Turkey: Artists under pressure – a year of trials and penalties

8 June 2015


Yesterday, Turkey’s voters headed towards the ballot boxes to place their votes in the 7 June general elections. As the election day approached, threats to the media, both veiled and overt, were in the air. This was not entirely unexpected, given that Turkey’s poor record of protection of the right to freedom of expression is well-known. What is less known is that Turkey’s artists also face harassment and censorship. Like journalists, they find themselves arrested, threatened, dismissed from their jobs and their work banned. They also have to contend with other forms of censorship, such as politically applied film certification bans and being denied essential funding.

By Sara Whyatt
In June 2014, Freemuse, joined forces with the with the Istanbul-based censorship monitors, Siyah Bant, and the Initiative for Freedom of Expression to present a report to the United Nations on attacks on freedom of artistic expression. They told of how anti-terror laws are used to prosecute Kurdish artists, that defamation legislation punishes cartoonists, actors and musicians who ridicule the President, how film certification censors political content, artworks are removed from exhibitions and funding denied to performances that do not fit the government mould.
Musicians as terrorists
In the past 12 months since the report was submitted, new attacks on artists continue unabated. In December 2014, a young Kurdish folk singer, Nûdem Durak, went to prison to serve a heavy 10.5 year sentence under the Anti-terror Law. She was among thousands of Kurdish activists and their supporters arrested through 2009 and 2011 in what is known as the Kurdistan Communities Union (Koma Civakên Kurdistan – KCK) case. Established in 2005 by the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan – PKK) with the aim of setting up its own political system in the Kurdish region of south east Turkey, the KCK trials have targeted Kurdish and Turkish civilians with pro-Kurdish sympathies, although many deny links with the PKK.

Durak herself was arrested in March 2010. She spent seven months in prison before being freed pending trial, which ended four years later in December 2014 with her return to prison. There she could stay for the next ten years. According to her lawyer, the only evidence against her are meetings she attended, and workshops she took part in, none of which could be seen as calling for or actually engaging in violence. Her case is similar to that of other KCK defendants, and has led to rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to conclude that many among them are prisoners of conscience.

On a positive note Kurdish singers, Mazlum Yerlikaya and Yekbun Avşar, were finally acquitted in March 2015. They had been on trial for two years before they were cleared of charges of pro-terror propaganda for singing a Kurdish song at a Newroz – Kurdish New Year – celebration held by university students in March 2013. Yet theirs is one of many instances of people being brought to court on the flimsiest of evidence, or even no evidence at all.
Defamation – cartoonists, actors and musicians charged for insult to President Erdoğan
In most democracies, leaders tolerate ridicule and satire, seeing this as a healthy part of political discourse, and, anyway, those in power can call on the full might of their PR machines to counteract any embarrassment caused. But this is not so in Turkey where Erdoğan, both when he was prime minister and in his present role as President, has been particularly inclined towards dealing with his detractors through defamation laws that carry fines and two year prison sentences. His lawyers have been hard at work in the past year prosecuting journalists, and also cartoonists, painters, actors and musicians.

In March 2015 cartoonists Bahadır Baruter and Özer Aydoğan were each sentenced to 14 months in prison, converted to a fine of TL7,000 [c. €2,500] for a caricature published on the cover of the satirical magazine, Penguen during the August 2014 Presidential elections. They were convicted of undermining the ‘honour and dignity of [President] Erdoğan’. Sensitivity was clearly at its height at election time. Two weeks before the election itself, musician Kutsal Evcimen sang a song about a donkey at the Arguvan Folk Festival, and followed it with a short speech. In January this year he found himself under investigation for insult of now President Erdoğan. The song, Evcimen explained, was written some 30 years earlier, and he denies that there was anything insulting in it.

Displaying an image by a non-Turkish artist can lead to prosecution too. In January 2015 the New York Times reported that a mathematics teacher was under investigation for having waved a copy of a cartoon during a demonstration in December. The cartoon, by an American artist and which had been published in the New York Times, shows a joint of meat on a spit with an image of the Turkish flag superimposed on it being carved by President Erdoğan. The newspaper reported that the teacher faced a maximum three year sentence for insult to the Turkish flag.

The Turkish legal system can be long winded and complex. Often defendants are the last to know that they have been convicted. Actor and theatre director, Haldun Açıksözlü, discovered at an airport as he tried to leave for a performance in Germany in February 2015 that he had been convicted to a TL6,000 fine [c. €2,500] in a case launched against him in 2011 – again of insult against Erdoğan, then prime minister. He was not allowed to leave until he had paid up. This was one of four cases launched against Açıksözlü since 2010 that sprang from his popular, one man, stand-up performance titled ‘Laz Marks’ said to have had 200 performances before over 100,000 audience members.  [Erdoğan’s family comes from Rize a town on the Black Sea coast, the centre of the Laz minority.] Use of certification as creative control: the Istanbul Film Festival – Bakur Case
The use of film certification is another means of government control over movies that cover ground that the authorities do not wish to see exposed. Recent tightening of certification rules now mean that now films to be shown at festivals need certification when before none was needed unless they were to go to general release. In April 2015, the documentary ‘Bakur’ (North) that investigates daily life in PKK camps, was withdrawn from the Istanbul Film Festival program on instruction from the government. The documentary, directed by Çayan Demirel and journalist Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, was pulled by the festival organisers after they had received a notice from the Ministry of Culture that this documentary had not been granted a ‘certificate of registration’. Outraged by the decision, 23 film companies withdrew their own works from the festival, stating that was a clear case of censorship.
Withholding of funding and dismissal as tools of censorship
It can be difficult to confirm that withdrawal or refusing of public funding for theatres and art works is linked to their political content. However in recent months theatres that had been openly supportive of the 2013 Gezi demonstrations have reported finding it difficult to obtain previously available government funding, essential for many non-commercial theatrical productions. One example is the Dostlar Theatre Company, whose application for funding from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to stage a Turkish language version of Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ was at first refused, then overturned on appeal by a court in Ankara in July 2014, allowing the play to eventually go ahead. The theatre director told the press that this company has not received funding for over a year. He added that around 16 other theatres had similarly been ‘blacklisted’ by the Ministry on grounds of their support for the protests.

Actor Levent Üzümcü who had been an outspoken supporter of the Gezi protests, spoke to the press earlier this year of his dismissal from Istanbul city theatres, which means he will be barred from performing in any theatre that has city funding. He says this is linked to comments and statements he made following the Gezi protests, and especially for a speech he gave to a 2013 Socialist International Conference at the time.
Artists called for questioning for video on death of child shot during Gezi protests
Despite the constant pressure and threats, Turkish artists are still willing to make a stand where they see injustice. Recently, in April, artists, among them well-known and popular musicians, television and film actors, were called for questioning before the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office on suspicion of ‘calling people onto the streets [to commit crimes]’. They had appeared in a video commemorating the anniversary of the death of Elvan Berkin, a 15-year-old boy who died in March 2014. He had been in a coma for nine months after having been hit in the head by a police tear gas canister fired during the June 2013 Gezi protests. The five-minute video features a young girl asking “Where is Elvan Berkin?” followed by the artists commenting “I am Elvan Berkin” and asking questions such as “How can you sleep at night?” and “Where are you hiding his killers?”.

Soon after, one of those appeared in the video, actor Hamit Demir, who had acted in 13 episodes of the historical drama television series, Diriliş ‘Ertuğrul, had his contract unexpectedly terminated, he believes because of the video. His case mirrors that of many other journalists and performers who, notably since the 2013 Gezi protests, have been dismissed or had their contracts cut after having criticised the government. Newspaper and media owners have been accused of acting under direct or indirect instructions from the government.
What needs to be changed?
In the June 2014 UN document, Freemuse, Siyah Bant and the Initiative for Freedom of Expression made a number of recommendations to address concerns for freedom of the arts in Turkey, all of which remain as critical now as then. They include an end to the use of anti terror laws to penalise artists and creative works, the removal of criminal defamation, and that there be no political influence in film certification or funding.

Turkey’s art scene, its film and television production and its music is vibrant and world-renowned. Yet this creativity cannot but be stifled while Turkish artists have to take care not to upset those in power by avoiding ‘sensitive’ topics ranging from Kurdish issues, to religion and traditional values, to human rights abuses or simply just to laugh at politicians.

Sara Whyatt is a consultant with many years of human rights advocacy including leading PEN International’s global freedom of expression program.

Photo on top of this page: Nudem Durak and friends. Screendump from documentary video by Al Jazeera’s AJ+. Read more

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