “could be used to criminalize legitimate expression of dissent and opinion.”

The new law also bars religious officials such as Muslim imams, Christian pastors and rabbis from criticizing the government during religious services. A call to disobey the government will be punishable by prison sentences of up to two years.

The restrictions of speech and Turkey’s firm stance on the divided Cyprus could have adverse impact on the country’s talks to join the European Union, diplomats said.

The Cyprus issue re-emerged this week in connection with the protocol obliging Turkey to extend its customs union to the 10 new members of the European Union, including Cyprus. Some diplomats thought that such a measure was tantamount to Turkey’s recognition of the Greek-Cypriot government, which controls 63 percent of the eastern Mediterranean island.

Yesterday, Ankara agreed to the protocol, but made it clear that it did not mean recognition of the Greek-Cypriot government.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said yesterday: “The requirements of international law will be fulfilled. The recognition of the Greek-Cypriot side is out of the question. The Greek-Cypriot side will be recognized when a durable solution to the problem is found.”

A year ago, the Greek-Cypriot majority overwhelmingly rejected a U.N. plan — accepted by Turkish Cypriots —to unify the island.

Last week, Greek-Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos warned, “We will not accept arbitration from a foreigner again.”

On Monday, however, Greek Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis said in New York after meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that “everybody now agrees” that reunification talks for the divided Mediterranean island should be restarted.

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