Censorship and Freedom of Speech – How does Turkey shape up?

I want to come right out and admit I haven’t read any of Paul Auster’s sixteen novels. Sadly, it seems he is not highly esteemed by critics in his native America. I checked out reviews in New Yorker and elsewhere, and the overall tone was dismissive. On the other hand, he is, apparently, much read in Europe, and interestingly, is currently climbing the best-seller lists in Turkey. So it seems a pity that he has refused to visit a potential market of 75 million eager readers.
Paul Auster depicted in The Guardian
What attracted my attention to Mr Auster was the eruption, in the press, of a minor war of words between him and the Turkish Prime Minister. Mr Tayyip Erdoğan is quoted as having said, more or less, “Do we care if he comes or doesn’t come?” Certainly there was no suggestion that Auster would be prevented from entering Turkey. The Leader of the Opposition has made it known that he has issued a personal invitation, and good on him, say I.
Still, the fact remains that Paul Auster clearly wants it on record that he is refusing to honour Turkey with a visit, and it’s a matter of principle, not merely a stunt to publicise himself and increase sales of his books (which are not banned in Turkey). The problem, it seems, is that the Turkish government has been imprisoning “journalists and writers” in numbers, depending on who is telling the story, from forty, to a hundred, to more than a thousand.
Well, I live in the country. I read local newspapers, I watch local television and I take an interest in local affairs. If the government is truly rounding up and imprisoning journalists and writers without due process, I want to know about it. Just across Turkey’s south-eastern border the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has resorted to shelling whole towns whose citizens have expressed discontent with the regime. The tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, on the Persian Gulf, linked to Saudi Arabia by a 25 km causeway, has recently suppressed its own popular uprisings with the help of tanks supplied by its equally tyrannical neighbour.
Turkey, on the other hand, has a democratically elected government. Not everyone loves the AK Party regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, and many of my Turkish friends, neighbours and colleagues express their dislike openly. Newspaper columnists blatantly criticise, cartoonists mock and satirise, as far as I can see, without let or hindrance. Television current affairs programmes discuss the issues of the day with seeming impunity. I have heard of no arrests or disappearances among people I know, or people known by people I know.
So who are these “writers” in custody, and why are they there? The first thing that strikes me is Auster’s claim that “nearly a hundred writers” are imprisoned in Turkey. Well, that’s a lot of writers by anyone’s count. Are they full-time journalists, I wonder? Novelists? Poets? Writers of academic textbooks? Or unpublished part-time scribblers like myself? One name that often crops up is Ragip Zarakolu, so I checked him out online, and clearly he is a man with the courage of his convictions. Turkey underwent three military coups between 1960 and 1980, and Mr Zarakolu apparently upset the generals with his challenging of censorship laws relating to human rights abuses, Kurdish nationalism and the Armenian question, among other sensitive issues. In the 1970s and early 80s, he seems to have been in and out of prison, and had his passport revoked by the government of the day. Since the accession of the current AK Party government in 2003, Ragip Bey has faced several prosecutions, but has so far managed to avoid imprisonment, despite, it seems, his continued efforts to publish books and articles on issues generally accepted as requiring careful handling in Turkey.
Two other names that are attracting some sympathy within Turkey are journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener. Unlike most of the other “writers”, these two are more or less mainstream. They seem to have been caught up in the net, along with other people associated with a TV channel, Oda TV, of two major related investigations, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, that have been going on in Turkey for four or five years. It is extremely difficult to get a handle on exactly what these affairs are all about, but, as I understand, they seem to have something to do with the following:
  • Some sectors of the population who like to consider themselves republican, secularist, Kemalist and nationalist, support the concept of a military takeover when the democratic process doesn’t seem to be producing the results they would like.
  • Groups within the Turkish military have staged three-and-a-half military coups since 1960. They suppressed left-wing dissent, while encouraging ultra-nationalist sentiment and displaying, at best, an ambivalent attitude to the Muslim religion.
  • There is minority but powerful organised opposition to the popularly elected AK Party government of Tayyıp Erdoğan, using overt and clandestine methods against it rather than working through the democratic process and the ballot box.
  • Mr Erdoğan’s government has been working to reduce the influence of the military on the internal political affairs of the nation.
  • Prior to the accession of Mr Erdoğan’s government, there had been serious concern in Turkey about a concept known as ‘Deep State’, which implied some kind of unholy alliance involving high-ranking politicians, police and military personnel, business leaders and organised crime syndicates. One manifestation of this was the so-called “Susurluk” affair, whose intricacies never seemed to be explained to public satisfaction.
  • Critics from the left and right, within Turkey and without, seem to be cooperating in using issues such as Kurdish nationalism, the Armenian issue, freedom of the press and the bogey of Islamic fundamentalism to encourage opposition to the government.
In fact, it’s way too much for most Turkish citizens to understand, never mind a foreigner with a limited grasp of the language. However, it’s hard to live in the country for any length of time without forming some kind of opinion on these matters, and I’d like to share my thoughts with you.
Democracy is a fragile flower that needs careful nurturing. The first genuinely democratic election in Turkey was held in 1950. As has been noted, the democratic process was usurped by three military coups between 1960 and 1980. Ostensibly, government was handed back to the Turkish people in 1983, but some are of the opinion that the newly elected government was engineered by the military leaders.  If you measure democracy by the ability of a country’s citizens to freely elect their government, it could be argued that democracy in Turkey dates from 1997, the last time the Turkish military interfered to depose an elected government.  
Fifteen years is not a long time. The United States Declaration of Independence, promulgated in 1776, asserted, among other things:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. “
At that time in US history, “the People” were “men”. It would be 164 years before women were given the constitutional right “to alter or abolish” governments. African Americans were definitely not “People”, since the practice of slavery continued until the 13th Amendment abolished it in 1865. I’m not even going to mention the Native Americans’ situation, but it must be fair to say that legal and socially sanctioned racial segregation continued for much of the 20th century.
Clearly, democracy is a controversial term in itself. How do you measure it? Elsewhere I have noted the tendency of undemocratic regimes to make liberal use of the term. The right to vote is generally cited as an important cornerstone of the democratic process, but how much power does that really give us? Emma Goldman, once described as ‘the most dangerous woman in America’, is reputed to have said: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”. Cynical, you’d have to say, especially since she lived from 1869 to1940. But sometimes you wonder, don’t you? I can’t find who first came up with the pithy aphorism: “America has the best democracy money can buy”, but look at the facts. Lobbying is a multi-million dollar industry in the US. Wall St and the financial industry spend hundreds of million of dollars on lobbyists influencing lawmakers to deregulate their industry so that they could fleece investors, fill their own pockets and undermine the entire US economy. Elected representatives move out of Congress and into highly paid jobs using their ‘insider’ knowledge and contacts on behalf of wealthy clients in the lobbying industry. In short, if you can’t afford to lobby, forget democracy.
I don’t want to go into the matter here – anyway, I have touched on it in an earlier post – but it could be argued that, at least beyond their own shores, governments in the United States tend to prefer autocratic, dictatorial regimes. On the whole, it is easier and more straightforward to deal with governments that don’t have to take into account the fickle opinions of an enfranchised electorate.
But I’m getting away from Turkey here, and the issue we started with, which is freedom of speech, or more specifically freedom of the press. Ideally it’s desirable that writers should be free to express themselves, politically or artistically, without fear of harassment or imprisonment. Undoubtedly, in Turkey, that is not always the case, while the US situation has apparently improved since the “Dubya” Bush administration passed into history. However, it’s not a clear-cut issue. Obviously there are areas where other factors take precedence over freedom of speech: incitement to crime, child pornography, defamation, and national security, to name a few. Turks, for example, have fallen victim to curtailment of freedom with the French Government’s recent decision to prevent them from defending themselves against accusations of genocide against Armenians.
As we noted above, democratic freedoms in Turkey are not as well-established as in most Western democracies. Turkey as a nation came into being in 1923 after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. It’s founding principle, Turkish nationalism, was a new concept that had to be introduced and established in order to create a viable state. In the cauldron of war and political and economic upheaval, undoubtedly myths were invented and half-truths disseminated. Minority rights were overlooked or shelved, as in all national struggles, in the interests of unity. It is only in recent years, perhaps the last decade, that Turks have come to feel confident enough in their own identity that they can permit discussion of issues such as, for example, the Kurdish question, and the place of religion in a secular state. That these issues can now be discussed openly is a measure of an increasing maturity of Turkish society.
Paul Auster is, of course, entitled to his opinion about Turkey – though one might have hoped that an open-minded writer would want to visit the country and form his own opinions, rather than rely on those of others. He refers, for example, to the international organization PEN, formed in 1921 “to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere”. When you check their website, you can’t escape the feeling that literary aims have taken a back seat these days to a political agenda. That’s their right, too, certainly, and their aims may be very worthy, but perhaps they should consider changing their name so that it gives a more honest indication of their raison d’etre.
One similar organization which does that, is Reporters Without Borders (RSF). They publish an index each year indicating how they rate countries in terms of journalistic freedom. They are unabashedly a political organization, though, again, their name is a little deceptive. Clearly it was intended to reflect a similarity of purpose to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), whose members give assistance to people in countries whose own governments, for whatever reason, are unable to do so. While the very presence of MSF doctors in a country may imply failures on the part of that country’s government, for the most part, they seem to refrain from making political judgments.
Still, the world of art is in a different universe, and artists are jealous of their freedom to express. Another writer who has been in trouble in Turkish courts is the novelist Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, though he is not well-loved, nor, as far as I can learn, much read in his own country (at least in the books that won him the big prize). I worked my way through one-and-a-half novels from his prize-winning canon, albeit in translation, and I have to confess I found them barely readable – though that may not always be a disadvantage when it comes to winning literary awards. A more positive advantage may be the expressing of political views that do not endear the writer to his own government. Pamuk was charged under Turkish Law with insulting the Turkish Republic, for suggesting that Turks were responsible for the mass killing of Kurds and Armenians. Interestingly, the charges were subsequently dropped, and the lawyer instrumental in instigating the case, has been arrested as a player in the Ergenekon investigation discussed above.
Well, that’s a good sign, for sure. Whatever you may think about Pamuk as a giant of literature, you can’t say he really deserves to be locked up. And if the aforesaid lawyer turns out to have been an ultra-nationalist right-wing fanatic making death threats against well-meaning novelists, then justice in Turkey may have turned the corner. On the other hand, there are those in the country who hold that Ergenekon is a fictitious creation of the AK Party government to silence opposition. Another journalist, Tuncay Özkan, arrested in the round-up, recently appealed against his arrest to the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps surprisingly, the European Court rejected Özkan’s complaint, and defined Ergenekon as a “terrorist organization attempting to topple the government by the use of force.”
So, what do you make of all that? As that great comic genius Spike Milligan used to say, “It’s all rather confusing, really.” As an outsider, I am not really competent to make a definitive statement, but what I can say is this. Unlike Paul Auster, I came to Turkey. I live here, and have formed my own opinions about the country and its people. If Mr Auster comes, I can take him to easily accessible bookshops where he can purchase reading matter on all the controversial issues, from Kurdish nationalism to the Assyrian ‘genocide’. I can show him ample evidence of a healthy press sounding off against the ruling government, seemingly without fear of imprisonment and torture. He can watch (with a little assistance) current affairs programmes on several television channels discussing all the questions of the day. And no doubt he’ll be happy to see his own novels climbing the local best-seller lists.

4 thoughts on “Censorship and Freedom of Speech – How does Turkey shape up?

  1. Thanks for conveying information about Paul Auster. I think that there is so much blunt simplification going on in the world…everyone seems punitive, and hypersensitive and and hypervigilant. My new Facebook profile picture is of a license plate that I saw on a car in a parking lot: ENJOYTDY or something along those lines – meaning, Enjoy Today. With so much carping about so many things, it becomes impossible for many people to do that. There are many causes to protest, but the lesson here is to do one's homework. As anyone can post a petition online to protest anything, one must be very careful to avoid a knee-jerk response. Of course, it requires so much time to research every story and every cause…and one should not be oblivious to truthful suffering. There is a new term called 'clicktivism' which refers to the ability to consider oneself an activist because one has clicked 'yes' on a petition or 'liked' a cause. It's an angry, self-righteous world out there much of the time. By the way, Emma Goldman's sister lived in Rochester, New York. Red Emma was quite an amazing person. We no doubt would have found her difficult to be around in real life and hard to have in our families, but she certainly lived her beliefs. So, my rambling post ends!

  2. Yes. As Margie says, we shouldn't let our concern for the world distract us from enjoyment of today! And appreciating cats is one way of doing that. By the way, did you know that February 17 was World Cat Day? I didn't and I missed it, but anyway, I like cats most days of the year 🙂

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