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Why Germany accepted to be the guest of honor at the International Istanbul Book Fair

While an increasing number of writers and journalists are being imprisoned in Turkey, Germany is the guest of honor at the 2016 International Istanbul Book Fair. Can it have an impact on freedom of expression?

According to the Turkish PEN center, 154 writers and journalists are currently in jail in Istanbul, while more than 100 media companies and 29 publishing houses have been shut down.

Does that keep Germany from taking on the role of guest of honor at the 35th International Book Fair in Istanbul, which opens on Saturday? By no means, says Maria Böhmer, a senior German Foreign Ministry official: "We want to take advantage of our role and use it to advocate the freedom of expression and opinion."

Thirty German publishing houses and cultural institutions make up the German section at the fair, along with 14 German-language authors, including Silke Scheuermann, Olga Grjasnowa, Moritz Rinke, Peter Schneider and Ilija Trojanow. They are eager to meet Turkish colleagues, to discuss their books and the situation in Turkey and in Europe.

Critical view

Critics are less sure about Germany's participation, however. "We really wondered whether it makes sense to go at this time," says Jürgen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. But in the end, he and his team - in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut in Istanbul - decided to risk the balancing act. "Tough concerning the facts, but in a polite manner" - that's how Germany plans to defend free speech and call for the freedom of Turkish authors who were not able to accept the invitation to meet their German colleagues because they are in jail. 

Asli Erdogan, a member of Turkey's official delegation at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair, is one of them. The co-publisher of a pro-Kurdish newspaper was jailed in August on suspicion of terrorism.

Asli Erdogan (Imago)

Internationally renowned novelist Asli Erdogan

It's necessary to show up in particular in "times as politically tense as the present," Boos argues, adding that Turkish publishers stress the importance of an intensive international exchange. It's no coincidence that Germany wasn't invited by the Turkish government, but by the group that organizes the fair, the Turkish Publishers Association.

Publishers show solidarity

As the German book and media industry, we "have a duty to our colleagues and society," says participant Alexander Skipis, CEO of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association. "We want to speak to all sides." It's important for the jailed writers to see that they do have advocates, he added.

Reimar Volker, head of the Goethe-Institut in Istanbul stresses the importance of creating a space for a continued dialogue, making it clear that the German side is showing solidarity with the authors and publishers who work under tough conditions.

Turkey's PEN center President Zeynep Oral welcomes shows of solidarity, in particular because her efforts at contacting Turkish authorities and a letter to the Culture Minister went unanswered.

Oral is a longtime columnist for the Istanbul-based Cumhuriyet newspaper. Critical of the government, the paper has come under immense pressure: former editor in chief Can Dündar is in German exile, his successor Murat Sabuncu and eight other employees have been arrested. There have been police barricades in front of the newspaper building, but also shows of solidarity, Oral says.

The Turkish PEN president hopes the International Book Fair in Istanbul will put a spotlight on the situation of writers and journalists in her country.

Watch video 02:20

Interview with German writer Olga Grjasnowa

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