How censorship wins

Januskevic Publishing House opened for business in Belarus in 2014 with the aim of publishing history books. The initial euphoria of launching a business passed very quickly.

At first, issues related to the publishing industry more broadly. It became clear that you can’t live in Belarus only publishing history books – diversification of production was required. So we diversified into e-books and then to the publication of fiction, translations from foreign languages and children’s books. We did have some good years. Between 2017 and 2022 we developed quickly. We even founded our own online bookshop. Our mission always was to make books that are interesting to the reader. We had a broad slogan: We make books that you want to read.

But after the re-election of long-time Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020 and his subsequent violet crackdown on protests, and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the troubles started. In literally three days we were kicked out of the office that had served us as a showroom and a pickup point for books. We were left without a home.

We soon managed to open a fully-fledged bookshop that would serve us as an office at the same time. Except the expulsion from our original office was not some spontaneous decision. It was a deliberate signal. On the day of the opening of the Knihauka bookshop on 16 May 2022, propagandists from state mass media outlets and officers from HUBAZiK (Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) turned up. The HUBAZiK said that extremist literature was being sold in our bookshop and, with a prosecutor`s approval, they checked all the books in the shop and seized 15 items. Why these specific ones? I’m not entirely sure, although there was a certain theme through them. They were all by Belarusian authors, all history or nonfiction and some children’s books, like Iosif Brodsky’s book The Ballad of the Tugboat.

In an even worse twist bookshop employee Nasta Karnatskaya and I were arrested. I spent 28 days in jail – three terms for three court rulings – and Nasta spent 23 days in jail. This is the only case where somebody was apprehended and imprisoned for distributing books.

While it was challenging before, the radicalisation of the government’s actions against culture, and against the publishing business in particular, gained speed after Russia’s attack on Ukraine

After being released, I realised that the publishing house could no longer work as it had. There was the external pressure that manifested itself in these arrests, as well as other pressures: literally the day after the closing of the bookshop, for the first time in Belarus’ history, the celebrated fiction book The Dogs of Europe by Alhierd Bacharevič, which was published by us and turned into a play staged throughout the world, was deemed “extremist material”. This was a very bad sign. We were moving towards a point where the publishing house itself could be recognised as extremist. I knew then that it was dangerous to stay in Belarus. It was becoming too dangerous to make books. And so we left Belarus and opened up shop in Poland.

It was definitely the right decision. Our publishing license was revoked from us in early January 2023. This was carried out by a court for the first time in Belarus` history according to the provisions of the Law of the Republic of Belarus On Publishing, with the reason given that we had systematically published literature which later was included in the list of extremist materials. To date, four books by our publishing house have been recognised as extremist.

The treatment we received was part of a systemic attack against the independent publishing sector in Belarus. It was not only us who were targeted. Other Belarusian publishing houses were and are victims. Haliyafy, for example, was forced to initiate bankruptcy proceedings. Knihazbor, despite its attempt to remain on its feet and resume its activities, was also forced to close. Today it’s impossible to work freely and to define one’s own publishing policy in Belarus.

In January 2023, we were stripped of our publishing licence. Since then, we have been not allowed to publish books in Belarus.

Following this, on 20 January I set up a fully-fledged publishing house functioning as a Polish legal entity. Since then we have published more than 20 books in Belarusian and we mail books to Belarus. You could argue that our forced relocation from Belarus to Poland has been successful.

But while I still have a licence to distribute books in Belarus and I could sell those I published earlier, almost no one takes them for sale because I have a black mark. These are the consequences of total fear in a society.

Of those publishers who left Belarus, no others continue publishing. They’re now engaged in other businesses: some have switched to writing, for example.

New publishing houses have appeared in Belarus and are managed by new people. Those who remain in Belarus are not publishing books with any strong social implications. I see that when something appears it is “neutral” literature or aimed at children. Those who suffered repression have left their businesses because there are simply no opportunities for their activities in Belarus. Either you have to work in line with the government policy, or you just don’t work.

While it was challenging before, the radicalisation of the government’s actions against culture, and against the publishing business in particular, gained speed after Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Now all kinds of barriers have disappeared for Belarus authorities in the last year – they simply do what they want.

As for wholesale deliveries of foreign publishing houses to networks of booksellers in Belarus, there have been none at all from anywhere except Russia.

Indeed, since February 2022 Belarus has become part of the “Russian World”, a part of the cultural policy which turns Belarus into a Western province of Russia. The prospects for the development of Belarusian culture, the Belarusian language and the Belarusian book industry under Lukashenka are very grim. It will be an imitation, paint-by-numbers culture based on folklore and ethnography. Nothing more, I’m afraid.

A first English translation of a new short story, “Punitive Squad”, by Alhierd Bacharevič, is published in the winter edition of Index on Censorship. This article first appeared in The Bookseller.

A memorial for the man who told the world about the Babyn Yar massacre

Anatoly Kuznetsov is the author of Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel. His memoir is a masterpiece of Ukrainian literature and a testament to the 30,000 Jews massacred at Babyn Yar (the Ukrainian spelling), Kyiv in September 1941. Today it would probably be called “autofiction”, a form of writing where autobiography borrows from the techniques of narrative fiction. However, for Kuznetsov, it is only the form which is novelistic, nothing in the book is fictionalised.

“I am writing it as though I were giving evidence under oath in the very highest court and I am ready to answer for every single word. This book records only the truth – AS IT REALLY HAPPENED.”

The book records the events following the German invasion of Ukraine in 1941 up until Soviet forces recaptured Kyiv at the end of 1943. But it also discusses the Soviet rewriting of history after the end of World War II and the terrible disaster in 1961 that followed the literal burying of the site of the atrocity in sludge and mud.

We only have the full text of this remarkable book because Kuznetsov defected to the UK in 1969 after finally losing faith in the Soviet Union after the invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year. He smuggled the manuscript out in films hidden in his clothing and this was later translated by the Daily Telegraph journalist David Floyd, who had helped him defect.

Kuznetsov is buried in Highgate Cemetery, two plots up from actor Sir Ralph Richardson and just across from artist Patrick Caulfield and deserves to be just as celebrated. And yet, the grave is unmarked. Pilgrims to the monument to Karl Marx walk past this anonymous plot every day without realising that they are passing the last resting place of one of the most eloquent witnesses to the horrific human cost of totalitarian ideology.

There is now a crowdfunder to raise a headstone for Anatoly Kuznetsov, which has already received wide support.

Luke Harding, the Guardian foreign correspondent and author of several books on Russia recently described Kuznetsov’s book as “a brilliant documentary novel”… “a vivid, terrible and authentic account”.

Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel is presently only available in English in an old American edition from 1970, but it is surely only a matter of time before an enterprising publisher does this great book justice.

There is a fascinating piece in the Index on Censorship archive on Kuznetsov from 1981, two years after the writer died in London. The article, written by film critic Jeanne Vronskaya, discusses two films that were adapted from Kuznetsov short stories in the 1960s: We Two Men and Dawn Meeting. Each, in very different ways, was destroyed by the Soviet censor.

The first was a slice of 1960s neo-realism about a drunken driver who reassesses his life after an encounter with an orphan. The film showed gritty scenes of rural life and included real country people as extras. The film initially avoided the attention of the authorities and was due to be celebrated at a gala event during the 1963 Moscow film festival. But on the day of the screening the film was pulled.

Kuznetsov characterised the attitude of the Communist Party to the film in his interview for Index: “How can we represent the USSR with a picture that shows women dressed in terrible headscarves, snotty-nosed children, rough roads, privately owned geese, illegal private work, and without so much as a mention of the leading role of the Party?”

The film was shelved and a more suitable example of Soviet film making shown in its place. (By way of a sidenote, Fellini’s 8 1/2 won the gold medal at the festival, although the great Italian director’s masterpiece was never distributed in the Soviet Union).

The second attempt at adapting a Kuznetsov story was even more of a fiasco. Dawn Meeting was the story of a milkmaid struggling to survive in the collective farm era. When the censor saw the film, cuts were demanded to make the film more upbeat and patriotic. When Kuznetsov saw the final result he was horrified: “I sat there watching a film that was completely strange to me: about the raising of the standard of living in a progressive, prosperous collective farm, first class houses, excellent clothes, collective farm songs from Moscow Radio’s record library, fields heavy with wheat, and happily smiling collective farmers all over the place.” In a final twist, Dawn Meeting was on billboards all over Moscow when Kuznetsov left for the UK in 1969.

If these short stories are half as good as Kuznetsov’s masterpiece, Babi Yar, then they also deserve a wider readership. But it is his memoir that will act as his testament.

“I wonder if we will ever understand that the most precious thing in this world is a man’s life and his freedom? Or is there still more barbarism ahead?”  Kuznetsov wrote those words in 1969. He did not need to answer his own question.

Kurdish journalists arrested as Turkey flexes its muscles

In the name of counter-terrorism, police raided the houses of journalists in Diyarbakır, in the Kurdish region of Turkey, on 8 June. They took into custody 19 journalists, two media employees and one citizen, who had given an interview to a journalist. Two criminal investigations were announced to target “the Press Structure of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK)”.

Journalists who work in eastern Turkey face tremendous pressures as they are almost always the ones who expose rights violations by the state in a conflict between Turkish authorities and Kurdish groups, which has been going on since the early 1980s. The PKK has called for more rights for Kurdish people, and the armed conflict has cost over 40,000 lives. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organisation, as do the EU and US.

In addition to the journalists’ houses, police raided the offices of three production companies and the women’s news agency Jin News in an unlawful manner. The search conducted at the Jin News agency was carried out without any representative of the agency being notified or present. The police are yet to provide a record of what has been confiscated.

After being extended twice, the custody period eventually amounted to eight days. In her indictment-like extension petitions, the prosecutor directly accused the journalists without presenting any evidence. Furthermore, she justified the extensions by saying the confiscated material needed extensive examination. According to the lawyers, however, this long custody period served the manufacturing of new evidence.

The interrogation of the journalists began on 15 June at around 9am. The prosecutor questioned the journalists about their professional activities. She asked why they worked at their respective media outlets, why they produced particular programmes or news articles, and why they used specific expressions.

While neither the lawyers nor the journalists were granted access to the investigation file – which violated their right to defence – investigation details were leaked to media organisations close to the government. According to these news reports, journalists are accused of “operating as the PKK and KCK Press Structure.”

After an interrogation lasting nearly 20 hours, the prosecutor referred 18 journalists, two media employees and one citizen to the Diyarbakır 1st Criminal Judgeship of Peace and requested their arrest on suspicion of “membership of a terrorist organisation”. Within 15 minutes, the judge ruled to arrest 16 of the journalists. In the decisions, the judge did not refer to any concrete evidence other than the testimonies of defectors from the PKK who claimed that the journalists produced content for Sterk TV, Medya Haber TV, Jin TV and Rohani TV – all of which are considered as PKK outlets by Turkish authorities. The judge released four journalists, one media employee and the sole citizen from custody, along with judicial control measures.

This is not an isolated incident. A recent example is when five journalists reported on two villagers who were tortured and thrown out of a helicopter by security forces in Van, also in eastern Turkey. Four of them were held in pre-trial detention for six months until the first hearing. Accompanied with discrediting campaigns on social and mainstream media, these journalists were tried under terrorism charges and were eventually acquitted. Acquitted or not, this recent operation is the largest of its kind targeting the Kurdish press in recent years. It is reminiscent of the infamous “KCK Press Trials”, in which 46 journalists and media employees have been standing trial for the past 10 years.

This latest operation targeting Kurdish journalists signals that the government is once again flexing its muscles to silence journalists in the region ahead of the upcoming elections next year.

The 16 arrested journalists:

Lezgin Akdeniz: Camera operator, TV show producer
Safiye Alagaş: Jin News Director
Serdar Altan: Freelance journalist, Dicle Fırat Journalists’ Association (DFG) Co-chair
Zeynel Abidin Bulut: Xwebûn editor, DFG executive
Ömer Çelik: TV show host, former Mesopotamia News Agency editor
Suat Doğuhan: Camera operator, Pel Production owner
Mehmet Ali Ertaş: Xwebûn Editor-in-chief
Ramazan Geciken: Pel Production camera operator
Mazlum Doğan Güler: Piya Production camera operator
İbrahim Koyuncu: Camera operator, video editor
Abdurrahman Öncü: Pel Production camera operator
Aziz Oruç: Mesopotamia News Agency editor
Mehmet Şahin: Xwebûn columnist, teacher
Neşe Toprak: Pel Production TV show producer
Elif Üngür: Piya Production TV show host
Remziye Temel: Piya Production accountant

For more details on the arrests, visit MLSA.

Turkish writers need to “hold people in power” to account


International Journalism Festival/Flickr

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]“In the Middle Ages people watched convicts getting quartered in public squares. Nowadays, on social media, they watch reporters as they live-tweet their ordeals: detention, physical attacks on the streets, losing their livelihoods,” said Turkish author and journalist Kaya Genç.

“For most Turks, watching journalists getting sacked or imprisoned or destroying each other’s careers became entertainment.”

Genç spoke to Index to answer questions posed by the Index youth advisory board about life as a journalist in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his latest book, The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey

The youth board are elected for six months, and meet once a month online over that period to discuss freedom of expression issues. They are based around the world.

Hana Meihan Davis, from Hong Kong, asked how Erdogan managed to strip Turkey of journalistic freedom. Genç explained that divisions have existed between political sects in the media for decades, which the current ruling party was then able to take advantage of. 

“When Islamists were in trouble in the 1990s secularists supported court cases against them; when secularists were locked up some liberals applauded; when Kurds were imprisoned most journalists looked the other way. Now as most of their colleagues are sacked or locked up conservatives act as if all is normal,” said Genç, who is also a contributing editor to Index on Censorship magazine.  

Amid this sense of apathy Erdogan moved to create “a small army of loyalists in the media” as other news sites and newspapers were closed down. 

Davis followed up her question, asking if people realised what was happening at the time? This is a question often asked when we look back with hindsight at the gradual erosion of freedoms. Were people like a frog who doesn’t realise the temperature of his water is slowly being increased to boiling? Genç said some journalists saw the dangers.  

“Reporters and editors declared their independence, or found new patrons, and they are producing excellent work away from the influence of state power. I’m sure they were aware of what was happening while they worked at titles now tamed and indirectly owned by the government.”

The landscape for journalists in Turkey today is rocky terrain. There is an acute awareness of the censorship laws that can be imposed, coupled with a determination to provide much needed accurate reporting. 

From the UK, Saffiyah Khalique asked about the laws around “public sensitivities”, which can result in imprisonment for up to a year for disrespecting the beliefs of religious groups, insulting Turkishness and other such “offences”. Genç said they are used within society to silence political dissenters.

“Twitter trolls who present themselves as pro-government journalists use these unclear laws to put their enemies behind bars. If an artist, piano player or actor says something critical about the government, they go through their timeline, find something they find insulting, and ask the public prosecutor to step in.”  

Despite this possibility of prosecution being ever around the corner, Genç said he does not feel unsafe or threatened as a journalist in Turkey. “I feel free”, he answered to a question from Emily Boyle, a dual citizen of the UK and Switzerland

Recognising the value of objectivity appears to be Genç’s lifeline. When Indian national Samarth Mishra asked what is the most difficult part of being a journalist in Turkey, Genç said: “The hardest thing for a writer reporting from Turkey is to remain objective. You can’t be bitter about the government. Readers can benefit from the cold heart of a writer who does her best to be objective in her reporting.”

He said: “Our job, as writers, is to hold people with power to account, not to promote this or that political leader, defend this or that political ideology, propagate for this or that country … When a writer inhibits a space where nobody can accuse her of partisanship, believe me the effect of her writing will be much greater.” 

The Lion and the Nightingale, Genç’s latest book, was published recently. It takes the reader on a journey through modern Turkey while exploring its history, via interviews he conducted on the road. Egil Sturk, from Sweden, asked Genç if there were any questions he was hesitant to ask his interviewees.

Genç said: “I am hesitant to ask questions about people’s religious beliefs and fiery ideological commitments. I prefer to give them enough space to articulate themselves where the bizarre, the eerie appears like a diamond in a mine. When people feel safe they tell you the most amazing things. Like an analyst you need to just sit there and listen.”  

In answer to a question from Aliyah Orr (UK) about the emotional impact of the interviews he was conducting, Genç said:  

“The prison chronicle of my friend and colleague Murat Çelikkan …  had the strongest emotional effect on me. We used to work together, behind adjacent desks, and his experience in prison was empowering and unsettling. His account of imprisonment was rich with detail and you could see a great writer disappearing into the story’s characters and particulars of his story.”

Faye Gear from Canada asked what is different about today’s landscape in terms of freedom of expression. To tackle the suppression of free speech, Genç said people must think for themselves. 

“I grew up idolising individual thinkers and writers: Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Chantal Mouffe, VS Naipaul,” said Genç. “Nowadays we are invited to subscribe to what seems to be the most forward-thinking tribe and then follow its leaders by liking and retweeting their political snippets.”

In the face of an atmosphere of censorship, Genç remains defiant. In answer to a question from Satyabhama Rajoria, from India, about the struggles he faces as a journalist and author, Genç said: “There is of course always the anxiety that comes with publishing your writing, but that is healthy. Bullies, from the left and the right, may take your sentences out of context but that, too, is something one can deal with.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”112300″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”3″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1585828417099-e398f95f-d0bf-6″ taxonomies=”7355″][/vc_column][/vc_row]