Artists not spared in Turkey’s crackdown

During near two decades of rule, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has demonstrated again and again its unwillingness to countenance criticism. Turkey has become one of the largest jailers of journalists worldwide, opposition parties are threatened with closure, and space for free expression, both online and offline, has been choked harder and harder.

Artists have not been spared. According to international organisation Freemuse, Turkey holds the inglorious honour of being Europe’s most prolific violator of artistic rights.

Freemuse’s annual report recorded 254 “illegitimate restrictions of artistic freedom” in Europe, 72 of which took place in Turkey alone. Currently, seven artists remain imprisoned in the country and another 17 have been prosecuted under an array of harsh, ambiguous legal codes. Among the six countries responsible for the bulk of restrictions on music, Turkey comes top as well.

“Turkey is part of a wider trend of countries where there is an overall shrinking of alternative expressions that go against those propagated by the authorities,” Freemuse Global Advocacy and Campaigns Coordinator Paige Collings told Ahval in a podcast. 

Like their other civil society counterparts, artists are being squeezed by an increasingly repressive legal system using ambiguous definitions for terrorism and other offences.

According to Collings, this repression of artistic freedom intensified under the state of emergency enacted after the 2016 failed coup attempt, and continued after many extraordinary powers were formally codified in July 2018.

Every form of art has been affected by these laws, and artists across the country have struggled to avoid falling afoul of them. The situation is, however, uniquely challenging for Turkey’s Kurdish artists, Collings said.

“Kurdish artists’ work is not produced in a vacuum,” she said. “Often they are talking about the oppressive or discriminatory policies and social norms placed on them.”

“As a consequence, they are often silenced under counter-terror legislation in particular, often under the guise of supporting the PKK,” she added, referring to the Kurdistan Workers Party which has been involved in an internal conflict with the Turkish state since 1984. 

There are numerous examples of Kurdish artists being persecuted by Turkish authorities.

Hozan Cane, a German-Kurdish artist, was arrested in 2018 for attending events hosted by Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and finally released last September.

Kurdish folk singer Ferhat Tunç has been similarly targeted, including for social media posts during the Islamic State’s (ISIS) 2014 siege of the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria. Prosecutors say this constituted support for terrorist groups like the PKK.

Tunç has since relocated to Germany, where legal requests from Turkish prosecutors were rejected by local courts on the grounds they violated his freedom of expression.

LGBTQ artists have also come under scrutiny, with authorities taking an increasingly hostile tone towards the community, often accusing them of insulting family values or religious morals with their work.

Last month, students protesting the appointment of a pro-government figure to head Istanbul’s Bogazici University enraged government officials with a depiction of the Kaaba, Islam’s most important sacred site, adorned with a rainbow-coloured LGBTQ flag. Four students were arrested for the image.   

Unfortunately, the threat to artistic freedom is not confined to Turkey. The Freemuse report shows that across the world, in traditional democracies and authoritarian states alike, the space for artistic expression has tightened.

On some metrics, Turkey is ahead of countries like Russia and Egypt in its persecution of artists. But the country is closely followed by other states in Europe including France and Poland.

“Turkey is not alone in violating artistic freedom. There are unfortunately many countries that are doing similar,” Collings said.

“Perhaps it is not as obvious as it is in Turkey, laws against insult and blasphemy, these tools are being used all over the world to silence artistic expression.”

The Freemuse report puts forward several recommendations for governments to begin addressing the abuse of artists.

In Turkey’s case, this includes clarifying the legal definition of terrorism and repealing article 299 of the penal code, which criminalises insults against the president. The latter in particular has been used repeatedly to bring legal cases against artists and other groups critical of Erdoğan in recent years.

Without changes, Collings warned Turkish artists will continue to self-censor or risk their lives in the name of their work.

“Artists are literally dying because of the gatekeeping of artistic freedom by the authorities in Turkey,” she said.