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Turkey's artists face increasing pressure

Beklan Kulaksizoglu sh
August 2, 2019

Artists and creative professionals are increasingly being targeted by authorities in Turkey. Insults against the president and "terror propaganda" are the most frequent accusations. Even big name stars are not spared.

Türkei Protest nach Bürgermeisterwahl in Istanbul
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Kilic

In Turkey, the number of investigations and charges against citizens for crimes such as "insulting the president" and "terrorist propaganda" has skyrocketed. The accusations are made not only against politicians, journalists and activists, but also against academics and ordinary citizens. Artists and other creative professionals are also increasingly targeted by the authorities.

In the past, it was rather the artists addressing political topics such as the debate about Kurdistan who would be the main targets, or those who'd create works of art that were judged to be "pornographic," or which "did not correspond to the moral values of Turkish society" in the eyes of the authorities. But taking legal action against artists with millions of fans was rather unusual. Today, this seems to have changed.

Singer Zuhal Olcay
Well-known singer Zuhal Olcay was sentenced to prison for insulting Turkish President Erdogan in a songImage: picture-alliance/B. Kammerer

Popular artists targeted

The most recent case was that of Zuhal Olcay, a famous singer and actress who has won numerous awards in Turkey and has a huge fan base. In July, the court of appeals sentenced the 62-year-old to 11 months and 20 days in prison. Olcay had rewritten the verse of one of her songs to reference Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and sang it during a concert. Her message: His time will be over. The line was seen as an insult to the president, and after an informer in the audience called the police, the wheels were set in motion.

The same day, two documentary filmmakers, Ertugrul Mavioglu and Cayan Demirel, were sentenced to four years and six months in prison for their film, Bakur, which authorities deemed to be terrorist propaganda. The film is set in the mountains of northern Iraq in the camps of the Kurdish organization PKK, where fighters talk about their lives and opinions.

The PKK is classified as a terrorist organization both in Turkey and in the European Union. However, in 2013 and 2014, when the film was made, the Turkish government sat at the negotiating table with the PKK as part of a so-called "peace process." At the time, the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan had ordered the fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory. According to the filmmakers, the aim of the documentary film was to accompany this withdrawal process.

Read more:Turkish journalists acquitted of terrorist propaganda charges 

The poster for the documentary film 'Bakur'
The poster for the documentary film 'Bakur'

But the peace process collapsed in 2015. After the film was finished, it was included in the program of the renowned Istanbul International Film Festival, but the Turkish Ministry of Culture did not allow it to be shown. The interference was unusual and was considered a form of censorship by many. Still, the documentary film was not banned.

But then, two years later in 2017, the documentary filmmakers faced criminal charges. Mavioglu defended his work: "If you definitely want to regard our documentary film as propaganda, then it wouldn't be propaganda for war, but for peace," he said.

Artists Mujdat Gezen and Metin Akpinar
Comedy pioneers Metin Akpinar (left) and Müjdat GezenImage: picture-alliance/abaca/Depo Photos

Superstars under investigation

In 2018, when investigations were initiated against two heavyweights of the Turkish theater and cinema scenes, many in society were surprised once again. In a television show broadcast at the end of the year, 76-year-old Müjdat Gezen and the 78-year-old Metin Akpinar, two prominent comedians, criticized Turkish president Erdogan and the anti-democratic developments in Turkey and warned against fascism. Erdogan called the stars "wannabe artists" and threatened that they would pay the price for their statements in the court of law. Shortly thereafter, authorities announced they were under investigation.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to Human Rights Watch, 20,539 people were charged with insulting the president in 2017 and 6,033 were indicted. By comparison, when Erdogan was elected president in 2014, there were only 132 new investigations. While only 40 people accused were convicted in 2014, in 2017, 2,099 were convicted.

Read more:Reporters in Turkey adopt a new beat: Imprisoned journalists 

Intimidation and self-censorship

Many critics see the increase in investigations as an attempt by the government to intimidate dissenters. Self-censorship is widespread, especially in the media and art worlds. According to critics, the fact that the Turkish president personally intervenes time and again, threatening critics with harsh accusations such as treason or terrorism makes it difficult for authorities and judges to act in favor of personal freedoms.

Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu
The election of Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul's new mayor (pictured), may mark a turning point for politics in TurkeyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Pitarakis

A turning point?

After the controversial cancellation of the mayoral elections in Istanbul, opposition election winner Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People's Party (CHP) called on artists to raise their voices. Hundreds of artists did so, showing their support with the election campaign slogan "Her sey cok güzel olacak," which translates to "everything will be okay," and garnered a following on social media.  

After Ekrem Imamoglu won the recount of the Istanbul mayoral election on June 24, many observers agreed, including insiders close to Erdogan, that the president's strategy of intimidation and polarization played a significant role in the election defeat of the candidate from his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

After the election, Erdogan announced sweeping reforms in the economy, the judiciary and even in the presidential system which gave him far-reaching powers and have been criticized. Still, many in Turkish society hope that someday, as Imamoglu says, "everything will be okay."