BRUSSELS - The Charlemagne building is located right next to the EU Commission's huge central complex. Hanging on its wall for the past week has been a sign for all to see. It shows a megaphone along with the banner 'Speak Up'. You might also translate it as ‘speak without fear'. Above that, it says: Freedom of Speech and Media in the West Balkans and Turkey.
The 'Speak Up' conference held this week offered an opportunity for 400 press members from Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia to get together with European Union delegates and the heads of Europe's leading press organizations to discuss issues related to freedom of the press.
Almost every speech mentioned Turkey. Jersey Buzek, the Polish chairman of the European Parliament opened the conference: "The main medium of democracy is free press and journalists," he said, adding that "Taking a step back from the principles of a free press cannot be accepted in Balkans or in Turkey."
Turkey's proposed plans to regulate Internet usage by introducing mandatory filters has raised concern over freedom of speech and press freedoms. "I find the plans of the (Turkish) government to filter the Internet very worrying," said the European Commission's vice chairwoman Neelie Kroes of the Netherlands.
The conference was the brainchild of Stefan Füle, EU Commissioner responsible for enlargement and European neighborhood policy. "We are gathered here to acknowledge your courage and professionalism and collect your ideas and experiences on how to protect the freedom of press," he told delegates.
In 2010, according to Füle, within those countries seeking entry into the EU, including Turkey, freedom of the press was in decline, overall. "Being a member of the EU requires meeting the standards without exception. We are worried by the situation," Füle said.
Solidarity with jailed journalists
Then the panel specifically focused on Turkey and the Balkans began. It was interesting that although representatives from Serbia, Montenegro and Albania were present on this panel, there were no Turkish representatives invited. But the other speakers filled this gap.
Veran Matic, the editor of B-92 newspaper from Belgrade, began his speech saying 'Hello' in Turkish. He saluted the 57 imprisoned journalists in Turkey and said "We are waiting for them to be released". The situation in Turkey is problematic and worrying, according to Jean Francois Julliard, general secretary of Reporters sans Frontières. He mentioned the recent arrests of two investigative journalists, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener. "The problems stem from the misuse of the law by the judiciary," says Julliard.
In particular, Turkey's proposed new Internet regulations were a hot topic all day long. Dunja Mijatović, the representative on media freedom for OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) cited examples of proposed banned words like 'blonde', 'sister-in-law' and 'forbidden'. Remzi Lan, director of the Albanian Media Institute, said that when compared to Turkey, Albania appeared to be in a better shape.
Perhaps the very act of organizing this conference was the European Union's way of ‘speaking up' about what is happening in Turkey.