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“A moral responsibility”: Civil disobedience and freedom of expression in Turkey

While it has never been easy to be a critical voice in Turkey, what is remarkable in recent years - and especially following the failed coup attempt in July 2016 - is the sheer numbers and breadth of people caught up in the government's crackdown. With mass arrests, dismissals, and closures of media outlets and academic and artistic institutions, it is hard to imagine anyone who has been unaffected. To add to the mix, all this is taking place under the shadow of proposed constitutional reforms that could further concentrate the power of the president.

Yet despite all this, the strength of civil society in Turkey remains a source of optimism and inspiration. Numerous groups are following Turkey's long tradition of civil disobedience by standing alongside those who have been targeted by unjust laws, repeating their so called 'crimes' and offering themselves up for prosecution. By doing so, they highlight the inequities and absurdities of Turkey's myriad laws stifling free speech.

We share the story of three such campaigns here: the injustice they are responding to, the forms their resistance is taking, and the price they are paying for their acts of solidarity.

Özgür Gündem: Co-Editors-in-Chief campaign

More than 30 people have now been tried or are facing prosecution for having served as temporary 'co—editors' of the beleaguered Kurdish newspaper, Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda). They have been charged with spreading terrorist propaganda.

The accused had taken part in a solidarity action to protest the repression of the newspaper. For over two decades, Özgür Gündem, one the few newspapers reporting on the Kurdish conflict for a largely Kurdish readership, has suffered bans, arrests and other reprisals. Established in 1992, within two years it had been banned, accused of being a propaganda mouthpiece for the Kurdistan Worker's Party - PKK. It fought on in different guises for the next 16 years. Each time it was closed down, it re-emerged under a new title.

Our keyboards and camera flashes have never stopped, not even for a single moment, in our efforts to expose and oppose fraud, lies, theft, censorship, racism and sectarianism.
Mehmet Ali Çelebi, journalist for Özgür Gündem

Then in 2011, as reporting on Kurdish issues appeared to relax, the newspaper re-opened under its original name. Yet the repression and arrests of its staff continued. As of August 2016 there were approximately 80 legal processes against it.

Özgür Gündem launched its 'Co-Editors-in-Chief' campaign on 3 May 2016, International Press Freedom Day. Inspired by the trials against its co-chair in chief and chief editor, both facing prison terms under anti-terror charges, the plan was that journalists, writers, academics and activists would act as temporary 'co-editors-in-chief'.

Within a month, six participating co-editors had been notified that they were under investigation for 'terrorist propaganda' and incitement. This crackdown only fed the action, which continued gaining greater momentum, attracting more supporters as well as international attention and support.

By the campaign's end, on 7 August, around 50 individuals had served as co-editors in chief, and 37 were being brought to prosecution. Three spent time in jail: journalist and free speech activist, Erol Önderoglu, journalist Ahmet Nesin, and human rights defender Sebnem Korur Fincancı were imprisoned for 10 days before being freed to face trial.

Then on 16 August, Özgür Gündem was forcibly shut down in the wake of the 15 July coup attempt. Police raided its offices, arresting twenty-two of its staff for obstruction, and charging two of its editors under anti terror legislation. Also arrested were the internationally renowned novelist Aslı Erdoğan and respected academic Necmiye Alpay, both advisors to the newspaper. Despite international furore around their arrest, they spent 136 days in prison before being freed in December 2016; their trials continue.

Undeterred, the newspaper has now reappeared in another reincarnation, as Demokrasi.

Academics for Peace: We will not be party to this crime!

Five months before the Özgür Gündem campaign started, retributions against members of Academics for Peace were already under way. Their initiative had begun in November 2012 with a petition in support of prisoners staging a hunger strike calling for Kurdish language rights and the release of the PKK leader Abdullah Oçalan. It later developed into an academic research centre to address the scarcity of knowledge about the Kurdish conflict and peace negotiations.

In July 2015, a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish army and Kurdish militia collapsed. There were soon hundreds of fatalities, including civilians, and many more had to flee their homes. These events spurred Academics for Peace to organise another petition, titled 'We Will Not be Party to This Crime'; They collected over 1,400 signatures, including those of 355 scholars from abroad.

The academics held a press conference on 11 January 2016, and said: “We ask the state to put an end to violence inflicted against citizens right now. We as academics and researchers of this country declare that we won't be a party to this crime”.

The government response was as swift as it was unexpected in its harshness; a harbinger of the emergency measures to come. Twenty-seven of the signatories were arrested (later released) for propagandising for a terrorist organisation and insulting the state. Investigations were launched into over a thousand more, across 90 universities.

We side with free thought and art. No ifs, no buts: 'We will not be a party to this crime!'

The response spurred a wave of solidarity and more petitions, including one signed by 433 filmmakers which stated: “We side with free thought and art. No ifs, no buts: 'We will not be a party to this crime!' We stand with the Academics for Peace Initiative”.

The situation one year later shows no signs of improving. In late December 2016 the filmmakers were told that a formal investigation against them was underway, further swelling the already colossal numbers of people facing prosecution for 'crimes' that have no foundation in international law.

Four professors had been subjected to solitary confinement for a month, before eventually being released to face trial. Around 500 of the signatories have had disciplinary investigations. Over 180 have been dismissed. Others have been refused research funding or to take part in conferences. Some have chosen to leave the country.

Freedom of Expression Network's Black Mondays – 'Who wants to participate in this crime?'

One of the country's longest running freedom of expression campaigns – now an organisation - is the Initiative for Freedom of Expression-Turkey. It was sparked in 1995 by the trial of one of Turkey's most eminent writers, Yasar Kemal, charged with promoting terrorism for an article in which he condemned human rights abuses against Kurds. In response, musician Şanar Yurdatapan, published a compilation of the banned articles, including Kemal's, and called out to other writers to add their names as 'joint publishers'.

An astounding 1,080 replied. Many of them were high profile individuals, inside and outside of Turkey, including Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Susan Sontag, Isiah Berlin and Paul Auster. A delegation of some of the signatories turned up at the state security court stating that they had 'participated in a crime' and demanded prosecution. 98 Turkish writers were brought to trial the following year.

Undeterred – indeed inspired – by this experience, the Initiative persevered over the years, challenging the suppression of free speech by republishing banned texts, each time calling out to anyone 'who wants to participate in this crime' to affiliate themselves with the publications and offer themselves for prosecution.

For a time the 'participate in this crime' action took a lesser place among the Initiative's activities, but by February 2016 conditions had deteriorated to a point that the Initiative set up its Freedom of Expression Network and recommitted to its civil disobedience activities.

The Initiative invited people to choose causes for action. These centred on civil disobedience actions – in effect carrying out the same 'crime' then denouncing themselves for prosecution – through court room vigils, debates, articles and the 'Black Monday' actions held on the first Monday of each month.

The first Black Monday, on 2 May 2016, saw gatherings outside court houses in Ankara, Istanbul and İzmir, each supporting a writer or journalist on trial. Another, on 11 July, supported the defendants in the Özgür Gündem and Academics for Peace trials.

The announcement on 15 July 2016 of the State of Emergency meant that the Initiative had to halt its monthly activities - but not for long. By November, the Initiative was back with its fourth 'Black Monday' action, when members of the Freedom of Expression Network went to the offices of the opposition pro Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), whose co-chair was on trial, and to the Cumhuriyet newspaper (since closed down), whose staff had been taken into custody.

Yurdatapan was among the first to be convicted for his day's guest editorship of Özgür Gündem on 18 June 2016. On 13 January 2017 he was given a 15-month suspended sentence, to be activated if the court determines he has recommitted his offense. Similar decisions have followed for other guest editors.

For the 11 July action, Yurdatapan and fellow Initiative staffers Zeynep Serinkaya and Doğan Özkan will be brought to trial in April 2017 for 'committing the same crime' as Erol Önderoglu, outside whose trial they had held vigil.

The Black Monday actions continue.

All this demonstration was about defending what the state of emergency has destroyed: Media pluralism and respect for criticism. We are in a process of uniformalisation of the spirit and choices.
Erol Önderoglu, correspondant for Bianet and RSF


The Özgür Gündem, Black Monday and the Academic for Peace campaigns are classic examples of civil disobedience, aimed at challenging and exposing injustice by breaking laws that have been wrongly used to silence government critics.

Those who take part do so at risk of their own liberty. They practise what Martin Luther King Jr., in his 1963 letter from Birmingham Jail, called “a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”. These actions are having an impact, even beyond the critical role of providing solidarity and support to those in prison and on trial. They have led to wide coverage in the media, both in Turkey and abroad, and involvement by international organisations in protests, attending trial hearings and prison visits. As Aslı Erdoğan told the BBC in January, "There was so much international pressure. If there was no such pressure, they could have held us for years."

The civil disobedience challenge to the Turkish judicial system is adding to its already huge burden under the State of Emergency. Courts are showing reluctance to pass the heaviest sentences. As Yurdatapan told IFEX: “The Turkish state does not want the bother of imprisoning intellectuals”.

While the number of people in prison remains staggering – over 150 journalists among them at time of writing – and the State of Emergency has been extended once again, the strength of the dissent and creativity within Turkey that has risen to meet this challenge is a powerful source of hope and optimism.

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