In Turkey, a show of solidarity with writers behind bars

Commentary: For the first time in two decades, Turkey is again the largest jailor of writers and publishers in the world. A PEN International delegation tried to visit a prison where most are incarcerated. 

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, published in The Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 2017

Snow was falling outside Silivri prison as we drove up the road bordered by high wire fences.  A senior delegation of PEN International from Europe, North America, and the Middle East had come to Turkey in solidarity with the more than 150 Turkish writers and publishers now in prison. The majority of these were incarcerated behind the walls of Silivri.

For the first time in two decades, Turkey is again the largest jailor of writers and publishers in the world. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who came to power in 2002, civil institutions have been increasingly circumscribed. In the past six months more than 170 news outlets have been closed by the government. A third of Turkey’s judiciary – judges and prosecutors – have lost their jobs and/or been put in prison. University presidents have been fired; thousands of academics have been forced to resign, and more than 140,000 civil servants and military personnel have been purged; a third of these are now in detention. Ever since a coup attempt last July, Turkey has existed in a declared “state of emergency.” Those who oppose the government have been labeled and charged as “terrorists” or “supporters of terrorist organizations.” The crackdown that was already under way before the coup attempt has escalated.

At Silivri, our delegation was restricted to a remote parking lot. The prison officials had been notified the delegation would be arriving, but the gendarmes who encountered us appeared unprepared. Eventually they returned us to our minivans and encircled these and blocked us with police vehicles as they collected our passports. A young gendarme with an assault rifle boarded our bus, impeding our exit for almost an hour, though he appeared unsure of what he was supposed to do with us except keep us from taking pictures. Finally the delegation, which included three current and former International PEN presidents, including the current chair of the Nobel Prize for Literature, were escorted away from the prison. There was no interchange with prison officials or meetings with the writers behind bars. The cars were stopped again outside the grounds by the police, and our passports were once more collected. After approximately two hours, our two white minivans turned back to Istanbul.

(Click here to read the rest of the article at The Christian Science Monitor.)

Power on Loan

The first march I covered as a journalist was a massive anti-war moratorium in Boston in the spring of 1970, part of nationwide protests; Boston was one of the hub cities. The demonstrators walked peacefully from the Boston Commons through the city to Harvard Square in Cambridge. But as the day and evening wore on, the demonstration descended into violence in Cambridge with Molotov cocktails thrown through store windows and police dogs and tear gas aimed at the crowds. I took refuge eventually in the basement of a church where I wrote my story.

America was on the march back then against the Vietnam war and in earlier protests in favor of civil rights. Though there was violence, most of the demonstrations remained nonviolent.

In the intervening years there have been many marches and protests in the U.S., but few like the ones held around the country this past weekend. These nonviolent demonstrations in cities in every state and in 55 cities worldwide focused on a more loosely articulated goal, not on specific legislation or a specific action but on showing solidarity, particularly with issues important to many women like freedom of choice over their bodies and also on issues such as the rights of immigrants, of minority communities, and of the LGBT community.

There was also apprehension about exactly what the new President’s “America First” policy will mean. Demonstrations around the world showed that America’s positions are not just the concern of U.S. citizens but have impact globally.

I’ve covered and seen many demonstrations around the globe since my first march. On Saturday, I was on the edge of the gathering in Washington, witnessing, hosting and delivering one marcher who came in from Colorado to participate. As she joined the crush in the Mall, I wrote and prepared for a PEN mission to Turkey where the political situation is deteriorating daily for citizens, especially those in the media.

In the Turkish Parliament this past week fights broke out as President Recep Erdoğan proposed and got ratified a Constitutional amendment to give even more power to the president, including an article that gives the President the right of “extorting individual rights and freedom” with statutory decree. The Constitutional amendment must be endorsed in a national referendum so demonstrations in Turkey may soon begin but with potentially direr consequences than in the U.S. In Turkey almost 150 writers and journalists are already in prison, not for crimes, but because they have dissented.

A few writers like Asli Erdoğan and linguist Necmiye Alpay have been released at their trial where Asli said, “Law is obliged to protect the individual and the community, not only the state.” The day they were released, however, journalist and writer Professor Istar Gözaydin, one of the founders of Turkey’s first democratic private radio, was taken into custody.

Last week musician Şanar Yurdatapan was sentenced to one year and three months in prison for participating in the “Editor-in-Chief on Duty” solidarity campaign at Özgür Gündem, the newspaper now closed. His sentence was ultimately suspended and another charge relating to the case resulted in a fine. The prosecutor had originally asked for a ten-and-a-half-year sentence. Cumhuriyet’s book editor Turhan Günay, who publishes a book index, is now in prison. He has said, “I have not written anything except for books until today. If I’m released, I will start to write political articles.”

The numbers of writers, journalists, editors and academics in prison has returned Turkey to the top of PEN’s list of jailors as it was two decades ago.

I’m wary about drawing parallels with the increasingly chilly atmosphere for the media in the U.S. I take heart that U.S. protests can occur and that the state protected the protestors, and as long as the demonstrations stay nonviolent, no one is arrested. The press can and does report what it sees even if a tongue-lashing by the Presidential press secretary and the President follow. However, six covering the turbulent demonstrations around Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday have reportedly been charged with felonies and face up to ten years in prison and a $25,000 fine if convicted. Also some access for the press may be closing down. The dynamics of fear and antagonism and the argument of “alternative facts” create a dangerous atmosphere.

Of note, though not in the front page headlines, in Africa’s smallest continental country, The Gambia, former President Yahya Jammeh finally stepped down from power this week after 23 years, having lost the election last month but refusing to leave office. The peaceful transfer of power in the U.S. the day before probably had little to do with his decision. The arrival of troops from a coalition of West African nations supported by the United Nations and the pressure by African leaders were no doubt the persuading factor, but the coincidence is worth noting.

The turnover of power is fundamental to democracies and is not always easy, especially when the pendulum swings to the opposing side and in the U.S. to someone who has not won the popular vote. Yet after a tumultuous and harsh election, the reins of power did transfer; authority was ceded. The old guard left the stage with dignity, and the new guard must now find the dignity to occupy it effectively.

The demonstrations of four decades ago in the U.S. led to the end of a war, the implementation of civil rights legislation, advancement for race, gender and cultures, and while we still have distance to go, it has led to large strides for women in my generation.

I continue to hope the arc of history is upwards and outwards, not inwards on itself, puncturing the very progress that has been made. Whoever is in power must remember that power is only on loan, especially in a democracy.

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Hope for Songs Not Prison in 2017

The last time I saw Şanar Yurdatapan we had coffee in the press building in Istanbul after Human Rights Watch released its 2016 World Report “Politics of Fear and the Crushing of Civil Society”. I’ve known Şanar for almost 20 years, ever since I headed PEN International’s delegation for his first Initiative for Free Expression in Istanbul in 1997.

A noted and popular musician and song writer, Şanar has dedicated the last decades to defending and trying to open up space in Turkey for free expression. He’s done so by monitoring, reporting and organizing on behalf of writers and artists under threat. At our coffee a year ago he told me he was retiring, or at least going back to song writing and handing over the mantle of leadership to the younger generation.

However, in the past year freedom of expression has been under siege in Turkey with 150-170 writers and journalists now in prison and hundreds of news organizations closed down. This past week Şanar was called before prosecutors for his advocacy on behalf of the closed newspaper Özgür Gündem, (Turkish for “Free Agenda”), the chief newspaper read by Kurds.

“It is both the duty and the right of a journalist to report; his is freedom of information at the same time and right to freedom and right of all of us,” Şanar is reported to have told the court.

At the end of the hearing the prosecutor demanded that Şanar be imprisoned for over ten years for “propaganda for the organization” under the Anti-Terror Law. The hearing is January 13, 2017. Şanar is now 75.

Since the failed coup in July the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased the detainment and arrest of writers, journalists and academics for their peaceful opposition to his policies. These have included noted novelist Asli Erdoğan and leading linguist Necmiye Alpay, who spent her 70th birthday in detention. Brothers Ahmet Altan, a novelist, and Mehmet Altan, an academic, are held in maximum security Silivri prison facing terror charges, unable to receive books, letters or any communication from outside or to visit the prison library.

As the year 2016 ends with an increase of terror attacks around the world, with a new administration about to take power in the U.S., with existing administrations struggling to hold onto power in Europe, with a collapsing Syria and a continual tide of refugees around the world, with an odd dance between super powers and aspiring super powers, the single citizen voice can get overlooked. But history has shown that when the individual voice, especially those of writers who dissent, gets stifled, the arc of history is bending towards conflict and away from peace which leaders and citizens say they want.

In the new year PEN International hopes to go to Turkey to add support firsthand for Turkish writers and for the important role they play right now in keeping that arc from bending too far backwards. We will watch and argue for the fate of Şanar and others and hope that he will be writing songs in the years ahead, and not from prison.

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Thanksgiving and Healing

The American holiday Thanksgiving is my favorite, a time when family and friends gather and take a moment to give gratitude for the good in their lives and the lives of their communities. This year of 2016 has been a rough one.

In Washington, DC, where I live, the political discourse on all sides has been as uninspiring and acrimonious as any in my lifetime. No matter one’s political affiliation, consensus is that the recent presidential campaign has left us exhausted with the national conversation in need of elevation and inspiration.

Many opposing the election results have taken to the streets peacefully to articulate their concerns and their fears. The crowds include the young—high school students who are not yet old enough to vote—and the retired as well as the population in between. Whatever one’s vote, I take heart that for the most part these protests are not violent and can be heard. I take heart that the leadership in the nation has accepted the transition and will try to make it successful and that in practice we do not jail or shoot opposing voices or those writing about the opposition. This seems a minimum standard for a democracy, and though it has seen exceptions, in this season of thanks, I am grateful and hopeful that will abide.

Historically Thanksgiving was a day to give thanks for the harvest of the preceding year. In the U.S. the first Thanksgiving is documented in 1621 at Plymouth (now in Massachusetts). The harvest was good, and the new settlers and the local Wampanoag tribe shared the feast, though more uneasily watching each other than we were told as school children. During the American Civil War Abraham Lincoln advocated the story of Pilgrims and Indians eating together to try to encourage people in a divided nation to come together.

Healing occurs one action at a time, one forgiveness, one helping hand, one quiet good deed. Citizens can take the lead. I am hopeful that we individually—the people—will build bridges and not walls. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Building Literary Bridges: Past and Present

Gathered in the ancient city of Ourense, Spain in the heart of Galicia, writers from around the world celebrated history, debated the present and committed to the future of literature and freedom of expression at PEN International’s 82nd Congress organized around the theme “Building Literary Bridges.”

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Two hundred poets, novelists, dramatists and nonfiction writers from approximately 75 centers of PEN agreed to embark on a three-year global campaign to increase opportunities for displaced writers worldwide. Responding to the unprecedented flow of refugees, migrants, and displaced, all of which include writers and those whose stories need to be told, the 95-year old literary organization will undertake an initiative to put storytelling and literature at the center of an effort to heal and expand opportunities. Through its 145 centers, PEN will develop programs that will include residencies, workshops, mentoring, education and publications. The full scope of the campaign will be announced December 10, Human Rights Day.

Founded in 1921 out of the chaos and refugee flows after World War I, PEN anticipated and protested the suppression of freedom of expression in Nazi Germany prior to World War II and defended writers throughout Europe during the war, offering haven and setting up PEN centers in exile.

“PEN responds to the crises of our times,” said PEN International President Jennifer Clement. “We are writers. We believe in imagination.”

The 82nd Congress began with heartening and dispiriting news. Iranian-Canadian writer Homa Hoodfar was released from Iran’s Evin prison at the same time news arrived that Jordanian columnist Nahed Hattar had been gunned down outside court by a fundamentalist who claimed Nahed deserved to die for his ideas.

This pattern of good and terrible news also emerged in the past year with early releases of imprisoned writers in Tibet, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Qatar and Colombia at the same time the situation deteriorated with more arrests and killings in Bangladesh, China, Turkey, Ukraine and other countries.

penxemptyxchairThe tradition of an Empty Chair at the PEN Congress sessions highlighted the cases of imprisoned Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, Kurdish journalist Asli Erdogan, Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, and Gui Minhai, a bookseller in Hong Kong, who was kidnapped by the Chinese government while he was in Thailand.

Gui’s daughter, a Swedish citizen as is he, sent a letter to the Congress: “In the end, this is not about my father as an individual…. This is about China actively extending its control far beyond its own borders. This is about China kidnapping and illegally detaining more and more people because of their political beliefs. It’s about European citizens no longer being able to know that their human rights will be protected.”

Discussing “Literature as a Tool for Empowerment,” delegates shared ongoing projects, including working with young writers in schools and in prisons. Lebanon PEN Center’s delegate noted, “I discovered the tremendous effect from creative writing to express trauma and help people tell their stories. We have 1.3 million Syrians in Lebanon. We have a big responsibility. We see the empowerment of civil society through literature.”

In Mali and Sierra Leone, the PEN centers work with students and young people in post-conflict situations.  The Mali delegate spoke about workshops with Tuareg warriors who had fought on the battlefield in the Sahara. When they returned home, they had lost their dignity and positions and were migrants so they went to join the ranks of Gadhafi. After Gadhafi was toppled, there was a big problem, he said, and conflict. The Mali PEN Center helped organize writing workshops which led to publishing books. Hundreds attended these workshops and were able to tell their stories and see them published.

PEN’s earliest work to protect writers began when poet Federico Garcia Lorca was arrested at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. PEN President H.G. Wells sent a telegram protesting, but it arrived too late and Lorca was executed. At the 82nd PEN Congress, Lorca’s niece Laura opened the Assembly with Lorca’s poem Sonnet:

              I know that my profile will be serene
In the north of an unreflecting sky.
Mercury of vigil, chaste mirror
to break the pulse of my style.

         For if ivy and the cool of linen
are the norm of the body I leave behind,
my profile in the sand will be the old
unblushing silence of a crocodile.

           And though my tongue of frozen doves
will never taste of flame,
only of empty broom,

             I’ll be a free sign of oppressed norms
on the neck of the stiff branch
and in an ache of dahlias without end.
–Federico Garcia Lorca

 

 

 

 

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Sounds of Summer

(This is not a poem)

August on the Eastern shore
Quiet on the river
Birds chirruping in the trees
Crickets—or are they cicadas—clicking in the afternoon, clicking that will build to a crescendo in the evening
CaCaCa of peacocks next door
Water trickling, flowing slowly out to the bay
A power boat whishing by, heading to the open water
A leaf blower, a lawn mower in the distance, jarring the quiet
Leaves rustling in the breeze
Breeze skimming the trees, rustling, rushing louder now, emboldened
More birds chirping, the beginning of a larger conversation
At the very top of a tree at the river’s edge a black bird keeps watch, looking first out to sea then to land, then trips lightly along the branches, lets out a caw and flies away.

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I sit heFullSizeRenderX6Xre, listening to all these sounds of late summer.

Soon the children will come home from camp, run outside, filled with their day—karate lessons, swimming, new friends—but for now in the quiet, I am “happy in my circle of oblivion,” to borrow a phrase from Garcia Márquez, whom I’m reading on this rare, undisturbed afternoon.

The news—the sturm and drang of presidential politics, the daily offenses—are outside this space on the river. For a brief moment the troubles of the world seem held at bay. Even the trials and triumphs of the Olympics must await the evening news.

I watch three billowing white clouds drift by ever so slowly in the blue sky.

As the breeze picks up, the trees rustle, continuing a conversation, stirring first one tree then another, passing along the wind’s gossip down the river bank.

If this light wind holds, it will be good kite-flying weather in the evening.  We can have another picnic by the river with grandfather sitting in the Adirondack chair and everyone else on the grass—hot dogs, hamburgers, corn, applesauce, kite in the air, children running, laughing.

The parade of clouds drifts by overhead now like characters in the children’s play they plan for the grownups. “One, two, three…look at me!” The black dog passes all dressed up to play a part in the drama as he looks for scraps from dinner. The shapes of the clouds pass and just blue sky shines overhead. We will end the evening with S’mores at the fire pit as the moon rises over the river.

There are only three more weeks of summer—more books to read, stories to write, laps to swim, thoughts to think before the demands of schedules and meetings and deadlines crowd in.

For this moment I am grateful for the silence, the breeze, the birds, the river, the shining sky, the billowing clouds and the promise of this afternoon that I will carry with me.

 

Call for Help inside Iran’s Evin Prison

Shared below is a letter that managed to get out of Iran’s infamous Evin Prison from journalist and human rights activist Narges Mohammadi. She is detained on charges of “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security” and “spreading propaganda against the system.” According to reports she has also been charged with “insulting officers while being transferred to a hospital” because of her health. Narges Mohammadi is former vice president and spokesperson of the Defenders of Human Rights (DHRC) which represents prisoners of conscience. She is also involved in a campaign against the death penalty in Iran.

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On May 17 the verdict in her case was handed down. Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to five years in prison for “meeting and conspiring against the Islamic Republic,” one year for “spreading propaganda against the system” and ten years for her work advocating against the death penalty. Under Iranian penal code, a person with several jail terms must serve the most severe so she must serve ten years, although sentenced to 16 years total.

 

Dear members of International PEN,

I’ m writing this letter to you from the Evin Prison. I am in a section with 25 other female political prisoners, with different intellectual and political point of view. Until now 23 of us, have been sentenced to a total of 177 years in prison (2 others have not been sentenced yet). We are all charged due to our political and religious tendency and none of us are terrorists. 

The reason to write these lines is, to tell you that the pain and suffering in the Evin Prison is beyond tolerance. Opposite other prisons in Iran, there is no access to telephone in Evin Prison.  Except for a weekly visit, we have no contact to the outside. All visits takes place behind double glass and only connected through a phone. We are allowed to have a visit from our family members only once a month.

But it is the solitary confinement, which is beyond any kind of acceptable imprisonment. We – 25 women – have detained in total more than 12 years in solitary confinement. Political prisoners who are considered dangerous terrorists are held in solitary confinement indefinitely. Retention in solitary confinement can vary from a day up to several years.

However, according to regulations of the Islamic Republic of Iran, holding prisoners in solitary confinement is illegal. Unfortunately until now, the solitary confinement, as a psychological torture, has had many victims in Iran.

During 14 years long activity of the Center for Human Rights Defenders, the Center have published and held many protests against the use of this kind of punishment. But unfortunately the solitary confinement is still used against many of Iran’s political prisoners. The solitary confinement is used to get forced and false confessions out of the defendants. These false and faked confessions are used against the defendants during the trials. Many of the detainees in the solitary confinement are suffering from mental and physical health problems and the injuries will remain with them for the rest of their life. As a matter of a fact, the solitary confinement is nothing but a closed and dark room. A dimly confined space, deprived of all sounds and all light that can give the inmates a sense of humanity. Personally, I have been in solitary confinement three times since 2001. Once during my interrogation in 2010, I suffered a panic neurotic attacks, which I had never experienced before.

As a defender of human Right, who has experienced and have had dialogues with many people detained in solitary confinement, I emphasize that this kind of punishment is inhuman and can be considered psychological torture.

As a humble member of this prestigious organization, I urge all of you, as writers and defenders of the principles of free thought and freedom of speech and expression, to combat the use of solitary confinement as torture, with your pen, speech and all other means. Maybe one day we will be able  to close the doors behind us to solitary confinement and no one will be sentenced to prison for criticizing and demanding reforms. I hope that day will come soon.

Greetings and Regards

Narges Mohammadi

Prison Evin, May 2016

 

For more information on Narges Mohammadi and suggested action, you can link to PEN International.

 

Spring and Release

I saw the first daffodils today…and forsythia…and the buds on cherry blossom trees. Spring with its regalia is starting to blossom, at least here in Washington, DC.

In the freedom of expression community renewal is heralded this week by the release of writers from prison in a number of countries, including Qatar, China and Azerbaijan. While the writers were unjustly imprisoned in the first place and many hundreds still languish in jails because they have offended governing powers, the releases of Qatar poet Mohammed al-Ajami after almost five years in prison and Chinese writers Rao Wenwei and Wang Xiaolu and half a dozen writers in Azerbaijan are cause for quiet celebration.

Qatar: In the fall of 2013 another PEN colleague and I stood outside the sprawling prison in the desert around Doha where Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami was held in solitary confinement. After meetings with Justice Ministry officials, we’d understood we would be allowed into the prison for a visit. However, after five hours waiting in the desert wind, we were denied access. Al-Ajami’s family, who were visiting inside, told us later that Al-Ajami knew we were there and took some heart in that. Al-Ajami was imprisoned for “insulting the Emir” in two poems which he read at a private apartment in Cairo but which were surreptitiously recorded and posted by a student on YouTube. One of the poems “Tunisian Jasmine” expressed support for the uprising in Tunisia that launched the Arab Spring and challenged rulers throughout the region. Al-Ajami, who is the father of four, was originally sentenced to life in prison, reduced to 15 years.

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PEN centers around the world, including American, Austrian, English and German PEN worked on his behalf as did Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and other organizations championing freedom of expression. Many voices protested, many hands tried to push open the prison door. Just last week at a Washington dinner I noted Al-Ajami’s imprisonment to an individual headed to Qatar for high level meetings. Those who deal with Qatar are always surprised that this Emirate which boasts education and partnerships with Western universities would imprison a poet for his poems. It is not a comfortable outcome that it is a pardon and not an apology by the Emir which brought about Al-Ajami’s release, but it is still cause to be glad.

China: There are more than 40 writers in prison in China, including Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo. Recently two—Rao Wenwei and Wang Xiaolu—were released early. Rao Wenwei is a writer charged with “inciting subversion of the state power” for articles published on the internet. His 12-year sentence was cut short by four years with his release. Wang Xiaolu was arrested for a story on the stock market crash on suspicion of “fabricating and disseminating false information on the trading of securities and futures.” Through the efforts of PEN centers, particularly the Independent Chinese PEN Center, the cases and situation of writers in prison in China stay at the forefront of protests.

Azerbaijan: Half a dozen writers are being released in Azerbaijan this month. The Baku Court of Appeals is expected to release journalist Rauf Mirkadirov today, according to Sports for Rights coalition which includes PEN, commuting his six-year prison sentence to a five-year suspended sentence. President Aliyev has signed a pardon decree that includes 14 political prisoners, including the writers Parviz Hashimli (journalist), Abdul Abilov (blogger), Hilal Mammadov (journalist), Omar Mamedov (blogger) and Tofiq Yaqublu (journalist). The European Court of Human Rights also issued a judgment in Rasul Jafarov’s case finding violations of Rasul’s rights to liberty and security. Rasul is expected to be released shortly. Dozens of political prisoners, however, remain in Azerbaijani jails, including journalists Khadija Ismayilova and Seymur Hezi.

(*For background on any of these cases or the many remaining political prisoners in Azerbaijan, here’s the full list with case details: http://www.helpsetthemfree.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/The-list-of-Political-Prisoners-in-Azerbaijan_December-2015.pdf)

Overheard in Washington: Presidents and the Movies

I’m sitting in one of my writing haunts in the morning when a man sits down nearby. He’s joined by a woman. They are waiting for others. Slowly the team begins to gather who have managed to get into DC in spite of the snow and ice storm yesterday. One has come all the way from Scotland. Several are in from New York.

As usual I’m working by the window, barely listening to the conversation ten feet away, except as it grows more interesting. Two more join, now four, now six, now seven people have congregated, one with a bag of inexpensive thank you gifts (“under $25”) for those who’ve helped arrange a visit to the White House. One begins to show the others the views of the White House where filming can take place. The Hay Adams Hotel overlooks Lafayette Park and the White House. The W Hotel overlooks Treasury and is also near the White House. The team hovers around the computer and plans where “our motorcade” will drive and where shots of the White House and other Washington landmarks can be taken.

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Last year around this time, I was sitting in this same spot and overheard the beginnings of a campaign for the far-off presidential primaries. (see April, 2015 post) It was discouraging then to realize we were only at the beginning of a year-and-a-half campaign for the White House. Now here we are—the primaries have begun and the campaign I overheard is in full, if precarious swing.

Today I listen to a movie being planned. I wonder which movie. In a way I envy having a whole team on a story as I sit alone writing. The team has their scripts in hand and folds them as they prepare to brave the rain outside which is washing away the snow. Scripts tucked in pockets, backpacks hoisted on backs, bags gathered, the crew sets out.

We still have another nine long campaigning months before the U.S. Presidential elections. This film will take at least as long. Already wearied by the incessant arguing and calumny of the campaign season, I find I anticipate with more enthusiasm Hollywood’s fiction. I don’t know how the President will fare in the film. No doubt there will be intrigue, a discernible villain and let us hope a worthy protagonist.

View on the Bosphorus: Rights in Retreat

I’m sitting on the Bosphorus today in Istanbul looking across to the Asian side over the balustrade of a European porch. I’ve been visiting Istanbul over the last 20 years for conferences, recently for visits to refugee camps and most often now to see family living here. Istanbul is one of my favorite cities, full of heart, multiple cultures, history and citizens of intellect and warmth.

But recently the atmosphere has chilled. I’ve come this trip to participate in the launch of Human Rights Watch’s 2016 World Report which focuses on the “Politics of Fear and the Crushing of Civil Society” as causes that imperil citizens’ rights around the world. Istanbul was chosen as the launch city because it sits at the nexus of east and west, is the crossing point for millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian war and has an active civil society and free press that are now severely tested as the environment for rights deteriorates.

“Government-led restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey in 2015 went hand-in-hand with efforts to discredit the political opposition and prevent scrutiny of government policies in the run-up to the two general elections,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) 2016 World Report.

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The restrictions include the investigation of Cumhuriyet newspaper for posting a report showing weapons on trucks allegedly headed to Syria. The paper’s editor Can Dϋndar and Ankara representative Erdem Gϋl were arrested and are now in jail awaiting trial. Other journalists have been arrested for criticizing the government. There have been police raids on media groups, a widespread firing of journalists perceived to be in opposition to the government, in particular to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Publisher Cevheri Gϋven of Nokta news magazine and editor Murat Çapan spent two months in jail for “inciting an armed insurrection against the government” for a report and a satirical picture of Erdoğan. Nokta’s website remains blocked by a court order. Months of pretrial detention have been handed out to those allegedly insulting Erdoğan via social media and during demonstrations.

I first came to Istanbul in spring, 1997 for the “Initiative for Freedom of Expression”, a conference that brought together PEN International and freedom of expression organizations in Europe to protest the harsh treatment of writers by the Turkish government and courts. Charges had been brought against the celebrated Turkish novelist Yaşar Kemal for an article he wrote for the German magazine Der Spiegel in which he accused the Turkish army of destroying Kurdish villages. Though he was acquitted, he is quoted as saying, “One person’s acquittal does not mean freedom of expression has arrived. You can’t have spring with only one flower. We still have to work very hard to achieve democracy in Turkey. I will continue to write these things until there are no trials against expression.” Kemal passed away last spring at age 91.

At the time activist and song writer Şanar Yurdatapan organized a publication that included Kemal’s essay and the writings of other Turkish and Kurdish writers who had been banned or imprisoned. He mobilized Turkish artists and publishers and academics to sign on as the publisher, and he asked writers from the more than 100 centers of PEN International around the world also to sign on as publisher. The publication thus challenged the government which would have to bring charges against hundreds of people as publisher. And so the  Gathering for Freedom of Expression was born.

I chaired PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee during that time, and along with dozens of writers from around the world, I arrived in Istanbul for the conference. Şanar and his colleagues organized visits to prisons to try to see the many writers and publishers incarcerated, visits to courthouses to observe hearings and trials, a visit to the prosecutor’s office to insist that we too should be charged as publisher. We understood the embarrassment such would cause the government, though none of us aspired to go to a Turkish prison. The Initiative for Freedom of Expression held multiple press conferences because the only legal way to gather at that time was to have a press conference.  Yaşar Kemal spoke at one of these.

There was also a freedom of expression conference called at a university where hundreds of students had mobilized in the campus square when we arrived. Many were protesting tuition hikes, not writers in prison, but the two gatherings merged. Riot police surrounded us all as we addressed the crowds.

1997XTurkey

The period of 1997 in Turkey was charged. The heavy hand of the State was palpable. The police were at every gathering. Cars followed us. In 1997 PEN International recorded more writers in prison or tangled in the judicial processes in Turkey than almost anywhere in the world except perhaps China.

But citizens were mobilizing and claiming space for expression. In the subsequent years the Initiative for Freedom of Expression and other freedom of expression and human rights organizations recorded regularly the abuses and circulated these and mobilized actions. Şanar was sent to prison because of his work and there studied the history and principles of civilian based resistance, practices he had instinctively employed. Every other year the Gathering for Freedom of Expression assembled in Istanbul, several of which I attended. Turkey could mark its progress by the decrease of the numbers of writers and publishers in prison. Until last year.

At the launch of HRW’s World Report this week, Şanar and I met again, smiling to see each other but not smiling about the state of affairs. Turkey appears to be reverting back to the ways and days of the 1990’s. Şanar has returned to song writing, still passionate, but addressing issues through music and advising (not quite on the sidelines) the next generation of activists.