On September 14, 2010, in a unanimous Chamber decision upholding the right to freedom of expression, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkish authorities violated Articles 2, 10, and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Dink v. Turkey examined the case of Firat Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin who was shot three times in the head in January 2007. The Court held that the Turkish State violated Article 2 for failing to protect Dink’s right to life and for ineffectively investigating his murder; Article 10 for unjustly interfering with Dink’s right to freedom of expression; and Article 13 for failing to effectively investigate the killing.
Dink, who took the pen name Hrant Dink, wrote frequently for a Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper about the plight of Turkish-Armenian citizens. He firmly believed that Turkish citizens of Armenian origin share a conflicted view of their own history. In a series of articles published between 2003 and 2004, Dink wrote that “Armenians’ obsession for Turkey to recognize their status as victims of genocide has become their raison d’être, but Turkey has treated this need with indifference, and thus, the suffering of the Armenians remains an ongoing issue.” In Dink’s eighth article, while discussing the relationship between Turkish-Armenians and Turkish society as a whole, he wrote that “the purified blood that will replace the blood poisoned by the ‘Turk’ can be found in the noble vein linking Armenians to Armenia.”
In context, the quote expressed how the Turkish-Armenian perception of the Turkish state had disintegrated to the point of poisoning their ability to interact with and engage in Turkish society. But the bravado of Dink’s rhetoric quickly caught the attention of the Turkish government. In 2004 the Şişli public prosecutor brought criminal proceedings against Dink under article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, which criminalizes the denigration of “Turkishness.” The Turkish court convicted Dink of denigrating Turkish identity, despite contextual evidence in his columns suggesting the contrary.
On February 17, 2006, during Dink’s appeals process within the Turkish court system, an informant alerted Turkish authorities to an assassination plot. The Istanbul police knew the names of potential suspects and yet did nothing, failing to alert Dink of any credible or imminent threat. Eleven months later, a 17-year-old Turkish extremist national shot Dink in the head.
That the Court upheld Dink’s right to freedom of expression even after his death is an important finding. After reviewing eight of his controversial articles, the Court found Dink’s use of “the impugned expression showed clearly that what he described as ‘poison’ had not been ‘Turkish blood,’ as held by the [Turkish] Court of Cassation, but the ‘perception of Turkish people’ by Armenians and the obsessive nature of the Armenian diaspora’s campaign to have Turkey recognise [sic] the events of the 1915 genocide.” The Court clarified that, according to prior case law, the right to freedom of expression under the Convention can only be infringed under a three-part conjunctive test. Namely, if the infringement is prescribed by law, pursues a “legitimate aim”, and can be regarded as “necessary in a democratic society.” The Court focused its analysis on the third prong of the test and reiterated its position that Article 10 “prohibit[s] restrictions on freedom of expression in the sphere of political debate and issues of public interest.” The Court further observed that Dink’s writings were in his capacity as a journalist, on an issue of public concern. Lastly, the Court maintained that seeking historical truth is an “integral part of freedom of expression.” Balancing Dink’s interests against those of the State, the Court held that “Fırat Dink’s conviction for denigrating Turkish identity had not answered any ‘pressing social need.’” Turkey had therefore violated Dink’s right to freedom of expression.
The Court ordered Turkey to pay Dink’s family approximately €133,000 in non-pecuniary damages and court costs. The Turkish State will not appeal the decision. Eighteen total suspects are still on trial in Turkey at the time of this writing.
But the Turkish-Armenian citizens who so fervently supported Dink will feel vindicated only if Turkey complies with the Court’s decree. The Turkish ministry said it would implement provisions of the judgment and take measures to prevent similar violations in the future. If so, generations of Turkish journalists might finally know the true comforts of free speech, and not have to fear unjust prosecution. Then, Dink will achieve in martyrdom what he was just beginning to convey as editor-in-chief of Agos, the bilingual weekly newspaper that now features its former boss, relaxed and smiling, prominently on its website.