Enemies of Expression in Istanbul

Expression in Istanbul - 1

Turkey has a history of strict censorship which still remains a prominent issue in modern day Istanbul and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Media censorship is at an all time high with 140 press censorship cases already known in the country, newspapers have been shut down and journalists imprisoned. Now censorship is spreading to the creative hubs in the country and becoming an issue for the arts.

Siyahbant is an organization in Istanbul which deals directly with the censorship issue. They aim to advocate for freedom of expression by conducting research into censorship and producing in-depth reports about cases.  The growing problem in the city has led them to create a manual for artists in on what to do if they find themselves censored. Pelin Basaran, one of the founders explained “We were careful in the beginning not to threaten perceptions on censorship in Turkey as an act of the Government. We believed it had been happening in the arts for years, but now of course it is changing, for the last few years freedom of expression is very much restricted and now there is a general problem with freedom, not just of expression, but lifestyles. Freedom is very much under threat now in Turkey. Our claim is censorship is enacted not just by banning the works but also through other mechanisms, like legislation and threats.”

“Anything can be pushed to extreme corners…”

One person censored recently is award winning artist Isil Egrikavu. She ran the program for the visual arts piece, Yama 2015, a huge screen on top of the Marama Hotel in Istanbul which can be viewed across the city. Her third commission for YamaIt’s Time To Sing A New Song Istanbul depicted the words “Eat Up Your Apple Eve” followed by a female emoji.  Shortly after its installation, the hotel began receiving threats and It was revealed the municipality had previously tried to stop the screen. The municipality police eventually attended the hotel and demanded it was shut down due to “technical issues.”
However, Isil doesn’t think this was the case. “If you look at the situation then you can see why their reason can be understood as false. I think they had been following our program. Yama had been silent for three years before me, I think the police saw it was working again and needed a reason to stop it. When it happened, due to the situation in Turkey, I was not surprised. It’s not the first time Yama has experienced such an order. There has been other pieces that were seen as threats and were asked to be immediately stopped.”

“When I started working on the program I was aiming for political statements, but subtle ones. I think the words in the piece were what attracted attention, for example, “Eve” and “Apple”. There is such a polarization in the country that anything said can be pushed to extreme corners. It’s a different situation now with the current public and political agenda- with these newspapers being closed, journalists being imprisoned and people being burned in houses. It’s a different kind of censorship and it has been getting worse over the last few years.”

She suspected that the reason for its removal was due to her previous Yama commission. The piece listed all the names (collected by human rights organizations) of people killed from 1992-2015 trying to enter Europe.
“This was a big statement. They asked for this one to be stopped but didn’t insist. I think after this they realized there was a new agenda coming from Yama and wanted to stop it straight away”.
She explained the government has moved from conventional methods of banning works and focuses now on bureaucratic reasons to shut events down. Despite these growing pressures, she remains undeterred.
“It showed me what we’re doing is touching somewhere. I will continue to do these things until it’s not possible anymore. We’re moving towards creating space for speech. I am not deterred but I am more aware that what we are doing is working. Artists cannot stagnate or remain silent anymore.”
However, she is not completely hopeful for the future, admitting the situation is becoming “uncontrollable.”  She feared it may be soon be time to accept they’ve done everything they can do for now and that they have to be cautious as the government is a dangerous one.


Expression in Istanbul - 2


Another case surrounded a film entitled “Bakure.” The film documented the lives of the Kurdish Guerrillas, the PKK, who are at war in the East of the country with the Turkish Army. The production team was given a unique insight into the lives of the group during a ceasefire and explored their motivations behind fighting. Despite keeping the production a secret due its sensitive nature, The Istanbul Film Festival, heard about the film and insisted they include the film in their program. The producer of the film, Ayse, explained at first the whole team declined the invitation because they were against the Turkish government which funded the festival. However, after being promised a premiere at the best venue and time slot of the festival they agreed, but the night before the premiere, Ayse was called in to an urgent meeting by festival organizers. She was told the screening must be cancelled because a letter from the municipality reminded them of a specific license required for commercial release. Despite negotiating with them and explaining they had already planned for theatrical release and were in the process of getting the necessary licensing, the premiere was cancelled. It was the second week of the festival and many films already had been shown without the license which prompted a scandal.
Filmmakers removed their films from the festival program and the festival jury resigned meaning the festival could not go on as planned.  The film finally premiered last month in Germany, but months later Ayse is still dealing with the issue. “There is a huge demand for this film in Turkey but the situation has changed a lot and the war has started again, so I’m not looking to get it shown here as I don’t want the responsibility of it all. Our focus is now on release outside of Turkey. Our film is being treated as a symbol and I don’t want to provoke the situation. I’m not afraid of screening the film but under the circumstances it doesn’t make sense to do a normal screening and a normal Q&A. The Government doesn’t like our film as for 30 years people only know one side of the war. Nobody knows what the other side looked like but we got the chance to see it and get pictures from there. It was a ceasefire, so there was no fighting; the guerrillas were just resting and being normal human beings – eating, drinking, and playing football or volleyball. With our film people could see they are not only terrorists.”

This was not the first time this production company had been censored. Their 2006 film based on the 1936 massacre of a Kurdish Village, 38, entitled after the 38 members of the director’s family that were killed in the massacre, was prevented from DVD release and is still also being fought in the courts nearly 10 years later.

“A tool they use to protect their future.”

Communities are also been affected by this tight regime. The Kurdish people have felt it the hardest and previously had their music and language banned. One Kurdish group, Koma Aheng, fled the country 8 years ago due to tensions in the country.
“We were arrested and questioned many times. Others we know were tortured or imprisoned. Depending on the person, some were deterred afterwards whereas others were motivated more. Many like us fled to find asylum in other countries. Turkey has bad human rights and there’s no security of living, you can die any moment, including by the government. It won’t change, Turkey is known in the world as barbarians and over time it’s getting worse. Censorship to us is a half open prison, you are free but you are also a prisoner. It’s a tool they use to protect their future.”

Today progression has been made and an annual festival celebrating Kurdish culture is organized by Kurdish culture group, MKM. However, one member of MKM, Yilmaz, explained two events had already been shut down by Turkish police in two days, including an acclaimed film depicting the life of a female guerrilla soldier, Sara, and feared more would by the end of the weeklong event.
Musicians at the festival felt the same way, admitting experiencing censorship all their lives. One singer, Ozlem Gercek, explained it’s nearly impossible to make Kurdish music in Turkey and if you have a political viewpoint you have no chance. While Dogan Celik, explained they cannot host their concerts in beautiful places or venues and music videos are refused TV airplay, commenting “The state does not give chances for our culture, we just have our voices.”

However, Yilmaz remains defiant, “It doesn’t matter to us. We will do them anyway. We’re committed.” He berated the “Fascist Government” and said the Kurds just want to express their identity. He shared the same view as most people in the city that censorship is getting worse, but in the tense situation they still show their culture. He had strong words about the current political situation, “This is war. The Government attack our cities. Civilians are being killed by the government, innocent people, not just militants. If the war gets bigger people here will join. We’re heading to the same war as Syria and Iraq. If the war gets bigger we will fight everywhere. Not just for the Kurds but for everyone’s freedom. We don’t want anybody killed, but we need to fight oppression. Erdogan is the new Hitler.”

“Turkey is Erdogans operation now…”

Haluk Agabeyoglu, is the Istanbul representative of revolutionist democratic party, the HDP. They focus on defending the rights and freedoms of all cultures in Turkey, aiming to create self governing units and move away from today’s centralised government. Referring to the political situation as a “One man dictatorship”, he explained that Turkey is “Erdogan’s operation now. He is what we live in Turkey. Democracy and legislation are all collected in one man’s lips and we are evolving into a fascist state”.

He mentioned the imprisonment of journalists and the amounts of people who are publically critical of the regime dying in suspicious circumstances.


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Haluk’s theory fears censorship could have much bigger effect on Turkish citizens. “As we know from fascist regimes, using propaganda to direct the masses is very important in emergence and getting power. History shows this. Telling lies is a big tool of Turkey’s fascist dictatorship. They have the media and are pumping disinformation about Kurdistan. They are doing huge genocides and covering it up and blaming it on the Kurds. The bigger the lie, the more believable it is. Propaganda is so important so we fight against it.”

A recurring theme mentioned throughout my trip to Istanbul was also the idea of self-censorship. An idea which seems alien to most people from a country with free speech, this stems from fear of the consequences of a piece’s reception or lack of motivation due to the likelihood of the piece eventually being banned. This situation is a worrying prospect, if a president intimidates the people of such a rich and beautiful culture to a point where they can’t even bring themselves to create something, there is concern about the possibilities his regime. There soon needs to be a reaction from creatives or elsewhere to prevent censorship continuing or creative freedom in Istanbul is in danger.


About William Macmaster

William Macmaster is originally from England but currently lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands. He studied English and Media in Southampton before moving there last year and has since reported from The Netherlands, Germany and Turkey. He's passionate at about modern culture, in particular film and music, as well as politics and human rights.

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