In an interview last year on WNYC, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was optimistic about the democratizing effects on Turkey of a possible entry into the European Union. Until last month, that is, when Pamuk was arrested for speaking about his country's role in the Armenian genocide and its struggle with Kurdish separatists. Jonathan Sugden monitors press freedoms for Human Rights Watch, and talks with Bob about the case.
BOB GARFIELD: Turkey's geography mirrors its complicated identity. A country half in Europe, half in Asia, a democratic secular Muslim nation with a powerful military that has staged four coups in the last 45 years, Turkey has long frustrated the expectations of both the West and the Middle East. And so it should come as very little surprise that only a month or so before negotiations are set to begin for Turkey's admittance into the European Union, the government has brought charges against one of its most famous exports. Orhan Pamuk, a celebrated novelist, is being prosecuted for speaking candidly in an interview about Turkey's role in the Armenian genocide and its ongoing struggle with Kurdish separatists. Last year in an interview on WNYC, Pamuk was optimistic about the effects of Turkey's entry into the European Union.
ORHAN PAMUK: In last two years, Turkish Parliament has changed the legal situation of the country in such a good way that all my worries about freedom of speech, expressing yourself in last 30 years vanished. And this is all essentially through the fact that to be in touch with Europe help the development of respect for human rights in Turkey.
BOB GARFIELD: That was, of course, until late last month when Pamuk was arrested. His possible jail time raises again the question of how Turkey is handling its most public dissidents. Jonathan Sugden monitors press freedoms in Turkey for Human Rights Watch and he joins us now. Jonathan, welcome to the show.
JONATHAN SUGDEN: Hello. It's nice to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Were you surprised by the charges brought against Orhan Pamuk?
JONATHAN SUGDEN: Yes, I was surprised and disappointed. And yet, at the same time, they were a very familiar thing to see because we've seen writers and journalists prosecuted right the way through the eighties and nineties. So it did seem like a return to the old days.
BOB GARFIELD: The Turkish government has always denied an Armenian genocide, and it's fought a long internal war to deny legitimacy to Kurdish separatists. But the underlying issues are all common knowledge in Turkey and around the world. What's the point of not letting these matters be discussed in public?
JONATHAN SUGDEN: Well, yes, you're right to say that these are the common subjects of argument and discussion throughout the world. But also increasingly within Turkey as well, I mean, there are plans for a conference about what happened to Turkey's Armenian population at the beginning of the last century. We do see discussion of this issue in newspaper articles and columns. What it appears is that the prosecutor involved may have opened this case to embarrass the government as it goes in towards the October the third date on which negotiations are planned to start for the E.U. accession.
BOB GARFIELD: So this could be the case of a regional politician trying to make trouble for the national politicians trying to get Turkey's entrance into the E.U.
JONATHAN SUGDEN: In Turkey historically, there is a distinct difference between the government and the state. The government is the elected body that runs the ministries, but the state or the state within the state, as it's often referred to in Turkey, is sort of the permanent force that is represented by sections of the army, sections of the security forces, certain ranks within the interior and justice ministries. Certainly, I think, most people feel that the entrenched forces within the state are not entirely happy with the government's project of going closer to Europe and all the things that go with Europe, and that's accountability, openness, conformity with international standards on justice and human rights and so on. These are ideas that are not particularly welcome to the people who, as you described, ran four coups in the past half century.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm curious to know these forces of reaction that you're describing, how much influence they have elsewhere in the civil society. I'm thinking about the Turkish daily press, which at least on the surface looks robust and unconstrained. Is there less freedom than meets the eye? Is there some sort of self censorship going on there?
JONATHAN SUGDEN: You're absolutely right that Turkey's media world is lively and colorful. But there are certain no go zones, and one of them is the role of the military in society and politics. Another one is the role of religion in politics. Also until very recently, any discussion of Turkey's minorities is likely to earn you a prosecution, possible closure in the newspaper and extremely heavy fines.
BOB GARFIELD: What is being said in Turkey, in the Turkish press, about the Orhan Pamuk case?
JONATHAN SUGDEN: Most of the columnists that I've read have sort of thrown up their hands in despair to see yet another internationally recognized Turkish writer get hauled into court to face completely vexatious charges. We look at the great names of Turkish literature, Nazim Hikmet; he served a term of imprisonment. Yaser Kemal, he served a term imprisonment. And now we have Orhan Pamuk, widely known, well known around the world, and he's going to be appearing in court in December.
BOB GARFIELD: If he is successfully prosecuted, if he's convicted of offending Turkey's reputation, what will happen to him?
JONATHAN SUGDEN: He'll go to prison. And then when he gets out, by that time the case will have gone to the European Court of Human Rights. And I think there's no question whatsoever the Turkish government will be found to have wrongly prosecuted him, and they'll be fined, as they have been on many occasions before. So I think the best result for Turkey here is for this case, when it comes to court in December, to be just thrown out at the first hearing by the judge. And that will send a message that these sort of cases, which are plainly in contravention of international standards, are nowadays completely unacceptable; they'll not be tolerated by the judiciary. That's the result that we hope for, and that's the result that we'll be working for.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Jonathan, thank you very much.
JONATHAN SUGDEN: Thank you very much indeed.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Sugden monitors press freedoms in Turkey for Human Rights Watch. He spoke to us from London.