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Turkey Istanbul Biennale 2015. Copyright: Istanbul Biennale/K. Karacizmeli
Image: Istanbul Biennale/K. Karacizmeli

Art according to the rules: Self-censorship in Turkey

Ceyda Nurtsch / eg
January 2, 2016

Private investors are welcome in Turkey when it comes to arts and culture. But freedom for artists and journalists is largely restricted. The alternative arts scene has slipped into the background.


More than 500,000 visitors attended the 14th Istanbul Biennale between September and November 2015, turning the entire city into massive open-air museum and breaking new attendance records. Both Turkish and foreign artists used this opportunity to showcase their work at the event, which is considered the largest international gathering in the country.

Protesters hold a Turkish flag as riot police use a water cannon to disperse them. Copyright: REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Protestors in Gezi Park in 2013 were dispersed with police using tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets, resulting in several deathsImage: Reuters

The Istanbul Biennale is facilitated with the help of generous sponsors, in particular Koc Holding. The wealthy and powerful Koc family has agreed to provide financial support to the event until at least 2026. Much like the Koc clan, Turkey's other wealthy families, such as the Eczacibasis or the Tahincioglus, also exert a strong influence on the country's art scene.

They own impressive collections and run important museums, seeing art as an investment. These families have also organized festivals and published many books to date in a bid to make Turkey's art scene more attractive to international investors.

Penalties on pro-Kurdish art and artists

But behind the facade of this "cultural boom" things look a lot different. The online platform "Siyah bant" (Black Tape) examines and documents cases of censorship in Turkey's art scene. Recently, it published a summary of the European Commission's report on Turkey for 2015. According to the document, Turkey's track record when it comes to the freedom of expression and freedom of information is rather abysmal.

Image Bahar Cuhadar. Copyright: dw / Bahar Cuhadar
Bahar Cuhadar says that only small, independent theaters manage to somewhat stay clear of government censorshipImage: picture alliance / dpa

Artists who campaign on behalf of Kurds face prosecution under Turkey's anti-terrorism laws. An ever-increasing number of plays as well as music productions are also reported to fall victim to censorship. Theater companies that supported the Gezi Park Movement of 2013 suddenly found their funding cut.

A rising number of lawsuits have been brought against people who have allegedly insulted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - an act punishable by law. In the end, it would appear that many artists have practiced pre-emptive self-censorship rather than having the government interfere with their creativity.

Defamation and irony

Journalist and theater critic Bahar Cuhadar says she knows of numerous cases in which the Ministry of Culture has directly interfered with the arts by dictating the content of movies and plays at public theaters.

"They know how to put people under pressure. They either threaten actors directly, saying that they will cancel their salaries, or simply call off entire productions. They'll take you to court or mobilize the press to write defamatory things against you, not stopping at anything" says Cuhadar.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Copyright: dpa
Once a medieval church, the Hagia Sofia was later turned into a mosque. Nowadays it houses a museum glorifying Ottoman conquestsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Becker

But in response to these measures, a growing independent theater scene has emerged in Istanbul in the past few years. Cuhadar says this gives her some hope for the future: "Censorship makes people more creative, both through their storytelling and their use of language. Irony is the key."

Many of these smaller stages also deal with themes pertaining to government coercion. Cuhadar says that more and more of their casts now include renowned actors. But the overall mood in Turkey's culture scene remains rather subdued.

Arbitrary measures due to a lack of clearly defined policies

Sociologist Ayca Ince thinks that censorship has taken on a new dimension under the leadership of the AKP. "Since 2010, the cultural policy of this country has been standardized to fit the views of the government," Ince explains.

"Instead of precisely defining its conservative values, the government arbitrarily determines which works of art insult the Prophet or the President."

Before winning its first elections in 2002, the AKP had promised democratization and cultural pluralism, earning the support of many intellectuals, liberals and artists. But according to Ince, the party focused on renewing the country's crumbling infrastructure instead of championing Turkey's cultural policies.

War on art - and journalism

As an extension of that negligence of contemporary art, newly-opened museums, few and far in between, serve only to highlight the country's Islamic heritage. The Panorama 1453 history museum, for instance, showcases the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. Modern art receives no public funding, nor do concert halls: although chosen European Capital of Culture in 2010, Istanbul has no permanent home for the State Opera.

Police sprayed water cannon to disperse dozens of people in front of the offices of Kanalturk and Bugun TV. Copyright: REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Police besieged the offices of Kanalturk in late October, while the cameras were still rollingImage: Reuters/M. Sezer

The Gezi Park protests in 2013 had helped to raise hopes for more freedom down the line, but nothing has changed. Initial demonstrations against government plans to build a shopping center at Gezi Park had led to larger protests taking on wider issues like freedom of the press, of expression and of assembly. A wind of change swept through the country and inspired people to take to the streets repeatedly over a course of several months. But finally, the brutal repression of the Gezi Park protests led not only to further censorship of artists but also began to target journalists.

During the first round of elections in June 2015, anti-government journalists started facing a growing flow of threats. In September, AKP supporters stormed the headquarters of the daily newspaper "Hurriyet," and in October, journalist Ahmet Hakan was assaulted outside his own doorstep. The government has also repeatedly embargoed major news stories such as reports coming out of the October 2015 terror attack in Ankara, which killed more than 100 people.

In the run-up to the second round of elections on November 1, policemen entered the offices of the private TV channel "Kanalturk," forcing their way into the building with chainsaws and water throwers as cameras continued to run in the studios. Alongside its sister broadcaster "Bugun," the channel is part of Koza-Ipek Holdings, a close associate of the Islamic Gulen movement. Erdogan has accused its founder, Fethullah Gulen, of plotting against the government and planning a coup. Gulen has always denied the accusations, but he and his followers have nevertheless been categorized as a terrorist organization.

The government's agitation and campaign against journalists reached its pinnacle in November 2015, when Can Dündar, the renowned Turkish journalist and editor of the daily newspaper "Cumhuriyet," was incarcerated alongside his Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gul. Both men were accused of espionage and spreading government secrets after publishing a video online that allegedly showed Turkey's intelligence agency MIT delivering weapons to insurgents in Syria associated with the self-declared "Islamic State" (IS). The government claims that the delivery merely contained humanitarian aid - allthough no such images were shown in the footage.

Journalists Can Dündar und Erdem Gül. Copyright: Vedat Arik/Cumhuriyet via AP
Journalists Can Dundar und Erdem Gul have accused Erdogan of smuggling weapons to IS in SyriaImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Arik, Cumhuriyet

Dündar and Gul aren't the only two Cumhuriyet journalists facing prison time, however. After publishing Charlie Hebdo caricatures in the wake of the January 2015 attacks on the satirical magazine in Paris, several other Cumhuriyet journalists have also been indicted and are now awaiting trial.

Nonetheless, President Erdogan has repeatedly insisted that Turkey's media landscape enjoys the greatest freedom of the press in the world. Meanwhile, several international NGOs have called the unfolding events in Turkey "alarming," decrying, among other things, internet censorship, abuse of anti-terrorism laws and increasing government control of media companies.

Turkey thus ranks No. 149 out of 180 countries with regard to press and artistic freedom - and the ranking seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Author Ceyda Nurtsch has a PhD in Turkish literature and works as a freelance journalist in Berlin and Istanbul. She regularly reports for DW on cultural and political topics in Turkey. Nurtsch wrote this article - the first in a series focusing on the current cultural scene in different countries - in collaboration with the magazine "Politik & Kultur," and DW's multimedia series "Art of Freedom. Freedom of Art."

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