Turkey to Propose Law Limiting Archive Use

The Turkish Government is planning on enacting a law that will place legal limitations on accessing Turkey’s national archives, according to a report published in the Turkish Milli Gazete, the newspaper of Turkey’s hardline-Islamist Felicity Party, reported Blogian.net, republishing a newsletter reporting the development to Turkish Armenian groups.

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Below is the text of the newsletter:

A report that appeared in the 4 November issue of Milli Gazete, the mouthpiece of the hardline-Islamist Felicity Party, says that the Turkish government plans to enact a “Law on National Archives” with the principal aim of “enabling Turkey to defend itself better” against “Armenian allegations of genocide.” The report is entitled “Legal Armor Against Genocide.”

The Turkish government has indeed prepared a “Draft Bill on National Archives,” but it does not appear to be overtly related to the Armenian genocide.

Milli Gazete is the only publication that has presented the bill in this light. In view of the political inclinations (extremely anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, and anti-West) and the very poor journalistic standards of this paper, the report may not be taken seriously.

But a closer look at the law (the text in Turkish can be accessed at http://www.memurlar.net/haber/44086/) suggests that public access to key documen’s may be denied on grounds of “national security and interests” and “secrecy.” Unlike the situation in the past, this denial of access will now enjoy “legal armor,” as Milli Gazete describes it.

The draft bill consists of four sections and 39 articles and, when enacted, will be the first law about state archives. Most of the articles are related to the organization, functions, and responsibilities of a reorganized Directorate General of State Archives (DGSA); definitions of archival documen’s; and the protection, preservation, and classification of archival documen’s. The bill states that the DGSA will have supervision authority over archival material in the custody of public institutions such as public universities, libraries, ministries, institutes, local governmen’s, etc.

The bill, however, exempts “the Office of the President, the Turkish National Assembly, the General Staff, the Ministry of National Defense, and the National Intelligence Organization” from direct supervision. These agencies are required “to implement the principles stated in the law through their own organizational units.”

The bill, if passed, will also create four departmen’s within the directorate, the two most important of which are the “Republican Archives Department” and the “Ottoman Archives Department.” The other two departmen’s are related to documentation and relations with foreign archive departmen’s. Several “consultative” entities such as legal counsels, public relations, human resources, and “strategy development” units are also enumerated in the new organization.

On the positive side, the bill establishes principles and guidelines that regulate the sorting and destruction of archival documen’s at even the lowest levels of government. It also formally criminalizes the theft, willful destruction and adulteration, and trading of archival documen’s.

The bill also contains clauses that codify the potential denial of free public access to archival documen’s in the custody of all public agencies. The clauses that are of most interest to this group are summarized or translated below.

The first three paragraphs of Article 25 state that archival documen’s “cannot be removed from their repositories” except under special circumstances, which are specified; that copies of the documen’s may be provided under certain circumstances; and that “documen’s which have been cataloged and whose last procedure is more than 30 years old” will be open for research.

“Archival documen’s that have been assigned some level of secrecy classification or whose publication may harm national security and interests, the country’s external relations, or the rights of individuals shall retain these attributes after they are transferred to the Directorate General and may not be opened for scholarly research. The Directorate General may decide to remove secrecy classifications from certain archival documen’s in consultation with [the agency from which the archival document originated] and within the framework of laws,” reads the fourth paragraph of Article 25.

The fifth paragraph is also of interest, as it stipulates that “access to archival documen’s by domestic and foreign real and corporate persons and the implementation of procedures and principles stated in this article shall be governed by a statute of regulations.”

This paragraph is typical of virtually all Turkish laws which pass on the responsibility of “implementation of procedures and principles” to lower levels of administration. This provides deniability and vagueness in the case of laws that are known to be discriminatory in advance.

This was the method used to draft the “Deportation Law” of 1915 and the “Wealth Tax Law” of 1942 (as well as the “Religious Foundations” laws of 2000 and 2007) were drafted: the laws did not mention the actual targets of the actions taken but statutes of regulations created at lower or local levels of administration targeted only certain groups. This allowed the Ottoman and Turkish governmen’s to deny charges that the laws they enacted were discriminatory against certain groups and to argue that “the laws were justified but the implementation went awry.”

Although Milli Gazete’s claim that this bill is aimed at “self-defense” against Armenian genocide allegations is not readily apparent in the language of the bill, it is clear that the law provides substantial leeway to a wide range of Turkish government agencies to restrict selectively access to a very large set of sensitive documen’s. The exemption from direct supervision given to “power agencies” such as the General Staff, the Presidency, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Intelligence Organization; together with the “secrecy” and “national security” exemptions of Article 25(4) and the vague implementation provisions through “statutes of regulations” provide sufficient tools to a fairly large and deep bureaucracy to deny access to any archival document on an arbitrarily selective basis.

The draft bill is expected to go to the National Assembly for discussion and enactment into law during the current legislative session.

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