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.




  1. MBF on December 2, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    Thank you for writing this lovely piece about Samar who is not only a hero but a lovely man. As all true heroes are I suppose!

    It is indeed a dark time in many ways. I sense resilience and determination though.

  2. Chiara Macconi on December 27, 2016 at 11:20 am

    I hope we can do something for Sanar, after January hearing or maybe before, can’t we?
    thanks for reminding, Joanne

  3. Peggy Marks on December 27, 2016 at 11:42 am

    Bless you, Joanne, for keeping these troubling world events inside our line of vision and for giving them such a personal human touch. Turkey can seem so far away, yet today Samar and the others are right here in Dallas inside my heart.

  4. Didi Cutler on December 27, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you so much Joanne for writing and exposing what is happening in Turkey today. Sanar’s story is indeed tragic and sadly representative of what is happening throughout Turkey.

  5. Betsi on December 27, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    Thank you for getting this out to all of us and making us think about the sublime courage and cost some are willing to pay to express their views and opposition peacefully. And the relentless effort to shut it down on the part of governments around the world.

    Do you think those imprisoned KNOW they are not alone? that PEN and other organizations, and many individuals, are offering their support and prayers?

  6. Lucina T Kathmann on December 27, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    I too very much hope Sanar will somehow stay out of prison. He has done so much for Freedom of Expression for so long! Now, in the wake of the failed coup and using it as an excuse, there have been so many writers jailed, Sanar and many many others.These writers had nothing to do with the failed coup and nobody even thinks they did. Nonetheless, freedom of expression has really taken a beating.

  7. Diane Coffman Garvin on December 27, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    very interesting, Joanne … appreciate the information & insights.

  8. Krishen on December 27, 2016 at 6:25 pm

    I was touched to read about Sanar and thank you for sharing this news with us.

    As a writer, you must be very concerned about the developments in Turkey after the failed coup event. Part of me wishes it had succeeded.

    Please keep me informed about how the January 13 hearing goes. I would very much like to know if the courts followed through on the 10 year sentencing, or took a more positive path of song and prayer.

  9. Eugene S. on December 27, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Thank you for you blog! I could not agree more. Şanar, Asli, Ragip – only to mention three. Soon half of my friends in Turkey either in prison or threatened by long prison terms! What is there to be said about a country that arrests a man who does not want to serve the for president Erdogan? What do you say about a country who in nearly all ways has started to behave like a severe disturbed person? It is so scary, and it is so sad!

  10. Julia Malone on December 27, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    Thank you, Joanne, for bringing this serious problem home to us. We owe a debt to Sanar and the others standing up for free expression.

  11. OJ Mavon on December 27, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    we all need to be on our knees and praying for everyone wrongly imprisoned !
    thanks for giving us the correct information that we will not hear anywhere else!

  12. Patsy A Barr on December 28, 2016 at 10:30 am

    We have so many freedoms in our country, and we just take them for granted. Thank you for keeping us up to date on what’s going on elsewhere. Patsy

  13. Fawzia Assaad on December 29, 2016 at 6:31 am

    Thank you Johanne. Thank you all for defending our freedom. Without freedom we will not survive. Is this what our responsible people want ? Fawzia

  14. Patricia Griffith on December 29, 2016 at 11:11 am

    This is the most specific description of what is going on with
    writers and journalists and academics in Turkey that I’ve come across
    It’s important to know details. Thank you, Joanne.

  15. Millie on January 2, 2017 at 6:45 am

    Thanks Joanne, happy new year to you too. The coming weeks and months is going to be crucial for our courageous colleagues in Turkey. We can only hope that the judges will be inspired by sense and reason while taking decision in the court cases against Sanar, Asli, Ahmet, Mehmet, Ragip and all the others. Warm regards, Mille

  16. Sara Whyatt on January 2, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    Sanar is such an inspiration. To think that he has been fighting for justice for three decades and to be once again before the courts. He and I shared a panel discussion together in Poland last year and once again I marvelled at his ease and humour under pressure. These are traits he shares with so many of our Turkish friends in the face of oppression. So glad that you and others in PEN and elsewhere continue to campaign for free expression. And I shall be standing alongside you all in the coming year….

  17. Sally Howell on January 6, 2017 at 8:24 pm

    Joanne, Thank you for another extremely timely post. Reading this post in light of today’s news underscores the importance of supporting those in the frontline of freedom of expression. That many have been supporting freedom of expression for years at great personal risk is a testament to their courage and commitment. It is also a sobering wake-up call to support freedom of expression wherever it is challenged. Thank you – again.

  18. JMG on January 7, 2017 at 11:18 am

    Your end-of-year story on Sanar Yurdatapan is the best way to cope with difficult times. Humanity is resilient, and the bonds that connect us to many courageous people are our most precious treasure.

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