Turkey’s Latest Target – Books (with VIDEO)
Rights groups decry clampdown on freedom of expression since 2016 coup attempt
Mehmet Sabuncu says Turkish authorities are targeting his left-leaning Istanbul publishing house amid reports that the government destroyed hundreds of thousands of books in the wake of the July 2016 attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The attempted coup has been blamed on the Turkish-born, US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who denies any involvement.
It triggered mass firings and arrests. More than 77,000 people have been put behind bars while 150,000 others, including judges, teachers and military personnel, have either lost or been suspended from their jobs.
The government attributes its actions to what it insists are extreme threats to state security. Critics say it is just exploiting the coup attempt to stifle dissent.
Sabuncu told The Media Line that the latest book to get his Kaynak Publishing House in trouble is about the prevalence of pedophilia during the Ottoman Empire, a book he said led to charges of obscenity being brought this year.
“It’s not fair feeling that threat – such things aren’t nice. First of all, it’s not good for the publisher financially if they destroy books, and it’s also problematic for freedom of speech,” he said.
He claims that legal cases are now so common that lawyers check his books before they go out.
Sabuncu’s books are not the only ones to be targeted by authorities. The online Hurriyet Daily News reported in August that Turkey’s education minister had overseen the removal of more than 300,000 books from schools and libraries. The minister claimed the books had been linked to Gulen’s network of supporters.
According to local news outlets, police took some of the banned books to be destroyed at waste facilities.
Political commentator Onur Erim, who once worked for Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, argues that the removal of books is part of the government’s fight against terrorism.
“Basically… there is a named terrorist organization in Turkey [called] ‘Gulenists,’ and [the government] took out all the books that were published by them, or books that were published by publishing houses promoting Gulenist group members,” he told The Media Line. “It’s really only a matter of self-defense.”
Activists say a crackdown on freedom of expression gained strength after the anti-government Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013, and intensified following the failed coup.
Dozens of news outlets have been shut down, while others have been bought by Erdogan allies. Journalists themselves have been targeted with charges of terrorism and given years behind bars, with one writer receiving a life sentence.
The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Turkey as the world’s top jailer of reporters.
Critics of the government have also accused it of influencing the police and judiciary to pursue politically motivated cases. On Friday, a high-level official from the main opposition party who is credited with helping defeat Erdogan’s AK Party in a crucial June mayoral election was sentenced to nine years on charges related to tweets dating back to 2012.
A 2018 report on Turkey by the writer’s group PEN International says there is a crisis of freedom of expression in the country and that criminal investigations have been used to silence dissent by writers.
The report states that since the coup attempt, there has been a 152-percent increase in criminal investigations of alleged attempts to undermine constitutional order, while investigations for suspected crimes against the judiciary have doubled.
The government, however, insists that the country’s judiciary is independent.
Lately, authorities have focused on digital media, including new regulations giving a regulatory body greater oversight for online video broadcasts.
Zeynep Oral, an author and journalist who is a member of the Turkish branch of PEN, says that while the coup attempt posed a serious threat, it should not be used as an excuse to stifle expression.
“It’s not only books that are being banned – any criticism against the government, any criticism against what’s going on is being banned, [including material] that’s in the newspapers or on the internet,” she told The Media Line.
“The [coup] cannot be an excuse to ban books [or] ideas, or to stop all freedom of expression and freedom of thinking,” she said.
Oral, who writes for the leading opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, said that fewer books are being banned this year because writers and publishers have been self-censoring.
Freedom House’s 2018 report on internet freedom listed Turkey as “not free,” giving it a score of 66 out of a possible 100.
“Internet freedom in Turkey remained highly restricted in the past year, which was characterized by increased self-censorship, a growing list of blocked news sites, and sweeping arrests for criticizing military operations or the president,” the report says.
Despite the obstacles, Sabuncu says he is not afraid to publish what he wants.
“We never do censorship in our minds,” he said. “If we want to give something to society, we give it, and we don’t care about the rest.”