Insulting Turkey


On 31 August, little more than a month before Turkey is due to start European Union membership negotiations, the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was charged with insulting his country’s national character – a charge which could see him incarcerated in one of the prisons he once described as ‘hell’.

The charges against Orhan Pamuk relate to comments he made earlier this year. ‘Thirty thousand Kurds were killed here, one million Armenians as well. And almost no one talks about it. Therefore I do,’ he is quoted as saying in the Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger on 6 February.

Under Article 301/1 of Turkey’s recently revised Penal Code, Pamuk could face a term of six months to three years in jail for explicitly insulting ‘being a Turk, the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly’. To make matters worse he could face an additional penalty under Article 301/3 for having made the statement in a country other than Turkey.

Orhan Pamuk is one of Turkey’s best-known writers. He is the author of seven novels and the recent, much acclaimed memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City. His works are widely read in Australia and have been published in over twenty languages. In 2003 he won the International IMPAC Award for My Name is Red and on 22 June this year was announced as the winner of the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Association. With their decision the Association’s foundation board issued a comment in which they state that Pamuk ‘seizes upon the burning issues of the present, fighting for human and minority rights and taking a stand on his country’s politics as dauntlessly as he looks back at its great Osmanian past.’

Orhan Pamuk has always kept his political activities separate from his novel writing. Although he has referred to his most recent novel Snow as a ‘political novel,’ this is only because its subject matter explores, as he has put it, the ‘tension between Kurdish nationalists, Turkish nationalists, political Islamists, fundamentalists, liberals, ex-socialists, etc.’ Throughout the novel Pamuk is careful to focus on the human side of the tensions, avoiding authorial comment or theorising.

It is this ‘very modern sensibility’ in his work which prominent PEN member and Australian writer David Malouf suggests makes him vulnerable: ‘There are a lot of people who don’t like that kind of thinking and in some ways they’re the people who’ve now attacked him.’

Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk

With accession talks with the EU scheduled to begin on 3 October, nationalist sentiments within Turkey have been on the rise, alongside an awareness of objections to Turkish membership from EU countries such as France and the Netherlands. In this context, any mention of the killing of a million Armenians was bound to disturb a few people, particularly as 24 April this year marked the ninetieth anniversary of what some have called the Armenian ‘genocide’ of 1915 an interpretation which the Turkish government does not accept.

While Orhan Pamuk did not actually mention the word ‘genocide’ nor specify who did the killings of either the Armenians or the Kurds, from the death threats and reports of book burnings that followed his controversial statement, it was immediately evident that sensitivities were smarting.

On a state level, however, the response to Pamuk’s comments in February took longer to develop. When a small-town administrator ordered the removal of Pamuk’s books from the town libraries in March, not only was he given the pejorative label of ‘the book burning official’ by the Turkish media but preliminary proceedings were instituted against him by the Ministry of the Interior. The Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has wanted to be seen to put the Armenian killings on the agenda by inviting anyone wishing to research the issue to have access to the Ottoman archives.

A conference on ‘The Ottoman Armenians during the Era of Ottoman Decline’, sponsored by three leading Istanbul universities and scheduled to begin on 25 May was called off only the day before it opened following vituperative comments from the Justice Minister Cemil Cicek. His statement ‘We must put an end to this cycle of treason and propaganda against the [Turkish] nation by people who carry its citizenship’ anticipates the charges that were soon to be brought against Pamuk.

While Prime Minister Erdogan then insisted on his own support for the conference and requested that it be rescheduled for late September, only days before the EU accession negotiations begin there has been no confirmation of the rescheduling.

As a prerequisite for the 3 October accession negotiations Turkey enacted changes to its Penal Code in June this year. The newly revised Code, however, is still considered ‘deeply flawed’. And it is under its revised Articles that Orhan Pamuk is scheduled to face proceedings in Istanbul’s Basic Criminal Court No 2 on 16 December.

Olli Rehn, the EU Commissioner overseeing expansion plans, has said that the prosecution of Orhan Pamuk violates the European Convention on Human Rights. ‘The Pamuk case raises serious questions about the interpretation of Turkey’s new penal code. The December 16 date can’t be just a coincidence, it has to be a provocation,’ Rehn told the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on 13 September.

An EU summit meeting had already been scheduled for the same date. And yet ‘overall’ Mr Rehn has said that the Commission has observed ‘progress’ in Turkey’s human rights record, implying that he considers the Pamuk case will not be an obstacle for the accession talks in October.

The final irony is that 16 December 2005 will mark the first anniversary of the EU’s decision to enter into membership negotiations with Turkey under conditions which saw the amendments to their Penal Code in June. There has been no confirmation of whether Orhan Pamuk is still in Turkey, but wherever he is, I don’t imagine that he will be celebrating.

Journalists in Turkey have staged protests against the revised Penal Code and in April International PEN (the international writers’ organisation that defends freedom of expression) and the International Publishers’ Association released a statement to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which described the newly revised Penal Code as ‘deeply flawed’.

Sydney PEN is urging its members to appeal to the Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan, the Minister of Justice TC Adalet Bakanligi, and the Turkish Ambassador to Australia, His Excellency Mr Okanden.

Please contact Sydeny PEN at or visit their website here

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.