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A documentary titled “Ali/The Free World of Our Dreams” was to be screened at a community center in Hatay, Turkey on the birthday of Ismail Ali Korkmaz, who died of head wounds sustained after a beating by plainclothes policemen during the Gezi Resistance. But the municipality of Hatay attempted to halt the screening under the premise that the film, produced by a group called the “Collective Film Association” was not registered with the Regional Cultural Council. Preventing the screening of this film was a clear case of censorship, as demanding registration for a non-commercial educational film screened for free and at a community organization is a breach of Turkish law. Eventually, the community center hosting the screening was able to show the film. Yet such efforts to curtail freedom of expression in Turkey demonstrate that the government is breaching Turkish constitutional laws as well as international human rights agreements. In comparison to the military coup of 1980 when the Turkish government openly engaged in censorship against its dissidents, today censorship is further enforced by business enterprises and economic groups who have financial ties to the government.

Our group Siyah Bant(Black Tape) has been researching, documenting and publicizing cases of censorship against the arts in an effort to help protect the rights of creative practitioners in Turkey. One of our aims is to also track the less overt ways in which censorship is augmented and self-censorship necessitated, whether through social pressure, scare tactics, othering, slander, or various other strategies of discouragement and hindrance. The idea of forming Siyah Bant came about while preparing a report titled “Censorship in Contemporary Art” during a workshop in honor of Hrant Dink convened by Banu Karaca at Sabancı University in 2010.[1] We realized that censorship was not something that was easily talked about among artists or even readily labeled as a human rights violation by activists. We thought about consulting with the public and with artists on how to label something a case of censorship. First we established a website and mentioned those cases which received media coverage. We met with over eighty arts organizations, artists and reporters based in nine different cities for a first hand account of their experiences. Our first publication grew out of this research, and addressed the broader the factors that promote censorship in Turkey, as well as including and an in-depth analysis of the better-known cases of censorship.

Our other goal was to create a network among artists who could come together to speak out against censorship. We realized that our first step towards this long-term goal was to inform artists about their legal rights. We collaborated with Bilgi University’s Center for Human Rights and Research to organize workshops sharing information about the legal frameworks against censorship pertaining to the visual arts, film, theater, literature and music. The research that came out of these workshops culminated in an essay penned by Dr. Ulaş Karan, assistant professor of law at Bilgi University and shaped the contents of our second publication.

Other articles and reports published in the past year highlight our recent research projects. Our research on cultural policy in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, aims to understand how the “peace process” brokered between the Turkish government and the PKK is affecting freedom of expression in the region. A report of our findings was published on the website of the Index on Censorship. Our research on the relationship between censorship and the government’s financial support of the film industry culminated in an article we penned for the Turkish film journal Altyazı. We also presented the Turkish parliament with a series of questions about the relationship between censorship and the government’s financing of film and theater in Turkey. Our interview with artist Iz Öztat on the events leading up to the censorship of the exhibition “Here Together Now” exhibited at the Turkish Embassy in Madrid, was posted on the website of the Index on Censorship and the news site Jadaliyya.

In addition to publishing our research, our future goals are to provide informational kits to cultural producers on their legal rights to freedom of expression, to bring creative practitioners whose rights have been violated together with legal counsel to mount exemplary court cases, and to create a network of support in the arts to speak and act out against censorship. In these court cases we hope to highlight the relationship between freedom of creative expression and freedom of speech as a basic human right. Even though there are federal laws in place for protecting freedom of expression in Turkey, often times these laws are breached by the government or by security forces purportedly acting to protect public safety.

In December 2011, Turkey’s former minister of Affairs, Idris Naim Şahin, gave a speech in which he named artists, universities and civil rights groups as the “backdoor” to terrorism. Şahin’s speech created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for artists and free thinkers, thereby setting the groundwork for stricter modes of self-censorship. This is an anti-intellectual system of power that silences its critics and opponents, heightens social tensions and marginalizes and criminalizes artists while rewarding lower level state bureaucrats with the authority and means to control and delimit freedom of creative expression.

Censorship is often legitimized on the part of state officials as a need to protect the rights of certain “sensitive citizens,” or more accurately, certain “anonymous parties” aligned with the ruling party, who complain that their beliefs and values are offended by the artwork in question. Many of these instances of censorship are initiated as investigations into the alleged complaints of these sensitive citizens.

In some cases, rather than going through the legal channels of filing complaints, these “sensitive citizens” organize amongst themselves to threaten and attack artists or to directly remove works of art they find objectionable. In 2010, the Islamist press launched such a vocal objection to the theater production “Lick But Don’t Swallow” written by Özen Yula, that the play’s premiere had to be suspended. The municipality then closed and barricaded the theater in which the play was to take place on account of a licensing technicality. That same year, four galleries located in the Tophane neighborhood of Istanbul held openings on the same evening. The openings were stormed by a group armed with sticks and clubs, who objected to the consumption of alcohol on the street. The fact that the authorities did not attempt to identify and prosecute the attackers, and that Ertuğrul Günay, the director of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Istanbul justified the attacks by stating the need to be respectful of “societal sensitivities,” strongly suggests that the government is collaborating with non-governmental agents in validating these types of bullying tactics.

The media also collaborates with this system in the name protecting “societal sensitivities.” It uses a language of vilification to directly target artists and prevent the display of certain works. Yet the press is not legally responsible for the threats and actions of those who are affected by its charged language. For this reason, artists need to launch organized efforts to hold the press accountable for language that incites its readers to violence, if not on a legal level, than at least on an ethical level.

The government has also taken direct action against the works of artists it finds objectionable. Illustrators and comic book artists such as Musa Kart, who publishes in the newspaper Cumhuriyet, and Sefer Selvi and Mehmet Çağçağ who publish in the comic magazine Penguen, have been sued by former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on charges of defamation. A public sculpture created by Mehmet Aksoy and installed in the city of Kars, near the Armenian border was created as a gesture of reconciliation and a “Monument for Humanity” in light of the Armenian genocide. The removal of the sculpture was being debated in court upon objections to it voiced by Turkish nationalists when Erdoğan paid a visit to Kars. After referring to the sculpture as “freakish” he encouraged its demolition. Interestingly, when the European Court of Human Rights accused Erdoğan of defamation against the sculptor and his work, the former Prime Minister defended himself by saying that he was practicing his freedom of speech when he voiced his critique of the sculpture. It’s clear that definitions of criticism, defamation and provocation are mutable and change according to the opinions of those in power.

Sometimes it is not the laws and regulations themselves but the way they are administered that result in censorship. European regulations pertaining to freedom of expression are taken as an example on which the principles of democracy and transparency are based, but questions about how the criteria and laws indicated on these regulations are being administered and interpreted are repeatedly ignored. In the film industry, the way a film is rated can be utilized as a mode of censorship when films are deemed inappropriate for viewing by certain age groups, or are rated in such a way as to designate them “inappropriate for commercial distribution.” There is a government board for the support and sponsorship of film in Turkey, but the process through which board members earmark films for financial support is not very transparent. In one-on-one meetings between the board and film directors, political content becomes a point of discussion. This, coupled with the fact that the board never responds to questions about why certain films receive financial support over others suggests that these regulations are being administered in a way that can block creative freedom.

A new bill referred to by the acronym TÜSAK has been drafted to restructure how government funds are distributed to theater, dance, opera and ballet organizations in Turkey. An arts council will decide how to distribute government funds to various arts groups, but information on how the members of this council were chosen and the length of their terms has not been disclosed. This concerns theater groups in particular, because the council has made it mandatory for those groups receiving government support to sign agreements stating that they will stage productions “appropriate for public morals” and it has been suggested that the council will withhold funds from theater groups who have outwardly supported or taken part in the Gezi Resistance.

The Turkish ministry that promotes the display of creative projects abroad has tried to censor the projects it supports. In 2008, when the film “Gitmek” (“Going”) by Hüseyin Karabey was screened at the Culturescapes Festival in Switzerland, the ministry threatened to pull the 250,000 Euros that it had granted the film on the objection that the film showed “a Turkish girl falling in love with a Kurdish man.” The ministry also puts pressure on foreign organizations not to invite and mount projects from Turkey that address Kurdish rights, that use the Kurdish language, or that address the Armenian genocide, threatening to pull financial support if they do so.

The government has consistently exerted pressure on and threatened to silence Kurdish artists. A period of relative political stability and leniency in the early 2000s was replaced by a renewed period of interrogation during the KCK (Association of Kurdistan Communities) arrests. The activities that Kurdish artists had engaged in during earlier periods of political stability were now cited as evidence of alleged crimes, indicating that they had always been under surveillance. Siyah Bant’s research revealed that new court cases launched against Kurdish artists even during the “peace process” interpreted artistic expression as a political statement, moreover, an illegal political statement. The court cases described activities such as singing a Kurdish folk song or playing a Kurdish musical instrument as inciting uprisings and “supporting terrorist groups.”

While this text focuses on censorship on the part of the government and its collaborators, it hasn’t even touched upon the various pressures exerted on freedom of artistic expression by arts organizations, festivals and galleries, or the private sector. This topic deserves its own study. In order to fight censorship against the arts, artists need to organize and strengthen their own ability to push back and exert pressure against entities that are violating their freedom of expression; they need to demand accountability from the government agents who are threatening to censor them, and they need to be aware of their own rights, resorting to legal means, if necessary, to defend those rights. Lastly, more studies need to be conducted on legal deadlocks so that they can work in favor of protecting freedom of artistic expression rather than against it.

Translated from the Turkish by Berin Gölönü

[1] Hrant Dink was a Turkish-Armenian journalist, the founder and editor of the Istanbul-based newspaper Agos, and defender of free speech in Turkey. He was shot and killed by a Turkish youth in front of the Agos newspaper offices on January 19, 2007.

Short bio:

Pelin Başaran is a Turkish cultural policy and management researcher and lecturer. She is a founder, along with Banu Karaca and Asena Günal, of Siyah Bant.

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