ANKARA Feb 5 Turkey must speed up its reforms
of legislation such as the sweeping anti-terrorism laws under
which dozens of journalists have been jailed, the head of the
Council of Europe said on Tuesday.
Since coming to power in 2002, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
has earned praise for reforms aimed at bringing the EU candidate
nation closer to European Union norms and for liberalising an
economy that has seen unprecedented prosperity.
But his government is also accused of trying to tame the
media and smother opposition.
"The lawmaking process has to be sped up," Secretary General
Thorbjoern Jagland told Reuters in an interview.
"They have laws, the terrorist act for instance, special
courts, and they have a very wide interpretation of what
incitement to violence is, which brings so many journalists to
Anti-terrorism laws allow suspects to be detained for
lengthy periods before being formally charged.
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says
Turkey has jailed more reporters than China, Eritrea, Iran or
Syria, with some 70 journalists currently languishing in Turkish
prisons, at least 42 of them because of their work.
In the group's 2013 press freedom index, Turkey slipped six
places to 154th out of 179 countries.
Erdogan's government says most of the detained media workers
are being held for serious crimes, such as membership of an
armed terrorist group, that have nothing to do with journalism.
"The problem is when a journalist in Turkey reports about a
terrorist group then you are immediately being associated with
this group ... then you are detained and accused of enhancing
terrorism," Jagland said.
"This practice and laws have a clear, chilling effect.
Journalists are afraid of doing their job because they are
afraid of being detained."
Jagland, who was speaking ahead of a conference on freedom
of expression in Ankara attended by the justice minister, said
Turkey still had 450 media freedom cases pending at the European
Court of Human Rights, a number he called "worrying".
The court is one of the institutions of the 47-member state
Council of Europe, which aims to promote cooperation between
countries concerning legal standards, human rights, democracy
and the rule of law. Unlike the 27-member European Union, it
cannot make binding regulations.
While Turkey has been working on a package of judicial
reforms, progress has been slow. Efforts to draft a new
constitution have also almost come to a halt and it is unlikely
to be finished by an April deadline.
Thousands of activists, lawyers, politicians, military
officers and others are also in jail on terrorism charges. Most
are accused of plotting against the government or supporting
outlawed Kurdish militants.
More than 300 past and present officers were convicted and
handed lengthy prison sentences last September for plotting to
topple Erdogan's administration almost a decade ago.
But as public support for the investigations dwindles, with
critics and even sympathisers saying the number of military
officers charged with sedition has spiralled out of control,
Erdogan has moved to distance himself.
Last month, he criticised the lengthy pre-trial detentions,
suggesting they were sapping the army's morale and affecting its
ability to fight a Kurdish insurgency.
(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Andrew Roche)