In Memoriam: Hrant Dink (1954-2007)

A Turkish free speech advocate is killed, but hope hasn't died with him.

Friday’s murder of Armenian-Turkish editor and columnist Hrant Dink — though not the only instance recently of a foreign journalist brutally silenced — was different in that for those who follow global events or the media, Dink’s name was familiar even before his death.

At a time when Turkey continues to struggle to join the European Union, his prosecution (and arguably his persecution) under Turkish penal code 301 that criminalizes insulting “Turkishness” — a law that stinks of suppression of speech — had already made him a cause celebre.

Dink had been attacked by the Turkish Justice Ministry and Turkish nationalists for advocating that Turkey acknowledge its role in the Armenian genocide at the end of the Ottoman Empire during the first World War, as a necessary prerequisite for Turkey moving forward progressively and for a resumption of Turkish-Armenian relations.

His name was again in international papers in October, 2006 when he lambasted a French parliamentary bill that penalized any denial that Armenians were victims of a genocide. He was a champion of free speech above all, and his commitment to seeing the genocide acknowledged did not blind him to this larger principle. He considered the French and Turkish laws as two sides of the same coin, saying that, “Those who restrict freedom of expression in Turkey and those who try to restrict it in France are of the same mentality.”

Dink did not believe in holding a new generation of Turks responsible for the actions of their ancestors; what he wanted was to move his country into a new era of modernity, democracy, and celebration of its multiethnic reality. Ironically, his death produced glimpses of that vision, when thousands of Turks took to the streets the day of his murder shouting, “We are all Armenian!” and when thousands more attended his funeral, including government officials from Turkey and, at Turkey’s invitation, from Armenia.

On many English-language Turkish blogs and Web sites, the killer and his co-conspirators — who claimed to be acting as Turkish nationalists — were denounced and Dink was hailed as the true patriot. As important, the law under which Dink was prosecuted was itself subjected to scrutiny.

There is no consolation for Dink’s death. And of course, many of those who marched came from the cast of usual suspects — Kurds, intellectuals, leftists, the so-called “White Turks.” Moreover, some of the slogans, such as “We are all Armenian” have brought grumblings and, as reported in some Turkish-language papers, the threat of more prosecutions under 301 (mentioned in, the prominent online news hub). Still, the turnout for a funeral of the man who was the public face of the Armenian community, has offered hope of a conversation where before there was only denial. If that conversation evolves, moving Turkey toward truth and reconciliation, succeeding where external (and at times vitriolic) European efforts have failed, then Dink’s memory can begin to be honored.

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Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.