UK faces 'common problems' with Turkey, authors warn

UK faces 'common problems' with Turkey, authors warn

A panel of Turkish authors speaking about censorship in the troubled country have warned that the UK faces "common problems" with Turkey, where right-wing anti-intellectualism has led to a state crackdown on freedom of expression following the failed coup on 15th July.

The panel spoke at a sold-out event earlier this week (19th September), chaired by president of English PEN Maureen Freely at the Free Word Centre in London, based on the topic of what it feels like to be a writer in or from Turkey at this time. The Turkish government closed at least 29 publishing houses following the failed coup in the country on 15th July, and press freedom in the country appears only to be deteriorating with the recent arrests of prominent writers including Ahmet Altan - a novelist who sells millions of books. This morning (22nd September) he was released on probation but his brother, the academic Mehmet Altan, remains detained.

Speaking about the uncertainty hanging over friends and colleagues in Turkey, Freely said: "President Erdoğan was already authoritarian before the failed coup in July and things have become so much worse; we don't know what is going to happen next. We know many of our friends who are journalists, academics, novelists, actors, students, who are being prosecuted, in prison at the moment, forced into exile. And so many don't know what is going to happen to them or to us next; it is that uncertainty."

Turkish novelist Burhan Sönmez spoke of an episode at a funeral, days after the failed coup, where an Imam had preached in a sermon saying: "'Oh mighty God, protect us from the evil educated people. There are some books that are most dangerous and effective than the bomb'. That's the mentality in Turkey," he said.

However, Canan Marasligil, a translator on the panel, said censorship in Turkey was simply an example of a wider phenomenon occuring globally. "What most concerns me is people look at Turkey, [and they say] 'oh it is so bad over there', and they don't see what is going on in their own country," she said. "Look at Brexit, look at what is happening in France, and the rise of the extreme right. It's linked in a way. The hatred is the same. Politically they are very different; but the hatred people are capable of, that scares me the most."

Author-journalist Ece Temelkuran referred to the trend as "post-truth" politics, citing Donald Trump who, despite an onslaught on insults from the media, has a huge following. She said: "This is a trend in the entire world, I think. 'The evil of the educated.' I call it the mobilised ignorance and it's going to be the issue in this country, after Brexit especially," she warned. "This is our common problem. We are going to be all together in this."

Famous writers Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Elena Ferrante and JM Coetzee have called for the Turkish government to cease its persecution of prominent writers following the dawn raid on 10th September which saw the arrests of Altan, also a former and editor-in-chief of five years at liberal daily newspaper Taraf, and his brother Mehmet Altan, a professor at Istanbul University and columnist who has campaigned to rebuild Turkey based on human rights. The authors, including Booker and Nobel Prize winners, wrote that while it may be “understandable” for the government to impose a temporary state of emergency in Turkey, the failed coup "should not be a pretext for a McCarthy-style witch-hunt nor should that state of emergency be conducted with scant regard for basic rights, rules of evidence or even common sense”. 

Other writers who have been detained since the failed coup include two advisory board members of the now closed, pro-Kurdish daily newspaper Özgür Gündem; Aslı Erdoğan, a well-known author in Turkey, and writer and linguist Necmiye Alpay. They were both arrested on terror charges as part of an ongoing investigation into the closed daily newspaper. Erdoğan has complained of "poor prison conditions” and was denied "essential medication" for three days, according to English PEN. 

Alpay, arrested on 1st September, has defended herself against charges she is part of a terrorist organisation by saying “journalism is not a crime” and has criticised the logic behind the arrests.

"What I know is that the actual way of prosecuting everyone is not the way to restore a peaceful country, neither that of combatting terrorism,” she wrote. "I call all those who are responsible, and the government, to put an end to the politics of violence and repression, free writers and peace activists, recognise the right of criticism and begin to talk and negotiate with the representatives of Kurdish movements who declare themselves ready for that. Jailing peace activists and writers is not new in our country. Interestingly enough, now there are more women writers and peace activists in prison than ever. And, this time, considering the problems of the region, we risk to find us in a civil war, and our country fallen apart. Only peaceful politics can serve [to] avoid this.”

The action against Turkish publishers, meanwhile, has also prompted the collective response of leading publishing chiefs around the world. The PEN International Publishers Circle organised a petition against the crackdown in August, signed by publishing chief executives including Markus Dohle of Penguin Random House, Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster and Arnaud Nourry of Hachette Livre, who expressed their "deep concern" and called on president Tayyip Erdogan to protect writers' freedom of expression.

Nourry told The Bookseller last month: "What could president Erdogan possibly be afraid of? Books? Opinions? Contrary opinions? Does Erdogan believe authors, let alone publishers, played a role in the failed coup? Or is he seizing on an opportunity to clamp down on what is left of freedom of expression in his country? Whatever the motivation, Turkey must at once rescind its gag order imposed on publishers if it still wants to be considered a democracy.”