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Statement by John Ralston Saul, PEN International President, Istanbul

Thursday 15 November 2012 - 12:00am

Freedom of expression is never automatic. It is always about concrete actions. These actions are what make it function.

For several years, PEN witnessed the declining number of writers either in prison in Turkey or caught up in endless and personally destructive legal mazes. You cannot blame us for having been encouraged. We were not alone. This improving situation came with increased democratization, better civilian control over the military, and economic development.

Then, abruptly, the arrests began again, the pre-trial detentions, the dragged-out trials, the cases suspended in order to leave writers in limbo.

Worse still, we have seen the Anti-Terror Law increasingly used with a lack of rigour. This in turn has led to writers and publishers - who in our carefully researched and considered opinions have nothing to do with terrorism - becoming the unwitting victims of myriad legal traps.

In other words, the law is being used to limit freedom of expression.

PEN has always opposed violence. We believe that freedom of expression is the social and intellectual tool that best strengthens societies. The maximization of freedom of expression is the best weapon any society has to combat and marginalize terrorism.

The actions we call for do not require constitutional reforms, or extraordinary efforts. What we propose is neither romantic nor grandiose. It is a simple matter of reforming the laws, narrowing their intent, and applying them with transparent rigour.

In our meeting with the President of the Republic, Abdullah Gül, we made these points and were encouraged by the interest he showed, and the comments he made.

In our meeting with Egemen Bağış, Minister for European Union Affairs, we noted his expressed commitment to more reform, and his expressed desire to see these problems solved.

But the point we are making is both more precise and more urgent. This process of reform cannot be allowed to drag on. Lives are being damaged, effectively destroyed. Freedom of expression is being limited by self-censorship.

Those members of our PEN Turkey Centre, and many other writers in Turkey, who are in prison or have been charged deserve a rapid and fair re-examination of their cases. Writers in general need to be treated with transparency and even-handedness. This, we feel, would lead to the release of many.

Finally, let me turn to the Anti-Terror Law. There are those in government who believe that such a law, no matter how broad and unfocused, is a necessary tool to deal with violence. This is incorrect. It would be far better to re-conceive the law so that it is clearly and precisely aimed at terrorism, and so cannot be used by any branch of the authorities to sweep up innocent writers or publishers or other citizens. The current ability to misuse the law can be resolved through clear drafting and professional application. If terrorist laws are to exist at all, they must be carefully and tightly written in order to protect the primary rights of all citizens. This is precisely the position that we have taken in country after country around the world where anti-terror laws are badly drafted and misused.

Pretrial detentions, dragged-out trials, individuals who are merely accused being treated as if they are proven terrorists, suspended trials which remain as a sword of Damocles over the heads of writers for years on end - all of this can end. It must end. And we believe that the government of Turkey is able to make these things happen, and to do so rapidly. The people of Turkey believe in freedom of expression. We join with them in asking the government to act.

November 15, 2012
John Ralston Saul
PEN International President