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Turkey Reforms Law Criticized for Limiting Free Speech


Turkey's parliament has approved the softening of a law criticized by the European Union for limiting free speech. Article 301 of the penal code has been used to prosecute Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk and other authors, academics and journalists. But critics of the reform say it does not go far enough. Dorian Jones reports for VOA from Istanbul.

Turkey's parliament approved a government-backed proposal to amend Article 301 of Turkey's penal code, under which thousands of people have been prosecuted and 745 convicted since 2003, including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

The article criminalized the denigration of the Turkish identity, writer Elif Safak who was prosecuted under Article 301, says its was used to silence dissent.

"301 has been used as a weapon, it is an extremely powerful weapon to silence people," said Safak.

The government says the reform will make it harder for such prosecutions by making it an offense to insult the "Turkish nation", rather than the more vague "Turkishness". The penalty has been reduced from three to two years in jail.

But human rights groups claim the reform will do little to stem the prosecutions.

The European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join, has been in the forefront of the calls for change. Chairman Joost Lagendyke of the EU Committee on Turkey says reform is not enough.

"I still hold the position the best option will be for the government to bring forward a change of the penal code to parliament and delete the whole article," said Lagendyke.

Supporters of the law, including Turkey's government, argue that many European countries have similar laws. But the critics point out no where in Europe are there so many prosecutions.

The new legislation transfers the power to open cases from judges to the minister of justice and political columnist Murat Yetkin says this could be crucial to reducing the number of prosecutions.

"I think that will be the key factor, because if you give the authority to the minister, to the political person," said Yetkin. "It is a clear message to the prosecutors that these are political cases and will be treated as such. I believe that is a very effective filtering factor."

For decades Turkey has been dogged by national and international criticism over lack of freedom of speech. Observers point out previous governments under such pressure have introduced similar legal reforms to little success. The effectiveness of this latest reform is expected to come under intense scrutiny in the coming months.

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