- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

Turkey’s journey with the European Union started more than four decades ago. In December, the country finally gained the right to open accession talks. However, there still remain questions about where Turkey “belongs.”

Is it a genuine democracy that can be part of the European societies? Or should it accept that it will have to make substantial sacrifices if it continues to walk the path of joining Western countries in the EU — sacrifices that could hurt its national interests and identity?

Last week, the freedom-of-speech trial of five prominent Turkish columnists in an Istanbul court opened the debate once again. Will Turkey be able to finish the trek that it began more than 80 years ago, when its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned the country toward the predominantly secular states of the West and away from the predominantly Islamic states of the East. Freedom of speech is an inevitable part of a functioning democracy, and it’s embedded in Western societies both culturally and historically. Though the trials are troubling, they may be a crucial “turning point” for Turkey to speed up its move in finalizing its Western-style democracy.

The five columnists — Hasan Cemal of Milliyet, and Ismet Berkan, Murat Belge, Haluk Sahin and Erol Katicioglu of Radikal — face up to several years in prison because they disagree with a judge. In September, Bogazici University announced it had invited academics and journalists to a conference to discuss the Armenian genocide claims. In the group of invited guest speakers, there were some who would have argued that what happened to the Armenians at the beginning of the last century was “genocide.” The judge, upon acting on a complaint, decided to cancel the conference.

The columnists wrote articles defending the idea of debating those thorny issues. They believed that every democratic society should be capable of discussing even the most controversial topics in the “laboratories of democracies” — that is, universities. They basically told their readers that fear is the worst thing a democracy can resort to while searching for a solution to a problem. In fact, the conference was announced at a time when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had shown willingness to establish Turkish-Armenian committees to investigate what had happened. Unfortunately, the Armenians said “no” — they believe what happened was genocide, and not open to debate.

The conference did take place at a later date, at Bilgi University. The attendees decided to choose the “responsible” approach, and tried to stay away from provocative statements and accusations. But the fact that such an event took place in Turkey was a major accomplishment. And now, the columnists who defended it are on trial, accused of “insulting the judiciary” and called traitors in a complaint from the Hukukcular Birligi, (Lawyers Union), a nationalist group of lawyers based in Istanbul.

“After many years, I stood up in front of a judge for the first time yesterday,” wrote Hasan Cemal, the columnist from Milliyet, the next day. “I was judged. Why? Because I defended the right of a conference to take place under a university roof. Because I am against halting such conferences.” His point is exactly right. This is not about what Mr. Cemal and the other columnists believe with regard to genocide accusations. They are fighting to infiltrate Turkish society with a culture of free speech.

Mr. Cemal also described the intense atmosphere in the courtroom. “Both the general atmosphere of the case, and the things that happened both inside and outside the courtroom, and our arrival and departure to the courtroom under heavy police protection all of these things showed once again how difficult it is in Turkey to give the fight of democracy and rule of law, and how much patience and determination as well as time it requires to get these things done,” he wrote.

Obviously, the trial of those columnists because of their opinion should be an embarrassment for Turkey, particularly while it is in the midst of its candidacy to become a member of the EU. Yet no one expects a negative verdict that will send those columnists to jail. On the contrary, the verdict will most likely teach a lesson to all on the right of free speech. However, the West could view this new chapter as an excuse to write Turkey off as a lost cause. But when you look at it from Turkey’s point of view, even this case proves how much Turkey has accomplished in its efforts to establish democracy as a way of life.

Turkey has had privately owned television channels for less than three decades. Today, its citizens are discussing all sorts of issues and are building their own culture of free speech right along with the media, as it exercises its own right to discuss and report.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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