If Only Turks Were British: Turkey's never-ending struggle for freedom of expression

If Only Turks Were British: Turkey's never-ending struggle for freedom of expression, Özge Baykan, Ohmynews


"And how splendid it would be, if we could transform our people, oh yes, our people who are frequently seen buzzing around some hideous swamp like strange and wonderful horseflies -if only we could transform those creatures into them; them, the marvelous and innocent Englishmen, if only we could transform them into Englishmen with a single touch of a magical wand."The fictitious admirer in Kaya Genc's short story would be happy to see his country transformed into an exact copy of Britain. At times, he finds himself wishing "with profound sorrow" that "those respectable members of the House of Lords with their constant and colorful wags and crowns on their heads" ruled the Turks.

Turkish writer and translator Kaya makes a mockery of this blind admiration of the West, but some others read it from an another perspective -- under Article 301 of the new penal code, he was accused of "insulting Turkishness."Kaya obtained a master's in English literature from the University of Amsterdam. He has continued his graduate studies in the same field in Istanbul. He is a devout reader and a big fan of contemporary British and American literature.

When writing that story, he had Gogol's "The Diary of a Madman" in mind where the character imagines the dog of his beloved is capable of talking. "When you read it, you can't decide whether to laugh at him or to take him seriously," Kaya says. "Even though his ideas sound crazy, that's how he thinks. I like his ideas, I like that wonderland. But then again I don't take it seriously."In his case, however, some people did take the occidentalist's dreams seriously.

Kaya's example is only one of the many Article 301 stories that have recently attracted massive attention from international media. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and best-selling writer Elif Shafak are two other intellectuals who stood trial due to their writings or statements related to the mass killings of Armenians in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Since the introduction of Article 301 in 2005, hundreds of writers, journalists, editors and even translators have been tried.

While writer Perihan Magden's defense of his refusal to perform military service offended the military, the January assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who had previously been charged with insulting Turkishness in his writings on the Armenian "genocide," became a turning point in Turkey's struggle for freedom of expression.

Article 301 stipulates imprisonment up to three years for publicly denigrating "Turkishness," the Turkish Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, as well as the judicial institutions of the state, and military or security organizations. The article does not criminalize criticism, but, due to its vagueness, it is not clear where to draw the line between denigration and critical opinion.Pamuk's words to a Swiss magazine in 2005 -- "Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it" -- caused furious protests by Turkish nationalists who threatened the writer with death. A group of nationalist lawyers sued him under the penal code. The charges were later dropped, but the impact of the trial left Turkey with a negative image regarding its human rights and freedom of expression record.

Trials might involve statements by real people or fictitious characters, as in the case of Kaya Genc. Like Elif Shafak, who was charged for comments made by her characters in her book The Bastard of Istanbul, a reader filed a complaint against Kaya. "He [the reader] mistook me for a character of my own creation, which is a very common mistake among readers who don't have good reading skills," Kaya said.

"I am well educated, well read and very familiar with the literary canon. Whereas those people, who like to complain about intellectuals and novels so much, are completely unaware of what irony is or what parody is," he added.For Kaya, readers who like to complain "lack the knowledge of basic linguistic and rhetorical concepts; they cannot distinguish the voices of characters, the narrator and the author from each other, which perfectly reflects the way they perceive this society. They don't know how to read properly, so they can neither see the irony in my work nor in the world that surrounds us."

The law is designed so that anyone who feels offended by the "intentions" of a writer can file a complaint. "That's exactly the problem because when someone filed a complaint against you, you will have to go and tell them that you did not intend to do what they charge you with, which is a real headache, as you may have to spend the rest of your life claiming to be innocent," Kaya explained.

Among many others, Pamuk and Dink were made to prove their intentions in public after the lawsuits were brought against them. Still, they failed to convince those who felt offended, especially the ultra-nationalists.

Threats against their lives continued, which meant they had to cancel several meetings and interviews, and take more security measures. After the murder of Dink, who had been receiving threats for over a year but refused to leave his homeland, the climate of fear managed to scare publishers and editors who now hesitate to publish texts that might constitute a crime.As an intellectual who felt the blade of Article 301 on his neck, Kaya said with a vague smile,"I don't feel threatened that much. I feel threatened by the stupidity of certain readers but not Article 301 per se."

"I have no regrets, no. I am proud of having written it."

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