Turkey: EU and UN address Turkey’s troublesome arts freedom record

Significant shortcomings in the promotion of democracy and human rights feature highly in the European Commission’s 2015 Progress Report on Turkey, which points to ‘significant backsliding’ on protection of freedom of expression in the last two years after several years of progress.

By Sara Whyatt


The report refers to a worrying number of writers and journalists still in prison, around twenty, with new and ongoing criminal cases against many others, including a ‘widened practice of court cases of alleged insult against the President’. Political pressure, dismissals, court cases, and physical attacks are all too common and contribute to an ‘intimidating climate’ under which many have succumbed to self-censorship.

In addition, says the Commission, new legislation has tightened the screws on Internet freedom, and laws ostensibly aimed to deal with terrorism being applied in cases which are not indisputably terrorist offences. All this adds to concerns about a deterioration and growing threat to freedom for artists, writers, journalists and anyone who is critical of the government, and there is little optimism that this trend will reverse in the near future.

Turkey has on many occasions made important commitments to freedom of expression, and particularly on artistic and creative expression. While welcome, these promises, made within the confines of the international arenas such as in the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva, run counter to the experience of artists within Turkey itself who challenge the accepted norms. As described by the EU, like journalists, they too face censorship, court cases, funding cuts and even imprisonment.

Turkey signed United Nations Joint Statement
Arts freedom monitors, Siyah Bant and Freemuse, whose recommendation to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review for artistic freedom of expression to be protected in Turkey was among those accepted the government, are now calling on the authorities in Turkey to make good those commitments.

On 18 September 2015, Turkey was among 53 states to sign onto a joint statement delivered to the UN Human Rights Council reaffirming the right to freedom of artistic expression.

Speaking on behalf of the 53 states, the ambassador of Latvia, Janis Karklins, told the Council:

“We stand firm in our commitment to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression, including artistic and creative expression. In addition to being an integral part of the protected human right to freedom of expression, artistic and creative expression is critical to the human spirit, the development of vibrant cultures, and the functioning of democratic societies. Artistic expression connects us all, transcending borders and barriers. Artistic expression can challenge us and change the way we view the world.”

This follows Turkey’s acceptance of a recommendation made by the Norwegian government delivered in January during the Universal Periodic Review of Turkey, under a process where UN state members are brought before the UN Council for Human Rights to have their commitments to human rights principles scrutinised, and for other states to make suggestions for reforms. This recommendation, suggested by Freemuse and Siyah Bant in a joint submission to the UPR, urged that Turkey: “Refrain from censoring social and conventional media and ensure that freedom of expression is safeguarded in all forms, including the arts.”

Add to this that Article 27 of Turkey’s Constitution makes direct reference to protecting the “right to and teach, express, and disseminate science and the arts, and to carry out research in these fields freely”, one would expect that artists and cultural workers should be able to practice in freedom.

Plethora of attacks against artists’ rights
However, the situation as it plays out on the ground shows a different picture. This year has seen a plethora of attacks against artists’ rights in Turkey including prosecutions for ‘insult’, anti-terror laws applied against artists supporting Kurdish rights, bans on plays, films and music, and theatres that had put on performances supporting the 2013 Gezi protests having their funding cut.

In June 2015, Freemuse and Siyah Bant reported on a year of trials and penalties for Turkish artists. President Erdoğan’s tendency to turn to the courts to deal with his critics has led to over 200 cases being brought against those whose legitimate criticism he sees as ‘insult’. The report gave details of artists, including cartoonists and actors, who have found themselves before the courts and fined for their depictions of Erdoğan.

Turkey’s anti-terror legislation has been criticised for being too vague in its definition of what is ‘terrorism’ and for being applied to people whose challenge the government.

Freemuse/Siyah Bant are concerned about the case of Nûdem Durak, a Kurdish singer, who went to prison in April to serve a 10.5 year sentence under the Anti Terror Law. The concern is that her popularity as a performer among young people in Cizre, a town that has seen considerable unrest has led to the particularly harsh sentence, serving as a warning to others.

There were also performance bans this year against Grup Yorum, a popular folk-rock group with a large following in Turkey and abroad. Their strong left-wing politics led to bans on at least two of their concerts in 2015 on the grounds that they would “garner [negative] attention from certain sections of society”.

Freemuse/Siyah Bant has registered its concern about other forms of curtailment of artistic freedom of expression including denial of film certification, performance space, dismissals and withdrawal of funding are other means of curtailing freedom of artistic freedom of expression.

In April 2015, the documentary Bakur (North) that investigates daily life in PKK camps, was withdrawn from the Istanbul Film Festival program by its organisers on instruction from the government. The Ministry of Culture warned that this documentary had not been granted a ‘certificate of registration’.

In May 2015 the Edirne Education Council denied permission for a theatre play based on the work of a well known poet, Can Yücel to be performed in a city theatre. It was deemed as containing ‘slang’ and ‘political elements’. The play was nevertheless performed outside, attracting a large local audience.

Treatres ‘blacklisted’
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 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.

In late 2014, the director of the Dostlar Theatre Company, who had struggled to gain Ministry of Culture Funding that it had previously enjoyed, told the press that this company has not received funding for over a year and that around 16 other theatres had similarly been ‘blacklisted’ by the Ministry on grounds of their support for the protests. Anecdotal evidence suggests that theatres are reluctant to complain about politically based funding problems for fear that this could jeopardise further funding.

Artists who took part in the 2013 Gezi protests have suffered repercussions. Theatre workers have gathered to support actor Levent Üzümcü who had been an outspoken supporter of the Gezi protests, who was dismissed from Istanbul city theatres, which means he will be barred from performing in any theatre that has city funding, a move linked to comments and statements he made following the Gezi protests. His supporters called this move a “crackdown on art and artists”. Actor Hamit Demir for a popular tv series, had his contract unexpectedly terminated, he believes because of his involvement in a video protesting the death of a child during the Gezi protests.

Several others who took part, all artists, were taken for questioning in April on ill-defined charges of committing a criminal offence.

Government control of cultural productions was among the concerns raised by the European Commission in its October 2014 annual Progress Report on Turkey’s membership of the EU stating that : The overall approach to arts and culture was marked by steps increasing the state supervision, including by introducing requirement of ‘morally acceptable’ theatre plays as a condition for a state financial support or a ministerial approval of movies to be screened at national film festivals.

The EU’s 2015 report specifically refers to the use of film certification as a means of restricting artistic freedom and points out that “Turkey has not yet ratified the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which is the EU’s main legal reference in the area of culture.”

Acceptance by Turkey of UPR recommendation
The submission by Freemuse, Siyah Bant and the Initiative for Freedom of Expression to the Turkey UPR details the problems faced by artists over the four years since Turkey was last reviewed in 2010. The submission makes a number of recommendations to address concerns for freedom of the arts in Turkey including 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 obstacles to influence in granting film certification or funding.

The acceptance by Turkey of the UPR recommendation to uphold freedom of expression for artists, alongside its support for the UN statement on cultural and artists rights in September 2015 are positive developments. Freemuse and Siyah Bant will be monitoring progress and will use every opportunity to raise breaches to the commitments as they occur with the authorities. Using the UPR framework to measure progress in the protection of freedom of expression, particularly as it affects arts rights, and to be part of the civil society input and guidance to the process, will ensure that Turkey meets its commitments under the United Nations and European human rights instruments, its support for artistic expression globally, and to its own constitution.
» Download the European Commission’s 2015 Progress Report

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

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