ART UNDER THREAT IN 2016: TURKEY
SERIOUS VIOLATIONS: 23
ACTS OF CENSORSHIP: 13
2016 was a year when the situation for freedom of expression in Turkey went from bad to worse. The attempted coup against President Erdoğan on 15 July 2016 and the following State of Emergency led to a clampdown on oppositional voices in Turkey hitting media, academia and the arts world hard, literally silencing and imprisoning tens of thousands of people. The clampdown led Turkey to jump from the fourth country with the most serious violations on artistic freedom of expression in 2015, when it was tied with Syria and Burundi, to second in 2016.
In 2016, Freemuse registered 23 serious violations of artistic freedom of expression in Turkey, including 11 artists behind bars, the prosecution of seven artists, attacks on three artists and artworks and the persecution of or threat to two artists. Turkey also carried out 13 acts of censorship, for a total of 36 violations on artistic freedom of expression in 2016 – eight more cases than Freemuse registered for the country the previous year. Turkey’s 2016 clampdown led to a worrying increase in putting artists behind bars in comparison to 2015 – from two to 11.
As part of the crackdown, numerous artists have been investigated and fired from their positions at public art institutions. On 1 August 2016, six artists – actors Arda Aydın, Mahberi Mertoğlu, İrem Arslan, Mahberi Mertoğlu and Sevinç Erbulak, and directors Ragıp Yavuz and Kemal Kocatürk – were fired from Istanbul City Theatre following investigations.
Also in August, the Turkish government cancelled four concerts by pop star Sıla Gençoğlu over comments she made about a democracy rally held in Istanbul on 7 August in the aftermath of the attempted coup. “I am absolutely against the coup, but I prefer not be inside such a show”, the singer said about the rally.
Kurdish artists have long been the target of intimidations, prosecutions and attacks by Turkish officials and 2016 was no exception. The popular folk-rock band Grup Yorum, formed in the mid-1980s as a stridently political, left-wing, and pro-Kurdish group, have for three decades seen its members arrested, its concerts banned and its albums seized. On 23 November 2016, Turkish police arrested seven members of the band on charges of assault, resisting and insulting police, and being members of a terrorist group. As of January 2017 all members remain detained.
The young Kurdish singer, Nûdem Durak, who was arrested in April 2015, charged with “promoting Kurdish propaganda” and sentenced to 10.5 years in prison for singing in Kurdish and teaching Kurdish songs to children in her community, remains in prison.
Since President Erdoğan became president in August 2014, he has initiated over 1,800 cases against people he claims have insulted him, according to The Guardian. In 2016 he even went as far as filing a complaint beyond Turkey’s borders against German comedian Jan Böhmermann for his poem mocking the President (see more in the “Censoring across borders” section).
Numerous attacks on art by non-state actors were also registered in Turkey in 2016. A wooden sculpture by Amancio Gonzalez Andres entitled ‘Musician’ featured at the Izmirspor metro station in western Turkey was smashed by a local man who called the statue “obscene” in May 2016.
Sculptor Andres told Birgün newspaper on 27 May 2016 he condemned the attack on his art piece and claimed it was “actually an indication of a weakened government”. “Art encourages individual thinking and enriches us in the humanitarian sense,” he told the newspaper. “An attack against art is actually an attack on everyone’s freedom; totalitarian regimes have always seen art as the first enemy.”
Several artists have been directly affected by the mass arrests after the coup attempt without Freemuse being able to confirm a direct link to their artistic work. Despite the obvious chilling effect of such arrests, Freemuse only includes cases in its statistics where we have been able to confirm, with reasonable certainty, that the artist was targeted for her or his artistic work. We continue to monitor unconfirmed cases.
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