News | Participation / Civil Rights - Art / Performance - Turkey Art and Censorship in Turkey

As the AKP’s political agenda shifts, artistic interventions are increasingly derided as “secondary”



Merve Namlı,

Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) in Istanbul during the Gezi Park protest movement, 2013.
  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Photo: Flickr/Alper Orus

During the 19 years of AKP rule in Turkey, the art world has been subjected to pressure and censorship through methods such as punishment, prohibition, investigation, targeting, threatening, intimidation, humiliation, obstruction, physical and verbal attack, and marginalization.

Merve Namlı is a translator and writes for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the taz and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. This article original appeared in maldekstra #13.

This political pressure, which destroys diversity, freedom of expression, and critical thinking in society, keeps the art world in a precarious state. Halls and venues of state art institutions and independent art venues are closed or demolished, books are banned, movies are censored, statues are destroyed, painters are arrested, and independent theatres are barred from funding for having supported the massive Gezi Park movement in 2013.

Cracking Down on the Arts

The year AKP came to power, it cut funding for the Atatürk Cultural Centre (AKM), which was put into service as the fourth-largest art centre in the world in 1969 and is one of Istanbul’s iconic venues. The AKP government prevented maintenance and repair activities from being carried out. Ignoring the historical, symbolic, and cultural significance of the building, the government instead highlighted the potential rent for the building’s land. Slated for demolition until 2012, it was ultimately decided to restore the venue in response to widespread criticism.

Beyoğlu’s Emek Movie Theatre, another historical venue for culture and art, was demolished by the government to make way for a shopping mall in 2013, and the famous cinema critic Atilla Dorsay, who protested the event, was assaulted at the construction site. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism stopped giving funds to independent theatres that supported the Gezi Park movement, such as Dostlar Theatre under the management of Genco Erkal, Altıdan Sonra Theater, Destar Theatre, Bulut Theater, and Ferhan Şensoy’s Ortaoyuncular.

Reyan Tuvi’s documentary film Love Will Change The Earth about the Gezi Resistance was selected by the preliminary jury at the 51st International Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival, but was excluded from the documentary competition programme by festival management. The screening of the documentary Ali — A Free World in His Dreamsabout Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who was beaten to death in Eskişehir during the Gezi Resistance, was banned by the governorship of Hatay, his hometown on his birthday. In April 2016, the documentary film about the Roboski Massacre, I Remember, was removed from the 27th Ankara International Film Festival.

Since the attempted coup in 2016, 301,878 books have been removed from Turkish schools and libraries and destroyed according to Turkey’s ministry of education. At Istanbul Bahçelievler Kumport Secondary School, an investigation was launched against five Turkish teachers who recommended Aziz Nesin's book, Today’s Children Are Wonderful. Previously, the books Samarkand and My Sweet Orange Tree were investigated in the same district.

Famous Turkish rapper Ezhel was tried on the grounds that his lyrics “openly encouraged the use of drugs or stimulants”. He was arrested and sent to prison in the second trial, although he was released on condition of judicial control in the first trial. He and Khontkar Onur Dinç and Young Bego were tried and sentenced to prison for the same reasons. Ezhel, who was imprisoned for about a month, was acquitted in the first hearing.

Pressuring Minorities

The artistic freedom of expression of Grup Yorum, one of the most influential music groups in Turkey, has been systematically violated for years. Many lawsuits were filed against the group members on grounds such as “making propaganda for a terrorist organization” and “membership in a terrorist organization”, and the İdil Cultural Centre, where the group regularly rehearsed, was raided by the police at least three times. The members of the group were arbitrarily detained, their concerts were repeatedly banned.

Group members Helin Bölek and İbrahim Gökçek, who went on hunger strike demanding the ban on their concerts be lifted, the cultural centre not be raided, and the lawsuits against the group members be dropped, lost their lives in 2020. Grup Munzur was also sentenced to ten months in prison for “propagandizing for a terrorist organization” with the Kurdish songs “Zindana Diyarbekir” and “Serhildan Jiyane”, which they sang at the Van Newroz celebrations in 2017. The announcement of the verdict has been delayed, but if the band members commit the same “crime” — that is, if they sing these songs again — they will be sentenced to prison.

Musicians who advocate for gender equality and LGBTI+ rights are also exposed to similar pressures and censorship. When the musician Melek Mosso said “The Istanbul Convention will keep us alive” before singing the song “Keklik Like”, which she dedicated to the victims of femicide, the police were called and the artist was removed from the stage at a concert she gave in August 2020. Musician Mabel Matiz, known for his queer identity and support for the LGBTI+ movement, dedicated his award to “everyone who celebrates and spreads diversity” at the 46th Pantene Golden Butterfly Awards, but his words were censored.

The demolition of a huge Turkish statue devoted to reconciliation with Armenia has begun, months after the prime minister described it as a “freak”. The thirty-metre statue depicting two human figures facing each other was erected on a mountain in the Turkish city of Kars, near the Armenian border, as a friendship symbol between Armenia and Turkey.

Kurdish painter Zehra Doğan was accused of “being a member of a terror organization” and was arrested for sharing the pictures she drew during the curfew and security operations in the Nusaybin district of Mardin in 2016 on social media. Describing the ruined image of the city, Doğan said about her prison sentence: “I was imprisoned for two years and ten months for painting this picture with the Turkish flag on the ruined buildings. In fact, they were the ones who took this photo. I just painted the photo they took.” Doğan is currently living in exile.

Mass protests began against the assignment of rector Melih Bulu, who was appointed to Boğaziçi University by President Erdoğan, in early 2021. A group exhibition organized during the protests, which brought together many people, once again inflamed the discussions on art and censorship. A work called Şahmerdan, which met with the audience within the scope of the exhibition and shows the Masjid al-Haram in the background, was faced with the accusation of “insulting religion”. The work, which is decorated with LGBTI+ flags, was subjected to severe police intervention on the grounds that it did not comply with the fundamental views of Islam and tried to humiliate a part of the society. Some politicians, especially Devlet Bahçeli and Süleyman Soylu, interpreted this work as disrespecting the Kaaba, which is considered sacred in Islam, and afterwards Boğaziçi Fine Arts and BÜLGBTİ+ club were searched and BÜLGBTİ+ was closed. In this process, two students of the university were arrested and two other students were sentenced to house arrest.

The British broadcaster BBC reported that the reactions “turned into a campaign targeting the LGBTI community”, while the European Union called on Turkey to “respect its national and international obligations and release those arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to peaceful assembly in recent weeks”. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (BMCHR), on the other hand, called for the release of the students detained during the protests and declared that it condemned "the hate speech of the authorities targeting LGBTI+ individuals".

The censorship, threats and lawsuits they face, as well as deprivation of basic needs such as concert permits, rehearsal venues, and cultural centres, and the lack of state support due to the increasing economic problems linked to the pandemic, mean that artists are not able to perform and some of them leave the country for good.

Performing in a Pandemic

Undoubtedly, one of the areas most affected by the pandemic is the field of culture and art. Private theatres, performance centres, and entertainment venues started to close one by one because they could not find funding and perform shows as most gatherings have been banned. Artists’ main criticism in this process is the inconsistency of the measures taken, such as keeping schools closed but shopping malls open, or Friday prayers being held in Hagia Sophia with 350,000 people. Erdogan is allowed to hold a rally, but open-air concerts are banned — giving the impression that the government has instrumentalized the pandemic as a further tool to exert pressure..

The AKP imposes censorship on art by invoking “national values”. Because the political agenda in Turkey changes so rapidly, artistic interventions have become a “secondary” matter. When a film about the Kurdish issue is censored, a section of society turns their backs on it, saying it is not their business, thus preventing mass resistance to systemic political pressure and the emergence of an atmosphere of collective solidarity. Yet all oppression, intimidation, attack, and censorship must be resisted collectively.

The duty of the state in art may not be to intervene, but to present new regulations prepared in consultation with the artists. State funds should be distributed transparently, not according to the current government’s political stance. That’s to say, the relationship between the state and the art world is a problem that the state can solve by providing financial support and autonomy to artists and the art institutions.

Artists and the public should not normalize but reject these oppression and censorship. Otherwise self-censorship will be the inevitable result. Since consistency, freedom, diversity, and creativity cannot be mentioned in the context of self-censorship, it threatens to make the production of art itself impossible.