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'Art cannot be suppressed,' says PEN Germany's president

Can Dündar and Erdem Gül published a report about Turkish arms deals with Islamists and were prosecuted for it. Now the critical journalists are being honored by PEN Germany. The organization's president explains why.

PEN International campaign for Turkish author Asli Erdogan

PEN International's campaign for imprisoned Turkish author Asli Erdogan

The German branch of the international writers' organization PEN is awarding its Hermann Kesten Prize on Thursday to two Turkish journalists who have been prosecuted by their country's government.

In May 2016, Can Dündar, a well-known television journalist and former head of the newspaper "Cumhuriyet," and Erdem Gül, head of the paper's Ankara office, were given prison sentences for divulging state secrets in reports alleging arms deliveries by the Turkish government to Islamists in Syria.

The Turkish government has since continued to crack down on "Cumhuriyet," arresting over a dozen journalists and managers earlier this month.

Dündar currently lives in exile in Germany and will be a fellow at PEN Germany's Writers at Risk program starting in January.

PEN Germany has praised Gül and Dündar as "brave warriors for freedom of speech and democracy."  PEN Germany's President Josef Haslinger told DW why they are worthy of the prize, and where the boundaries of free speech lie.

Josef Haslinger (picture-alliance/dpa)

Josef Haslinger is president of PEN Germany

DW: Turkish President Erdogan has said the "minarets are our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." Mr. Haslinger, is someone who says things like that in public inciting religious hate?

Josef Haslinger: I would say yes. It's a martial language that is just looking for an enemy.

If you were a judge, would you throw someone in jail for words like that?

No... (laughs). That's a different matter. The question is when does the incited hate become so big that the person behind it needs to be sanctioned? When does inflammation begin? And where does freedom of speech rule? Free speech is a broad field in every functioning democracy. It must be very broad. You can only step in when other people's safety and lives are endangered.

That means that extremist statements are also protected by freedom of speech?

Yes. Of course holding an extremist opinion is permitted as long as other people are not endangered.

Would PEN step in to protest an author that is sitting in prison for expressing a quote like the one I just mentioned?

As a matter of principle, PEN does not protect authors who call for violence. Those who incite violence lose PEN's support.

In 1999, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was the mayor of Istanbul at the time, went to jail for that quote. Today he is president and has had numerous writers and journalists locked away. Does that contribute to Erdogan's credibility?

Can Dündar (picture alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld)

Can Dündar will be a Writers at Risk fellow at PEN Germany next year

Erdogan's credibility only exists among his supporters. There is no one in the western world who adheres to rule of law and supports freedom of speech - and who still believes that Erdogan is credible.

This week, the writers' organization PEN is presenting the Herman Kesten Prize to Turkish journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül. Why were they chosen?

We made this decision prior to the coup attempt in Turkey and before the public focus shifted to Can Dündar. In the meantime, we no longer need to draw attention to Can Dündar. For publicity reasons, it is no longer necessary to give him the prize. On the other hand, Can Dündar has supported his colleagues the whole time. He didn't surrender his democratic opinions. For that reason, he is a worthy recipient.

That means the current events affirm your decision. What is your message?

Our message is that we support people who make use of their freedom of speech even in difficult times and would like to show that these kinds of actions are commendable.

According to Reporters Without Borders, some 120 journalists in Turkey are on trial on suspicions of terrorist activity and 140 have been imprisoned. What is the current state of freedom of speech and press freedom in Turkey?

The publishing industry still enjoys a certain liberality. That was visible at the Istanbul Book Fair. There were a number of publishers offering books by authors in prison. Just because an author is in prison doesn't necessarily mean that his or her works have been banned. But if an author is also a columnist for a newspaper, then he or she is significantly more endangered at the moment.

Turkish journalists Erdem Gul and Can Dündar leave their trial in Istanbul in May 2016 (Reuters/O. Orsal)

Erdem Gül (left) and Can Dündar leave their trial in Istanbul in May

The state doesn't consider this tiny public sector, the book market, which only involves a few people, to be very significant. On the other hand, newspapers and television broadcasters that reach the masses are important. And those who express criticism of head-of-state Erdogan via those channels are in danger.

"I don't know how, but literature has always managed to overcome dictators," Turkish author Asli Erdogan wrote from prison. Mr. Haslinger, you are a writer yourself. Is Asli Erdogan right?

Essentially, she is right. That has proven true again and again. And if you read the recently published autobiography by Wolf Biermann, you'll see what can happen here in Germany. Literature, art, music and critical intellectual opinions can be suppressed. But art cannot be definitely suppressed.

Besides, the wave of support for Asli Erdgan and other persecuted authors has been very big around the world. I don't think that the Turkish regime can remain unimpressed by it for long.

Austrian writer Josef Haslinger, born in 1955, has been president of PEN Germany since 2013.

 

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