The bloody consequences of Turkey’s clashes with the Kurds

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115574″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]On 11 September, the peaceful silence of the early morning in Sürik, a tiny, unassuming village located in the barren yet beautiful mountains of Van, an eastern and mostly Kurdish populated province in Turkey, was broken by the sound of a violent explosion. The blast was so powerful that the earth shook; the adobe houses of the village rattled.

The Turkish military had been conducting operations in the region since early September, and clashes between soldiers and militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group  which has been fighting for Kurdish independence for more than four decades, had been more frequent than usual. The villagers saw military helicopters circling the usually serene skies above Çatak.

By the time the sun had melted the previous night’s fragile frost, one of the choppers had landed in an area behind the village. They took off a while later, taking two of the villagers with them.

The two men, Osman Şiban, 50, and Server Turgut, 63, reappeared two days later, in the ward of a military hospital in Van. While these are nowhere near rare occurrences in the Turkish southeast, the country would have never heard about the horrific torture the two men went through if it wasn’t for a news report published on the day of their reappearance by Cemil Uğur, a Van-based journalist with the Mezopotamya News Agency (MA). The report claimed they were beaten and pushed off a helicopter.

The Van governor’s office denied the allegations of torture, saying the two villagers, captured as part of an operation in the region named Yıldırım-10 Norduz (after an indigenous mountain goat), ignored commands to stop.

In the following days, other reporters—Adnan Bilen, the Van bureau chief of MA, Şehriban Abi from the feminist Kurdish news agency JinNews and freelancer Nazan Sala—all known for reporting on human rights violations in Turkey’s Kurdish regions, followed the story, filling in the details, talking to the families and witnesses, gathering documents from forensic invesetigations and prosecutors.

An interview with Siban from his hospital bed by Uğur on 17 September featured a photo of Şiban, whose bloody eyes (top) left little to the imagination about the horrors the two men must have had undergone, whom the journalist talked with in his hospital bed.

On 30 September, Turgut died after days in intensive care.

Less than a week after Turgut’s death, the homes of the journalists reporting on the case were raided and, a few days later, they were arrested on charges of “membership of a terrorist organisation”.

Journalists punished for reporting the news

More details of the unspeakable torture the two men had gone through came out on 2 November, when independent lawmaker Ahmet Şik, who travelled to the region in late October, revealed the details of his investigation at a press conference in parliament.

The two men were beaten on the chopper, later, pushed off — presumably after it landed – and then beaten to near-death by 150 gendarmerie soldiers in scenes in a “state-sanctioned lynching.”

Şık’s report also detailed other ways in which the state attempted to cover up the torture of the two villagers in addition to arresting the people who reported on the case. He later told the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA),whose lawyers represent three of the imprisoned Van reporters, that the journalists, who the authorities assert were detained on the basis of an investigation launched prior to the Van incident, were clearly being punished for their reporting on the ordeal of the two villagers.

 A ‘grave danger’ for all journalists

Lawyer Veysel Ok, co-director of the MLSA, notes that this punishment for reporting the news has the power to have serious repercussions for other journalists in Turkey, where 86 journalists are in prison.

He points to several alarming developments regarding the investigation into the journalists, saying, “In the journalists’ arrest order, the court accused these journalists of ‘reporting on social incidents against the state but in favour of the terrorist organisation PKK/KCK’ in order to incite agitation, and ‘making news in a continuous way, with variety and in high numbers.’”

To highlight the gravity of the possible consequences, “these journalists are all Kurdish and have been working in the region, and specifically in Van, for a very long time.”

“Their reporting has always shed light on human rights violations against Kurdish citizens in the region,” Ok said.

The arrest warrant also accuses the journalists of “criticising and harming the reputation of the anti-terrorism effort of the Republic of Turkey”. Another accusation is “identifying oneself as a journalist and making news reports for a fee without being a press card holder”.

“So the court is arguing that the four reporters are not ‘real’ journalists on the grounds that they don’t have an official press card issued by the president’s office,” Ok said. “There is not a single line in the Turkish legislation that stipulates that one needs a press card to be a journalist. Press card accreditation is necessary only for following government officials’ activities and the practice has been, as of late, to only issue them to those journalists who work for the pro-government media, so this press card mention in the warrant can have far-reaching consequences for any journalist in Turkey.”

The justifications put forth by the court are “unacceptable,” the lawyer added.

“The judiciary aims to create a chilling effect on all journalists, like the Sword of Damocles,” he said. “That’s why we find this case extremely important, care about it deeply and demand solidarity from fellow journalists, and everyone who cares about freedom of speech and not just in Turkey but all around the world.”

Ok also noted another worrying problem about the case; that the prosecutor who is conducting the investigation against the Van journalists is the same one that conducts the investigation on the lynching of the two villagers.

“The arrest decision is a very alarming one for journalism,” he said. “This is why our organisation has taken on this case. We will take this unlawful arrest first to the Constitutional Court and then to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).”

Ok said he was in Van on 27 October where he visited the four journalists in prison and noted that although they seem to be in good spirits, they also demand solidarity and support from the outside world against the injustice they are suffering for doing their jobs.

“Van is a far-off city, in the easternmost part of the country,” Ok said. “It is important that this case is not forgotten because it is not in Istanbul. These journalists have written news reports that should win an award. We will be in Van at the time of the first hearing to support these journalists and their journalism. They deserve the support of their colleagues and rights groups everywhere for bringing out the truth.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”55″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Turkey: Art in troubled times

Yeni Bir Şarkı Söylemek Lazım, Video, 2016, Işıl Eğrikavuk

Yeni Bir Şarkı Söylemek Lazım, Video, 2016, Işıl Eğrikavuk

Asena Günal is the program coordinator of Depo which is a center for arts and culture at Tophane, Istanbul. She is one of the co-founders of Siyah Bant, a research platform that documents censorship in the arts in Turkey.

“Is it just me? I don’t think so, but these days I’m in a state where I don’t know what to hold on to, what to do. I push myself to continue my work. Should I continue with art, or should I channel myself to more urgent things; that’s how suffocated I feel,” Hale Tenger, a prominent contemporary artist from Turkey, said in a roundtable discussion published in the Istanbul Art News.1 This pessimism reflects the general mood of artists and many other intellectuals in Turkey, a country that has experienced incidents so numerous in the past year that they could fill decades.

Since July 2015, almost 300 people have been killed and thousands wounded in various attacks by IS and the Kurdistan Freedom Eagles (TAK). After the elections in June 2015, in which the Kurdish party passed the 10% threshold and AKP lost its single party position, president Erdoğan pushed for another election. In November 2015, the AKP won the election and ended the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The government put severe limitations on the Kurdish and pro-peace opposition. A total of 2,212 academics, who signed a petition to condemn the state violence in the southeast of Turkey, have been targeted by Erdoğan, received threats, have been faced with criminal and disciplinary investigations, and four of them were detained and jailed for about a month. A growing number of academics have been dismissed or suspended, some were forced to resign and had to leave the country. Almost two thousand lawsuits have been filed against people alleged to have insulted the president online or offline.2

In January 2016, two members of the art community were arrested and then sued for participating in the peaceful demonstration “I am Walking for Peace” in Diyarbakır. The march was organised to protest state violence in the Kurdish region and ask for the restarting of the peace process. Artists Pınar Öğrenci and Atalay Yeni were arrested and then released conditionally. Their court cases still continue.

The impact of the recommencement of the war has made itself felt in various fields and ways. The cancellation of the exhibition “Post-Peace” in February 2016 shows the difficulty of expressing critical views on state policies. The exhibition curated by an Amsterdam-based curator Katia Krupennikova was cancelled by the institution Aksanat just five days before the opening, with the director citing the rising tension and the mourning after another bombing in Turkey as the reason. Given that other events went on as scheduled, many thought one of the video works in the exhibition, critical of the dirty war policies of the Turkish state against the Kurdish guerilla was considered risky by Aksanat.3 This was one of the incidents in which the state itself did not act, and actors in the artistic community took on this role. It created a discussion in the art scene about how to struggle in times of repression.4

Ayhan ve ben (Ayhan and me) from belit on Vimeo.

In April 2016, the screen of the public art project YAMA on a hotel roof was shut down by the Istanbul municipality on the basis of an anonymous complaint, claiming that the work of artist Işıl Eğrikavuk, a video animation, projecting the slogan “Finish up your apple, Eve!”, insulted religious sensibilities. When pressed, the municipality cited “visual pollution” as the reason for discontinuing the screening. This turn illustrates a strategy by the national and local government to legitimise their acts of censorship as purely procedural and administrative actions. After Eğrikavuk made a statement, YAMA’s curator Övül Durmuşoğlu declared the project’s support for the artist. Durmuşoğlu organised a meeting to discuss the case and invited Egrikavuk, legal consultants and people from the art scene. In the following days, Eğrikavuk did a performance based on this restraint. Both the meeting and the performance attracted a wide audience.

Even before the coup attempt of 15 July, there was such an atmosphere where people were worried about terrorist attacks, human rights violations, and limitations on freedom of expression. The coup attempt left 246 citizens and 24 coup planners dead and a nation deeply traumatised. The Gülen movement is accused of being behind the last coup attempt. The coup attempt was followed by a State of Emergency which allowed the cabinet under the chairmanship of the president to issue decrees that have the force of law.5 Unsurprisingly, Erdoğan has been using the attempt as an opportunity to eliminate critical voices.

In the five days between the coup attempt and the declaration of State of Emergency on 20 July, many festivals, biennials and concerts were postponed or cancelled by their organisers. The Sinop Biennial (Sinopale) was postponed “due to recent events in Turkey”, the One Love Festival was cancelled “due to availability problems on the schedules of artists and groups”, many concerts of the Istanbul Jazz festival including a performance by Joan Baez was cancelled6, Muse cancelled its concert“due to recent capricious events” and Skunk Anansie did the same “in light of the recent extraordinary events”. One issue of the satirical magazine Leman was banned as it suggested that both soldiers and civilians involved in the country’s recent unsuccessful coup were pawns in a larger game.

After the coup attempt, Erdoğan called the people to “Democracy Watch”-meetings. The biggest and final meeting, was the one at Yenikapı on 7 August 2016.7 Erdoğan invited popular figures, like singers, actors, and actresses to join the meeting. Pop singer Sıla announced on social media that although she was against the coup she would not be part of such a “show” and would not participate in the big meeting in Yenikapı. Sıla was the only figure brave enough to make such a declaration and not step back. But this resulted in the cancellation of her concerts in five different cities. Many people supported her by sharing her music videos and their own photos with an album of Sıla online.

Theatre actor Genco Erkal’s company “Dostlar Tiyatrosu” was banned from performing a play based on the writings of Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet and Bertolt Brecht. It was going to be performed in the garden of Kadıköy High School but the school cancelled the contract due to security reasons. It was obvious that security was not the issue and the school was under pressure from the Ministry of Education because of Genco Erkal’s critical stance. After protests of the theater company and members of the main opposition party (CHP), who brought the case to the Parliament, the Governorate lifted the ban.

Municipal and state theaters have been under a tight grip for some time and there have been ongoing discussions about privatisation of these institutions. The State of Emergency not only aimed at Gülenists who were accused of being part of the planning of the coup but also many artists with apparent oppositional stance were affected. On 1 August, the Istanbul Municipality fired 20 people, including director Ragıp Yavuz, actor Kemal Kocatürk, and actress Sevinç Erbulak from the Municipal Theatre based on the decree law number 667 which was announced after the declaration of the State of Emergency. They were not even granted an explanation for why they lost their jobs, but only received a vague reference to supposedly having failed “the evaluation criteria”8. Obviously, they did not have any connection with coup plotters. Eleven of them have been reinstated in their former positions.

Besides bans and purges, the State of Emergency has enabled the government to re-regulate the organisational structure of the state. A new law that would bring the privatisation of State Theatre, State Opera and Ballet, Atatürk Cultural Center, and Turkish Historical Society was discussed in Parliament. Many people from the field of theatre, opera and ballet expressed their concern that the State of Emergency might be utilised to bring privatisation after years of discussion on instating an independent arts council.

It is now common for the members of the ruling party to randomly target artists, writers, or academics in order to intimidate wider cultural milieu. A recent example is from the field of contemporary arts: In September 2016, an AKP MP Bülent Turan targeted the curator of the Çanakkale Biennial Beral Madra and called on the Çanakkale Municipality (run by CHP) not to work with her. The accusation was being critical of Erdoğan, and hence -so the argument went further- being “pro-coup”. Madra became a target because of her critical tweets and Facebook posts. Being critical of Erdoğan has long been risky but now it is associated with being “pro-coup”. Beral Madra withdrew from her position as to not put the Biennial at risk. Then the organising institution announced that the biennial would be cancelled altogether. They were saddened by the current political atmosphere, which did not place art as a primary point of concern. The CHP-run municipality and many people from the art scene expressed concern over the cancellation, highlighting instead the potential of art to counter the authoritarian discourse of AKP and expressing their wishes for the Biennial to go ahead as planned.

Despite this rising authoritarianism and the pessimistic atmosphere, Turkey’s culture and art scene will continue its struggle. Last week there were many openings in different galleries around Istanbul and almost all of them were crowded. People from the art scene are in need of each other more than ever, aware of the vital importance of solidarity in times of hardship. Film, music, dance and performance festivals started to take place, their posters filling the streets. So I would like to finish with another quote from the same issue of Istanbul Art News, by Deniz Artun,9 the director of Ankara Galeri Nev, as I tend to share its optimistic sentiment: “I guess that art history has shown us time and again just how deep the traces left by exhibitions, artworks, artists emerging with ‘pertinacity’ will be; not those amidst freedoms and prosperity, but those coming forth among fears and uncertainties that are burdensome for all of us.”

  1. September 2016, no. 34.
  2. Although many have been dropped after the attempted coup d’état in a show of good will they nonetheless can be said to have had a chilling effect on oppositional voices.
  3. See for the open letter of belit sağ, the artist of that particular video work, and the artists’s response to the cancellation. Sara Whyatt elaborates the case in detail,
  4. Özge Ersoy discusses this incident in terms of the different approaches to responsibility, transparency, sensitivity, institutional self-censorship, and institutional sustainability. See her report on the relationship between artists, curators, and institutions in the context of artistic freedom in Turkey:
  5. According to the Turkish Constitution, the Council of Ministers, which is led by the President, can declare a State of Emergency based on “widespread acts of violence aimed at the destruction of the free democratic order.” It must be approved by Parliament and allows the ministers to pass decrees that have the force of law, although they can be overruled by Parliament. It gives the state the right to derogate certain rights, including freedom of movement, expression and association, during times of war or a major public emergency.
  6. Joan Baez gathered reactions from Turkey with her statement that “I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like the immense and unpredictable danger which presents itself in today’s Turkey”. Istanbul Jazz Festival Director Pelin Opçin expressed her disappointment as Baez made them feel alone and punished by way of isolation:
  7. Two opposition parties (CHP and MHP) were invited but the Kurdish opposition party (HDP) was not, showing the problematic character of the rhetoric of “democracy” and “national unity”.
  8. “As well as not being able to get an answer as to who, on what criteria judged our performance we could not reach any official explanation for our dismissal”, stated the theatre actors;
  9. September 2016, no. 34.

More about the arts in Turkey:

Belit Sağ: Refusing to accept Turkey’s silencing of artistic expression

Life is getting harder for objective journalists in Turkey, says cartoonist sued by Erdogan

Turkey: Artistic freedom and censorship

Turkey: Artists engaged in Kurdish rights struggle face limits on free expression

Turkey’s film festivals face a narrowing space for expression

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 11.41.13

Veli Başyiğit for Siyah Bant

Siyah Bant (Black Bar) is a platform established in 2011 to research and document cases of censorship in the arts in Turkey and to defend artistic freedom of expression.

The Siyah Bant initiative, which carries out research on censorship of the arts in Turkey, has given much coverage to obstacles to freedom of expression in the cinematic field in research published in recent years. Cases of censorship at film festivals in Turkey have become increasingly common, more visible and have brought about devastating changes, creating a need for research focusing particularly on restrictions of freedom of expression at festivals. In this report, we aim to lay out the strategies followed by film festivals in response to pressures to censor cinematic works and to develop the groundwork for increasing the possibility of resistance to censorship.

Recent censorship cases

Film festivals in Turkey have been the stage for two widely-publicised cases of censorship in 2014 and 2015.

Firstly, Reyan Tuvi’s documentary about the Gezi Park demonstrations entitled Yeryüzü Aşkın Yüzü Oluncaya Dek (Until the Face of the Earth Becomes a Face of Love) (2014) was removed from the programme of the 51st International Antalya Film Festival in 2014 by festival organisers after a warning that showing the film may commit the crime of insulting Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan under the 125th (insulting) and 299th clauses (insulting the president) of Turkish Criminal Law. However, the film had been found by the festival’s National Documentary Film Competition preliminary jury as being worthy of inclusion in the competition. The preliminary jury — Ayşe Çetinbaş, Berke Baş and Seray Genç — revealed the situation to the public in a statement in which they announced their resignations, saying they “would not be any part of such censorship”. In reaction to the film’s censorship, first National Documentary Film Competition Main Jury President Can Candan, and later ten other jury members due to judge various competitions, also announced their withdrawal from the festival. Directors of 13 of the 15 films in the National Documentary Film Competition category also withdrew their films in protest. As a result, the festival organisers announced the cancellation of competition in that category. This case of censorship in Antalya, as Siyah Bant’s Banu Karaca has highlighted, can be seen as “an example of a situation in which the state itself did not act, and actors in the artistic community took on this role”. In Siyah Bant’s statement on the Antalya censorship case, it emphasised that the legal clauses that make insult a crime and which were given as the reason for the removal of Yeryüzü Aşkın Yüzü Oluncaya Dek from the festival programme constituted a serious obstacle to freedom of expression, and for this reason should be completely revoked.

The second case of censorship was the last-minute cancellation of the showing of the documentary Bakur (North) (2015) at the 34th Istanbul Film Festival on 12 April 2015. The film, directed by Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, took the everyday lives of PKK guerrillas as its subject. The festival organisers stated that the showing of Bakur had been cancelled after a notice received from the Culture and Tourism Ministry “reminding them that all films created in Turkey to be shown at the festival must have obtained a registration document”. But it was clear that the prevention of the film showing was not merely about the lack of a registration document.

Mavioğlu, one of the film’s directors, had been targeted in Vahdet newspaper with a subheading “Here is the director of that traitorous PKK film” on 10 April 2015. Even though the reminder sent by the Ministry did not specifically state that Bakur was not to be shown, it did highlight that the film had been banned once before. Moreover, it emerged that the General Manager of Cinema of the time, Cem Erkul, had called the Istanbul Culture and Art Foundation (IKSV) in relation to the showing of Bakur. Police officers came to check whether the film was being shown on 11 and 12 April and warned festival staff not to put it on as it would be difficult to assure the safety of viewers if they did. The reaction to the case of censorship in Antalya the previous year had been mostly limited to documentary filmmakers. In contrast, following the censorship of Bakur, all the films in the national feature-length film categories were temporarily withdrawn. Filmmakers came together after the film’s banning to announce they had withdrawn 22 films from the festival. Next, the jury members at the festival let it be known that they were withdrawing. The festival organisers announced that they had cancelled the National and International Golden Tulip Competitions and the National Documentary Competition. In addition, filmmakers and cinematic organisations made a joint statement calling for “the laws and regulations that make censorship possible to be urgently changed”. Bakur, which could not be shown at the Istanbul Film Festival, was shown simultaneously on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, in Istanbul and Diyarbakır, on 5 May as part of the Itinerant Film Days in Mardin, on 12 May for the Kurdish Culture and Art Days in Istanbul, on 15 June as part of the Censored Documentaries selection as part of the Documentarist 8th Istanbul Film Days, and also on various occasions in Izmir, Van, Mersin, Siirt and Batman.

The prevention of the screening of Bakur at the Istanbul Film Festival can be said to have marked the beginning of a new era for film festivals in Turkey. While before the censorship of Bakur, very few festivals asked for films’ registration documents, we have now come to the point where a significant number require these documents before they will add films to their programmes. In addition to the Istanbul Film Festival, at which last year’s case occurred, the Ankara International Film Festival, the !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival and the Ankara Accessible Film Festival are now among those that have begun to require films’ registration documents before putting them on their programmes.

The Ankara International Film Festival, which did not require registration documents for films before 2015, in 2016 requested this document from all the producers of films that passed the pre-screening to be added to the programme. Two directors who said that registration documents were being used as a form of censorship and, for this reason, they would not get them, had their films removed from the programme announced for the 27th Ankara International Film Festival.

These two films were Selim Yıldız’s documentary Bîra Mi’têtin (I Remember) (2016) about the Roboski massacre and smuggling activities, and Gökalp Gönen’s Altın Vuruş (Golden Shot) (2015), a short animation about machines living in small houses and searching for the sun. Necati Sönmez, one of Documentarist’s directors, announced his withdrawal from the documentary competition jury on Hatırlıyorum being taken off the programme for “acquiescing to censorship”. After the issue came to public attention, the festival organisers made a statement calling the condition that films to be shown have registration documents a “technical and legal necessity”. Sönmez responded to this announcement, saying “When a document licensing a work becomes a requirement for it to enter a festival, it doesn’t stop being a censorship document; on the contrary, it (censorship) is institutionalised.”

The Legal Dimension of Registration Documentation

The basic function of a registration document is to allow the owners of a cinematic or musical work “to not have their rights violated, to easily prove their ownership rights and to keep track of their authority to benefit in relation to their financial rights”. The ambiguities in regulations concerning for which screenings these registration documents are required have laid the groundwork for them to be used for purposes other than their function, which is to prove that those screening a film for commercial purposes have the right to do so. Another problem is the requirement for those applying for registration to first have a “document showing the outcomes of the evaluation and classification processes”. Ulaş Karan emphasises that this evaluation and classification “sometimes forms a pre-inspection and opens the way for a cinema film to be censored”.

Another problem regarding the registration documents is that some films17 shown at film festivals are not given them due to decisions that they “cannot enter commercial circulation and screening”. The subjection of films by these rules to a pre-inspection according to unclear criteria such as conforming to the Constitution and the protection of general morality and public order makes it possible for some films to be banned regardless of whether they are for commercial purposes or not. In order to solve this problem, we recommend that the registration procedure is separated from the evaluation and classification procedures. Every completed film must be given a registration document without condition, and in addition, the age limits for commercial films should be assigned according to universal criteria. If a film showing is believed to represent a crime, this can be subjected to a trial afterwards. At this point, we can add that the debate on registration documents is wider than simply providing an exemption for showings at festivals. The real issue is that registration documents should only prove rights ownership, and should not have the features that presently allow it to be used for the pre-inspection and banning of films.

In short, the registration documents are not a problem for as long as they are used in the way directed by the Ideas and Artistic Works Law, that is, for the functions of proving rights ownership for commercial distribution and ensuring that people enjoy their property rights. As Ulaş Karan has explained, this document has an essential function for the commercial distribution and showing of films.18 However, when no distinctions are made between commercial and non-commercial showings and the evaluation and classification of films is made a prerequisite for registration, the way is opened up for registration documents to be used as a vehicle for censorship. Hence, steps need to be taken to remove the requirement for a registration document at non-commercial showings at which there is no need to prove property rights. In addition, we must emphasise that the evaluation and classification carried out for commercial screenings should be kept separate from the registration process and be reorganised in line with international standards in a way that does not infringe on freedom of expression.

The Registration Document as a Tool of Censorship

Up until the 2015 Istanbul Film Festival intervention, most films shown at film festivals were in practice exempted from the requirement of a registration document by the ministry “turning a blind eye”. However, we do know of other films prevented from being shown at festivals due to not having registration documents or having had their applications for the documents rejected. The main cases over this time period can be listed as follows: in 2007, police requested to pre-vet the film Dersim 38, planned to be screened at the 1st Munzur Peace and Culture Days as it had no registration document. When the organisers rejected this request, the screening did not take place. Moreover, the film was banned in 2007, and the legal appeals still continue to the present day. The application for a registration document for Aydın Orak’s documentary Bêrîvan: Bir Başkaldırı Destanı (Berivan: The Saga of an Uprising) about the 1992 Newroz festival in Cizre was rejected in 2011 with the allegations that it “made PKK propaganda” and “twisted history”. The film was blocked from being shown at the 2nd Yılmaz Güney Film Festival in December 2011 by the Governor of Batman. Caner Alper and Mehmet Binay, who directed the film Zenne (2011), which focuses on hate crimes against LGBTI individuals, have stated that there were attempts in 2011 to prevent their film being shown at a national competition it had qualified for in prescreening two weeks before the festival began on the basis of it not having a registration document. In the end, Zenne’s producers could not get all the documents it required to get a registration document in that short of a timeframe, and along with Unutma Beni İstanbul (Don’t Forget Me, Istanbul) (2011), which also had no registration document, it was not shown at Malatya. The films Hayatboyu (Lifelong) (2013), Köksüz (Rootless) (2013) and Daire (Circle) (2013) were taken off the programme at the 4th Malatya International Film Festival in 2013 for the same reason.

In January 2014, the Culture and Tourism Ministry General Directorate of Cinema sent a circular to many different festivals reminding them of the condition that they require registration documents from domestic films. In fact, from 2011 onwards, the ministry had sent this circular to film festivals it had financially supported, but as mentioned above, this condition had not been imposed by the majority of festivals. Moreover, neither did the ministry follow-up on this. An open letter to the Culture and Tourism Ministry on 7 March 2014, prepared by Siyah Bant together with filmmakers, film institutions and film festivals, explained how requiring registration documents for artistic events other than commercial screenings represented an obstacle to artistic freedom of expression and requested that regulations be changed to remove this requirement. Mustafa Ünlü, the director of the 1001 Documentary Film Festival, said that they had received similar circulars in the past, but after meeting with the ministry this regulation was not put into practice. Ünlü related that after the 2014 circular, they had met with the ministry to request that the responsibility to require registration documents be lifted, while ministry representatives had highlighted a new cinema law as the solution to the problem. This draft law would be regularly used as an excuse by ministry officials in their responses to the requests of filmmakers and festivals. This planned law, named the Turkey Cinema Law, came onto the agenda in 2012. As explained by lawyer Burhan Gün, this draft law removed the criminal penalties for non-commercial screenings. But despite all the efforts of cinematic professional associations in this period, they were unable to establish healthy communications with the Cinema General Directorate. From the beginning of the period, the associations made proposals in relation to the development of the sector to those working on the draft law, but none were included in the law drafting process. It is unknown what the latest situation is with the draft law, which has now been off the agenda for a while.

As can be seen from the examples of Bakur, Bêrîvan, Dersim 38 and Zenne, registration documents appear to be a useful means of preventing the screening of films, mostly those relating to the struggle for Kurdish rights, that the state does not want to be screened. In other words, it forms an inspection mechanism allowing committees connected to the Culture and Tourism Ministry to intervene on the basis of the content of films. The festivals where films have been removed due to not having registration documents have generally not mentioned the content of these films in their statements on the matter. A good example of this is the situation at this year’s Ankara International Film Festival. The festival organisers gave the reason for Hatırlıyorum being taken off the program not as related to the film’s content, but due to “technical and legal necessities”. Therefore, the festival organisers, in referring to “technical and legal necessities”, left any film that had its registration document application rejected out of their program for reasons unrelated to its content; Hatırlıyorum and Altın Vuruş being removed are examples of these.

Short Films and Documentaries

As was seen at the 27th Ankara International Film Festival, the registration document requirement has disproportionately affected short films and documentaries. These films, which rarely have commercial showings, are generally seen by viewers during the course of film festivals. Before the censorship at Istanbul Film Festival, almost no festival required registration documents from short films and documentaries. However, with the changes that occured at many festivals following Bakur, short films and documentaries were also required to provide registration documents. These films now need to get registration documents — and, consequently, go through evaluation and classification procedures — in order to be shown at certain festivals. For documentaries, which generally do not see commercial release and tend to have much lower budgets in comparison with fictional films, to comply with these administrative regulations, which involve establishing a production company and paying the fees for these procedures, will be very difficult.

The Main Problems Film Festivals Experience

It needs to be made clear that the censorship at the Istanbul Film Festival has serious consequences for film festivals in Turkey that go beyond debates surrounding registration documents. The Istanbul Film Festival’s inability to stand against the ministry’s intervention with the intention of censoring one particular film and the cancellation of film showings at later festivals where the films did not have registration documents have weakened the hand of film festivals in Turkey and made it easier for various further interventions to take place more openly.

Film festivals have also had their share of the stifling atmosphere created in the wake of war restarting between the PKK and state forces in July 2015 and consequent massacres. The 18th 1001 Documentary Film Festival, which was to take place in October 2015, was postponed until further notice. The decision to postpone it, as announced on 19 September 2015, was taken in “an environment of bloody clashes, loss of life, curfews, mob and organised violence” and “uncertainties that have multiplied in the tensions created by the electoral atmosphere”.

Following the censorship of Reyan Tuvi’s documentary in 2014, a question mark hung over whether or not the International Antalya Altın Portakal Film Festival would go ahead in 2015 or not. Later, it was announced that due to the 1 November 2015 elections and the G-20 summit in Antalya, the festival would be postponed to December 2015 and renamed the “International Antalya Film Festival”. Even more importantly, the National Short Film Contest, which had been held in previous years, and the National Documentary Film Contest, which was hit by the censorship crisis in 2014, were permanently removed from the festival.

As the programme director of the Adana Altın Koza Film Festival, Kadir Beycioğlu, has expressed, the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as all events other than the screenings and the participation of guest filmmakers, were cancelled due to the losses of life at Dağlıca and Iğdır. Beycioğlu stated that the Adana Metropolitan Municipal Assembly had debated cancelling the entire festival and allocating its budget to the families of fallen security forces. He added that, after talks with municipal officials and sector representatives, they had decided to only go ahead with the competitions, and to allow both Adana cinema-lovers and the people’s jury to watch the competition films. Beycioğlu said that from 1992, when he had taken on the management of the festival, to the present day, the municipality had never interfered with the programme, but said that for almost every municipality-organised film festival, many matters outside the programme were decided in conjunction with the mayor or went ahead with his or her approval, and that some decisions might be made by the mayor alone. Beycioğlu said that these situations often revealed how mayors and their teams felt about festivals and what they expected from them.

Bureaucratic Difficulties

The approval document provided by the Artistic Events Commission (SEK), which is responsible for giving approval for films created overseas to be shown at festivals and similar events held in Turkey, also makes customs procedures for films sent from overseas easier. International logistics firms such as DHL and FedEx request the approval document from SEK for customs procedures for the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) copies of films brought from overseas for festivals. Bilge Taş, Gizem Bayıksel and Esra Özban of the Pink Life QueerFest team explain that their application for an approval document for the films at their festival in 2015 did not receive a response in time, so some of the DCP copies did not go through customs and some showings had to be carried out from BluRay copies. For the fifth festival, held this year, this was not the only problem relating to customs procedures. They say that at the start of this year the Atatürk Airport Customs Directorate asked them to provide anew their customs documents for the 35 mm copies of the five films that they had had to show on BluRay at the first QueerFest held in 2012. The festival administration explained that there had been no missing documents for the customs procedures in 2012, but the directorate did not respond in any way. We can say that these prohibitive practices that QueerFest have met with in terms of customs procedures are carried out as a form of censorship.

But customs procedures are not the only problems that QueerFest, who have not had any form of communication with the Culture and Tourism Ministry for five years. The festival team, who describe their goal as “creating areas of expression for the LGBTI rights struggle through art” believe that the ministry is following a policy of ignoring them and that this policy represents a “form of censorship that cannot be fought”. They say that there has been no response to their applications for ministry support in 2012 when the festival was set up. Moreover, they complain that for five years, they have not been able to access any film they have requested from the ministry archives. The festival, which shows an extremely limited number of local films, does not request registration documents for those they show.

Repression Directed at Festival Venues

In our discussions with festivals, we came to understand that the increasing repression was directed as much against festival venues as against festivals themselves. The QueerFest team state that the Beyoğlu Pera Cinema and Moda Stage had asked for registration documents for films they were showing in Istanbul in 2015, showing that the ministry had directly required the documents from them. Therefore, at QueerFest 2015, no domestic films were shown, and as mentioned above, there is an exemption for these documents for foreign films at festival showings. We must also add that the Istanbul Modern rejected QueerFest’s request to be a venue for 2016, albeit saying they had decided only to host the events of another group, İKSV.

The chancellorship of Ege University refused permission for the 8th Aegean Documentary Film Days, which were to be held in Izmir between 14-17 May 2015, to be held on the university’s main campus, giving the declaration of a state of emergency at the university as a reason. The festival, which had taken place for the past seven years at Ege University, was held at the Izmir French Cultural Center in 2015. Necati Sönmez, one of Documentarist’s directors, remarked that this year they had found it difficult to find a venue for the Documentarist 9th Istanbul Documentary Days, to be hosted between 28 May and 2 June, and, for this reason, they had mostly applied to venues in foreign consulates.

Another example of how the spaces where festival screenings are held are under pressure was seen at the March 2015 13th International Travelling Filmmor Women’s Films Festival. Municipal police raided the Rampa Theatre in Beyoğlu during a screening of Piçler (Bastards) (2014) with the participation of director Nassima Guessoum, on the basis that there was no licence for the film showing. Municipal police officers’ attempt to prevent the screening met resistance from the festival team and the audience. The festival coordinators met with the Beyoğlu Municipality and members of parliament and stopped the municipal police action. Most recently, a screening of Sara: Hep Kavgaydı Yaşamım (Sara: My Life Was Always A Struggle) (2015), a documentary about the life of Sakine Cansız, one of the founders of the PKK who was murdered in Paris in 2013, at the Beyoğlu Atlas Cinema on 19 January 2016 was cancelled by police. Artists from the Mesopotamian Cultural Center (MKM), which organised the event, were called to the Beyoğlu Police Station before the screening and told “we cannot guarantee your lives, you cannot show the film”. On 21 January 2016 a second screening at the Aksaray Su Performance Center was prevented for the same reason. International Worker’s Film Festival co-ordinator Önder Özdemir says that since the censorship of Bakur, the repression of festivals had increased and that the raiding of festival venues during film screenings was no longer an unlikely prospect.

One of the situations faced by festivals we talked to was people arriving in plain clothes to “visit” film showings and asking organisers specific questions about the content and technical specifications of the films. Documentarist director Necati Sönmez and coordinator Öykü Aytulum told us about plain-clothes individuals directing questions about the film’s content to them during showings of Kadınlar Cizre ve Silopi’yi Anlatıyor (Women Explain Cizre and Silopi) (2015) and Dengbej (Minstrel) (2014) at SALT Beyoğlu at the 7th What Human Rights? Film Festival in December 2015. Similarly, Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival co-ordinator Onur Çimen said that plain-clothed individuals they assumed were police or ministry employees asked whether they had registration documents for the films they were showing during the screenings of films at the 18th Flying Broom festival in 2015.

In Place of a Conclusion

The developments and cases of censorship we have touched upon in this report are symptomatic of an increasing narrowing of the spaces for expression provided by film festivals over recent years. Today, the primary goal of the fight against censorship at film festivals in Turkey must be the removal of the inspection and censorship mechanism carried out by the state using registration documents. However, as we have mentioned above, uncertainties relating to the implementation of the registration document make this struggle extremely difficult. These arbitrary measures may be taken to court by filmmakers and directors. In addition, during the court cases, institutions and individuals may come together to organise in powerful solidarity. The common demands they develop may be shared with the public through these “strategic legal cases”.

The use of registration documents as a mode of censorship is not only limited to film festivals. The existing regulations on documentaries function as a pre-vetting mechanism for screenings, meaning that it is almost impossible for Bakur and similar films to get registration documents. Thus, it would be best for actors in the field of cinema not to limit the debate to a specific exemption for registration documents for documentaries at festivals, but to begin an integrated struggle against all regulations that censor films.

Another point that should not be forgotten is that the registration documents we have recently seen intensively used as a method of censorship is only one such method. As discussed in this report, freedom of expression is also limited at film festivals by methods such as difficulties created at customs, repressive measures directed at festival venues, and direct targeting and threats. Besides these, there are many indirect ways in which festivals are put under new types of inspection, such as the agreements prepared for those receiving support from the Culture and Tourism Ministry and statements made by the Artistic Events Commission. The alternative methods that these film festivals have developed to resist these censorious measures form an important example. However, these alternative methods are sometimes temporary solutions aimed merely at “saving the day”. This situation may form an obstacle to a joint struggle between festivals and film manufacturers. As we find ourselves in a period in which “the grip is tightening” in a way that will affect every actor in the cinematic field in the long term, a solidarity platform must be formed of a wide array of actors in response to repressive measures that affect freedom of expression. However, we generally see a sudden increase in solidarity in the cinema world after censorship cases, but this solidarity not being continued over the following period. The truth is that film festivals and other actors in the cinematic field need to bring their demands that the necessary regulations be made and its implementation become a standard and transparent to the fore at every opportunity. Moreover, just as in other areas of freedom of expression governed by the Culture and Tourism Ministry, film festivals should be protected on a constitutional basis and the ministry should be responsible for giving its support.

  1. For a breakdown of developments in this case, see:
  2. “Siyah Bant’tan Banu Karaca ile Söyleşi: Sansürün Değişen Biçimleri”, Altyazı, November 2014,
  3. For the full text of Siyah Bant’s press release from 12 October 2014, see:
  4. “İşte o hain PKK filminin yönetmeni”, Vahdet, 10 April 2015,
  5. “Bakur için İKSV’yi uyaran müdür anlattı: Sansasyonel röportajları okuyunca…”, T24, 15 April 2015,,293585
  6. “22 Film Festivalden Çekildi”, Bianet, 13 April 2015,
  7. For an overview of the developments in this case see:
  8. “ ‘Bakur’ seyirciyle buluştu”, İMC, 3 May 2015,
  9. “Çerçi Film Günleri yasaklı Bakur ile başladı”, DİHA, 5 May 2015,
  10. “Tara Jaff, Kürt Kültür Günleri’ne geliyor”, Evrensel, 9 May 2015,
  11. “Bakur’a akın var!”, Evrensel, 15 June 2015,
  12. Necati Sönmez, “Havuz Festivallerine Doğru mu?”, Bianet, 23 April 2016,
  13. “27. AUFF’tan Açıklama: Tek Yük Festivallerin Omuzunda Olamaz”, 25 April 2016,
  14. See: “5846 sayılı Fikir ve Sanat Eserleri Kanunu”
  15. Pelin Başaran ve Ulaş Karan, Sanatsal İfade Özgürlüğü Kılavuzu, (Istanbul: Siyah Bant and Istanbul Bilgi University Human Rights Law Practice and Research Center joint publication, February 2016), s. 46,
  16. As we will discuss later in this report, most of the films banned from screening are about the Kurdish rights struggle.
  17. Karan, Sanatta İfade Özgürlüğü, Sansür ve Hukuk, p. 59.
  18. For an overview of developments in this case, see:
  19. For an overview of developments in this case, see:
  20. For an overview of developments in this case and a statement from the World Mass Media Research Foundation, which organized the 2nd Malatya International Film Festival, see:
  21. “Yapımcılar Malatya Film Festivali’ne tepkili”, Radikal, 5 November 2011,
  22. For the full open letter and signatories, see:
  23. For the reactions to the cancellation of the short film and documentary competitions at the Antalya Film Festival see Sevda Aydın, “Belgesele ceza: Antalya Film Festivali’nde belgesel de yok kısa film de!”, Evrensel, 2 October 2015,
  24. “İnadına Festival”, Bianet, 11 May 2015,
  25. For an overview of developments in this case, see:
  26. “Sakine Cansız belgeseli gösterimine polis engeli”, Yarın Haber, 19 January 2016,
  27. “Sakine Cansız’ı anlatan ‘Sara’nın gösterimine ikinci engel”, Evrensel, 21 January 2016,

Turkey Uncensored is an Index on Censorship project to publish a series of articles from censored Turkish writers, artists and translators.

Yavuz Baydar: A noble profession has turned into a curse

From left, Ahmet Nesin (journalist and author), Şebnem Korur Fincancı (President of Turkey Human Rights Foundation) and Erol Önderoğlu (journalist at Bianet and RSF Turkey correspondent). (Photo: © Bianet)

From left, Ahmet Nesin (journalist and author), Şebnem Korur Fincancı (President of Turkey Human Rights Foundation) and Erol Önderoğlu (journalist at Bianet and RSF Turkey correspondent). (Photo: © Bianet)

I have known Erol Önderoğlu for ages. This gentle soul has been monitoring the ever-volatile state of Turkish journalism more regularly than anybody else. His memory, as the national representative of the Reporters Without Borders, has been a prime source of reference for what we ought to know about the state of media freedom and independence.

On 20 June, perhaps not so surprisingly, we all witnessed Erol being sent to pre-trial detention, taken out of the courtroom in Istanbul in handcuffs.

Charge? “Terrorist propaganda.” Why? Erol was subjected to a legal investigation together with two prominent intellectuals, author Ahmet Nesin, and Prof Şebnem Korur Fincanci – who is the chairwoman of the Turkish Human Rights Foundation – because they had joined a so-called solidarity vigil, as an “editor for a day”, at the pro-Kurdish Özgür Gündem daily, which has has been under immense pressure lately.

This vigil had assembled, since 3 May, more than 40 intellectuals, 37 of whom have now been probed for the same charges. One can now only imagine the magnitude of a crackdown underway if the courts copy-paste detention decisions to all of them, which is not that unlikely.

Journalism has, without the slightest doubt, become the most risky and endangered profession in Turkey. Journalism is essential to any democracy. It’s demise will mean the end of democracy. 

Turkey is now a country — paradoxically a negotiating partner with the EU on membership — where journalism is criminalised, where its exercise equates to taking a walk on a legal, political and social minefield.

“May God bless the hands of all those who beat these so-called journalists” tweeted Sait Turgut, a top local figure of AKP in  Midyat,  where a bomb attack on 8 June by the PKK had claimed 5 lives and left more than 50 people wounded.

Three journalists – Hatice Kamer, Mahmut Bozarslan and Sertaç Kayar – had come to town to cover the event.  Soon they had found themselves surrounded by a mob and barely survived a lynch attempt.

Most recently, Can Erzincan TV, a liberal-independent channel with tiny financial resources but a strong critical content, was told by the board of TurkSat that it will be dropped from the service due to “terrorist propaganda”. Why? Because some of the commentators, who are allowed to express their opinions, are perceived as affiliated with the Gülen Movement, which has been declared a terrorist organisation by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is commonplace for AKP officials from top down demonise journalists this way. Harrassment, censorship, criminal charges and arrests are now routine.

Detention of the three top human rights figures, the event in Midyat or the case of Can Erzincan TV are only snapshots of an ongoing oppression mainly aimed at exterminating the fourth estate as we know it. According to Mapping Media Freedom, there have been over 60 verified violations of press freedom since 1 January 2016. 

The lethal cycle to our profession approaches its completion.

While journalists in Turkey – be they Turkish, Kurdish or foreign – feel less and less secure, the absence of truthful, accurate, critical reporting has become a norm. Covering stories such as the ”Panama Papers” leak — which includes hundreds of Turkish business people, many of whom have ties with the AKP government — or the emerging corruption case of Reza Zarrab — an Iranian businessman who was closely connected with the top echelons of the AKP — seems unthinkable due to dense self-censorship.

Demonisation of the Kurdish Political Movement and the restrictions in the south eastern region has made it an extreme challenge to report objectively on the tragic events unfolding in the mainly Kurdish provinces which have forced, according to Amnesty International, around 500,000 to leave their homes.

Journalism in Turkey now means being compromised in the newsrooms, facing jail sentences for reportage or commentary, living under constant threat of being fired, operating under threats and harassment. A noble profession has turned into a curse.

In the case of Turkey, fewer and fewer people are left with any doubt about the concentration of power. It’s in the hands of a single person who claims supremacy before all state institutions. The state of its media is now one without any editorial independence and diversity of thought. 

President Erdoğan, copying like-minded leaders such as Fujimori, Chavez, Maduro, Aliyev and, especially, Putin, did actually much better than those.

His dismay with critical journalism surfaced fully from 2010 on, when he was left unchecked at the top of his party, alienating other founding fathers like Abdullah Gül, Ali Babacan and others who did not have an issue with a diverse press.

Soon it turned into contempt, hatred, grudge and revenge.

He obviously thought that a series of election victories gave him legitimacy to launch a full-scale power grab that necessitated capturing control of the large-scale media outlets.

His multi-layered media strategy began with Gezi Park protests in 2013 and fully exposed his autocratic intentions.

While his loyal media groups helped polarise the society, Erdoğan stiffly micro-managed the media moguls with a non-AKP background — whose existence depended on lucrative public contracts — to exert constant self-censorship in their news outlets, which due to their greed they willingly did.  

This pattern proved to be successful. Newsrooms abandoned all critical content. What’s more, sackings and removals of dignified journalists peaked en masse, amounting now to approximately 4,000.

By the end of 2014, Erdoğan had conquered the bulk of the critical media.

Since 2015 there has been more drama. The attacks against the remaining part of the critical media escalated in three ways: intimidation, seizure and pressure of pro-Kurdish outlets.

Doğan group, the largest in the sector, was intimidated by pro-AKP vandalism last summer and brought to its knees by legal processes on alleged “organized crime” charges involving its boss.

As a result the journalism sector has had its teeth pulled out.

Meanwhile, police raided and seized the critical and influential Koza-Ipek and Zaman media groups, within the last 8 months, terminating some of its outlets, turning some others pro-government overnight and, after appointing trustees, firing more than 1,500 journalists.

Kurdish media, at the same time, became a prime target as the conflict grew and more and more Kurdish journalists found themselves in jail.

With up to 90% of a genetically modified media directly or indirectly under the control Erdoğan and in service of his drive for more power, decent journalism is left to a couple of minor TV channels and a handful newspapers with extremely low circulations.

With 32 journalists in prison and its fall in international press freedom indexes continuing to new all-time lows, Turkey’s public has been stripped of its right to know and cut off from its right to debate.

Journalism gagged means not only an end to the country’s democratic transition, but also all bridges of communication with its allies collapsing into darkness.

A version of this article originally appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung. It is posted here with the permission of the author. 

Turkey Uncensored is an Index on Censorship project to publish a series of articles from censored Turkish writers, artists and translators.