Kurdish artist and journalist urges world to pressure Turkey

As Turkey heads to the polls, a Kurdish artist and journalist recently released from prison on Sunday called on international powers to pressure her country’s government to force the release of other imprisoned journalists, activists, academics and politicians.

Zehra Doğan was released in late February after nearly 600 days behind bars, convicted of “exceeding the limits of criticism” by depicting the destruction of the the city of Nusaybin in southeast Turkey by state security forces, and for making terror propaganda.

Fighting between Turkish armed forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has led an armed insurgency in the region since 1984, resumed in mid-2015. Doğan felt compelled to report on the suffering, despite the dangers, she explained in the British newspaper The Independent.  

“If I did not go, I would have been leaving my people on their own, and their stories would never have been heard,” Doğan wrote. “To fear is human, but to give in to fear when trying to tell the people the truth in the face of a repressive regime is to lose the struggle before it has even started.”

Few people saw her coverage of the violence and its impact, as Turkish media is predominantly pro-government, so Doğan turned to art, which she had studied in school. “These pictures came to the attention of social media users, and they did not go unnoticed by the state,” she wrote.

After leaving Nusaybin she was arrested, and later sentenced to more than two years in jail for depiction of Nusaybin, made on her smartphone. Yet even inside prison she found a way to express herself, Doğan said, by making paint from fruit, vegetables, drinks, and the menstrual blood of women prisoners, and brushes from hair and bird feathers.

“What the authorities forget is that every repressive act produces its own resistance,” she wrote. “I produced much more under these repressive conditions than I had ever produced in the outside world, and I didn’t lose heart, despite dozens of my pictures and the notes I had written for a novel being seized and destroyed.”

While in prison Doğan won international rights prizes, and the street artist Banksy projected her Nusaybin drawing onto the wall of a New York City building, as well as an image marking the days she spent in prison.

“My art and words which the authorities had sought to silence and censor spread to the four corners of the Earth as a result of this repression,” she wrote, adding how it was a morale boost for her and her fellow prisoners. “I was behind iron bars, but I was free. The state could keep me cooped up in one place, but it could never arrest my mind.”

Though she has been released, thousands remain unjustly jailed in Turkey, including many journalists, artists, students, academics and politicians, according to Doğan. In its 2018 report, press freedom group Reporters Without Borders called Turkey the world’s biggest jailer of journalists and, citing the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) shuttering of dozens of news outlets, ranked the country 157th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index.

“I believe that the whole world needs to show even more support of prisoners in Turkey,” she wrote. “While the vast majority of the Turkish press are not reporting this, even in the smallest column, international powers coming together to put pressure on the government is the most important thing.”