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Dealing with Art Censorship in Turkey: The Case of Kazım Öz’s film Zer


Hazal Sipahi


Since the Gezi Park Protests in 2013 to the present day, political tension in Turkey has been steadily climbing. With the military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and the declaration of ongoing state of emergency, the polarization within the country has become even more clear and sensible. The State of Emergency measures introduced after the coup attempt have affected every aspect of the society including the culture and art scene of the country. Turkey has become a place where the state is based on the use of force and control over society that is seen as legitimate. However, the repressive policies of the AKP government were there before the State of Emergency. When we look at the last 15 years, we see that the actions of the AKP government, which reshaped the state structure in its own way, have taken over the society. Turkey’s dissolution of democratic practices has resulted to move away from secularism towards to authoritarianism by adopting a one-man rule under the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In today’s Turkey, the freedom of expression is not considered as a basic and essential human right by the AKP government that restricts this freedom on an arbitrary basis and violates its obligations under human rights law. How much one country concerned with democracy and individual freedoms is most clearly manifested in relations established with the rights of individuals. For many years, one of the biggest problems in Turkey has undoubtedly been the lack of freedom of expression.






Even though the violation of freedom of expression is not specific to the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), which has come to power in 2002, or the post failed military coup process, already-ongoing attacks to freedom of expression and censorship incidents accelerated with the current government. Within the framework of freedom of expression, press freedom has been the main focus of discussions in both the local and international level while focus on freedom of artistic expression has been less concentrated. Artists have been heavily censored, imprisoned, prosecuted, persecuted, threatened, attacked and abducted during the AKP rule. Therefore there is a clear need to focus also on the issue of freedom of artistic expression. In the countries where the freedom of artistic expression has been comprehensively and systematically violated, the artists are experiencing fear of threat, which impacts on their creative process. With the recent referendum held on April 16, 2017, Turkey approved the constitutional amendment package that grants executive powers to the elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The change in the system is clear evidence that Turkey is one of these countries that are moving towards authoritarianism and the concerns of artists are increasing in given circumstances. The censorship cases of others, personally experienced censorship and the threat of censorship are creating a fearful and high-pressure atmosphere within the artistic community. The state and non-state interventions to freedom of artistic expression are affecting the creative processes of the artists and sometimes resulting in self-censorship.


Definition of Censorship

In short, the term censorship is defined as “the state’s pre-checks of artworks and preventions of artworks from being displayed.” According to this short definition, the state can be the only agent of the act of censorship. In this article, the censorship definition of Siyah Bant, “an initiative founded in 2011 by a group of culture and arts workers to investigate the methods of censorship, to document censorship through Internet sites and publications and to defend the freedom of artistic expression” is adopted. In Siyah Bant and this work, censorship is not limited to state interventions, but is an umbrella term, which also contains sanctions and interventions of non-state actors and third parties. The concept of censorship is defined in this work as: using methods of punishment, prohibition, investigation, targeting, threatening, intimidation, humiliation, obstruction, physical and verbal assault, de-legitimization and othering; interventions to freedom of artistic expression by the state actors that have been occurring at the level of legislative, executive and judiciary powers and by the non-state actors such as governmental bodies, public institutions, politicians, bureaucrats, political groups, political parties, state-controlled individuals, individuals who oversee state interests, law enforcement agencies, NGOs, neighborhood organizations, religious institutions, private education institutions, culture-art institutions, curators, professional organizations, sector representatives and media organizations. In other words, the notion of censorship will be used in its wider context, defined not only by the legal prohibition of artistic expression by the state but by the processes that prohibit, change and restrict the production and display of works of art by different actors.


Interventions to Freedom of Artistic Expression During the Justice and Development Party Rule

The current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was elected as the Prime Minister in 2002, was initially considered a reasonable leader. It was thought that AKP government would expand freedom of expression because the leader of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was trialed for reading Ziya Gökalp's poem on December 12, 1997 in a rally in Siirt and sentenced to prison. Many writers and politicians of the Milli Görüş movement, which was the origin of the AKP, paid a heavy price because they expressed their views; some of them lost their jobs and some of them were sent to prison. When the AKP came to power, it was thought that people would be able to express themselves freely. However, Prime Minister Erdoğan opened numerous lawsuits against politicians, journalists, artists and even individuals who criticized him. Over the past decade, dragging the state into an authoritarian regime, he has constantly manipulated the political order to stay in power. Targeting journalists, artists and intellectuals has been one of his and the government’s tactics to repress different voices.

According to the Freemuse’s Annual Report of 2016, 23 serious violations of freedom of artistic expression took place in Turkey, including “11 artists behind bars, the prosecution of seven artists, attacks on three artists and artworks and the persecution of or threat to two artists.” However, these cases are only the ones, which reflected on the media, there are many violations of artistic freedom that are implicitly taking place in Turkey. The failed coup attempt and the State of Emergency Act have been used as excuses to restrict freedom of artistic expression through a variety of censorship methods. The regulations that opened the way for limiting individual rights and freedoms are affecting many culture and art organizations, institutions, events, actors and audiences. Since the declaration of the act, huge numbers of associations, foundations, culture and art centers have been completely closed. The State of Emergency Act’s scope includes the collection of books, the closure of cultural meeting areas, the control of plays to be staged, the prohibition of films, the interruption of communication channels and so on. Implementation of these provisions has been determining the field of thought and expression in Turkey, which was already narrowed down before the act. Unfortunately, since the declaration of the State of Emergency, Turkey has witnessed arbitrarily and intensely applied practices, especially for those who think, produce, question and illuminate the society. Following the failed coup in Turkey, the State of Emergency still continues and results in an increased pressure on artists as well.


The Censorship Case of Kazım Öz’s Film Zer

One of the censorship incidents that took place within the State of Emergency was subjected to Kurdish origin director Kazım Öz’s film Zer. The film tells the story of the journey of a young musician, Jan, who got closer to his grandmother Zarife when she comes to New York for cancer treatment. Jan lives in New York, studies music and doesn’t get along with his father who also lives in New York. Jan’s father brings his sick mother Zeliha to New York and since he is very busy, Jan accompanies his grandmother at the hospital and a close relationship develops between Jan and Zeliha. Jan learns about his Kurdish origins and the 1938 Dersim Massacre for the first time from his grandmother. When Zeliha dies, Jan decides to follow the song ‘Zer’ that he heard from his grandmother. Jan begins to travel in Turkey and contact the people in search of the song. While searching for the song, Jan discovers his roots and the traces of repressed social trauma. In April 2017, Kazım Öz’s seventh feature film Zer premiered at the 36th İstanbul film Festival. However, 113 minute-long film’s two scenes were blacked out and during the blacked out scenes there was a text on the screen saying: “You are not able to watch this scene because it was found inconvenient by the Supreme Audit Board of the General Directorate of Cinema of the Ministry of Culture.” As the director Kazım Öz states, the first scene was displaying the facts about 1938 Dersim Massacre and the second one was displaying Jan’s encounter with the Kurdish guerillas at their camp. By blacking out the censored scenes, the director was revealing the censorship of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

After finishing the film, which received support both from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and “Meetings on the Bridge”, the film crew applied to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism General Directorate of Copyright for the recording and registration license. Over the phone, a member of the audit board asked from the director to cut off some scenes in order to receive the license. Instead of cutting the scenes, the director blacked out the three and half minute long scene and kept the atmosphere sound, not the dialogues. The partially blacked-out version of the film received the recording and registration license from the Ministry. However, during the premiere, Kazım Öz decided to put the text on the blacked out scenes with the explanation mentioned above in order to reveal the censorship. However, after the disclosure of the censorship, the audit board was gathered and after the meeting, the board canceled the recording and registration license of the film. After the cancellation, the director cut off the blacked out scenes and received the license back for the final double-censored version. The film was planned to be released with 100 copies. Nevertheless, the movie theaters had received the cancellation decision and many complications occurred for the rescheduling. Finally, the film has been screening by only 11 movie theatres. Nowadays, the private screenings of Zer continue, so the discussions regarding the censorship incident. In this article through the censorship case of Zer, the director’s strategy to deal with the censorship, use of recording and registration license as a censorship mechanism, state of Kurdish artists in Turkey, impact of censorship on the creative process of artists and artistic production, further effects of censorship and methods of dealing with censorship will be presented.


Use of Registration and Recording license as a censorship mechanism

In Turkey, within the process from the scriptwriting stage to the screening, films go through many state and non-state supervisions, such as application for the Ministry support, receiving the recording and registration license, selections and preferences of distribution companies and cinema owners, evaluations of the international and national festival boards or television channels, which are sometimes resulting as censorship by sector and state representatives.

The efforts to shape the cinema industry in Turkey, which has been carried out decisively by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, has been accelerated by Law No. 5224 issued in 2004. The Ministry encouraged the establishment of new professional organizations and the gathering of these organizations to work on the establishment of an autonomous cinema institution in Turkey. On January 15, 2010, eight professional associations in the sector came together for an organization called the Collecting Society Power Union. As Elif Ergezen (2012) states, “The first act of the Power Union was to make the Commission of Artistic Activities (Sanatsal Etkinlikler Komisyonu, SEK) work. The Commission of Artistic Activities, in fact, is included in Article 15 of the regulation no. 25731 in 2005, subject to the law numbered 5224. Accordingly, all artistic activities in the country must pass this commission in order to receive support from the Ministry.” The film Zer didn’t encounter with any obstacles for receiving the Ministry’s financial support for its production.

However, in the web site of the Commission of Artistic Activities, by taking the Article 9 of 2005 dated regulation on Procedures and Principles on the Evaluation and Classification of Cinema Films into consideration, it is said about the films which will be screened within the artistic activities, "the films produced in the country can also participate in these events with the condition of being registered and recorded.” This regulation emphasizes the obligation of having work operation license for all commercial circulation and demonstrations. Today, the work operation license is called recording and registration license. The recording and registration license is basically a document that is required to allow works of film and music to enter commercial circulation. In a sense, it is demanded for taxation and the stamping of works. The recording and registration license is intended for the identification of real or legal persons using intellectual property rights during commercial circulation such as the screening, mechanical duplication and dissemination of films. The main function of the recording and registration license is to ensure that the rights of the film and music producers are not infringed, the rights of ownership are established and the financial rights are followed.

In terms of filmmakers from Turkey, requirement on this license for commercial screening in Turkey can turn into an act of censorship. In order to receive a recording and registration license, which shows the result of evaluation and classification, is asked. The Committee of Assessment and Classification, which functions as an audit board, is where the censorship is practiced in an implicit manner. “It was envisaged in Law no. 5224, which is discussed since it was enforced, to organize following Advisory Board, Support Board, Evaluation Board and Classification Board. As regards the first reactions in the press, it was pointed out that the legislation would bring the cinema sector completely under the control of the government and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism; it would place the movie-makers in a challenging circumstance to hold the director along with the producer responsible for repayment as well as Film Production Support Agreement, which is requested against the subsidy and that it would create pressure on the movie-makers to claim the subsidy back if it is decided on the use of markers and symbols as a result of evaluation and classification of subsidized production projects” Sevinç Yıldız (2017) explains.

The director Öz explains the censorship process as: “The film is being sent to the Ministry after it is finished because the Ministry supports it. And then, they are giving approval saying that ‘this is the film we supported.’ We completed this process and applied for the recording and registration license in order to begin to screen the film and attend the festivals in Turkey, which require this license. As a response to our application, the audit board wanted us to cut off some scenes. If we didn’t, the film wasn’t going to be seen and we have to pay back the Ministry support.” He continues, “I was expecting a censor on the guerilla scene but not for the Dersim ’38 scene. The Ministry was crueler than I thought. They even censored the sentence ‘In 1938, thousands of Kurdish-Alevi citizens were massacred by the state.’ Even, Erdoğan himself accepted this fact in front of public. It was clear that the board discussed the film in details, they were very sensitive about every word and told me to cut some words, to erase some graffitis. So, I decided to black out the scenes they mentioned and got the license. Afterwards, the film was premiered at İstanbul Film Festival with the blacked out version with the text. The Board didn’t see the version with the text, but I just explained their legal decision to the public so there is no crime in it.” Apparently, the Ministry couldn’t calculate the impact of black out and disclosure of censorship and cancelled the recording and registration license of the film. The cancellation happened when the film was about to begin to circulate in movie theatres, therefore the film crew quickly decided to cut off the blacked out scenes to get the license back. Öz had to censor the content of his film because the film was supported by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Since the Ministry has a right to ask for back payment, the director had to accept the censorship. Therefore, today Zer’s double-censored version has been screening in Turkey.



Kazm Öz



State of Kurdish Artists in Turkey

It is known that with the decline of the left movement of Turkey in 1980s, the Kurdish issue has come to the agenda increasingly; the pressures and threats on the opposing artists have become more intense. In the face of inhuman practices in the Kurdish geography, first of all, the act of reacting as a Kurdish or expressing oneself in Kurdish became a phenomenon that would not be tolerated. Beyond the direct state intervention, the armed conflict that has been going on more than thirty year has an intense psychological influence on the Kurdish population, which also affects the artistic production. Since the Kurdish language and Kurdish identities are perceived as threats by the state and some non-state actors, censorship is occurring more systematically, rapidly and intensely. Until ‘the resolution process/the peace process’, we know that the galleries do not prefer to exhibit the works of Kurdish artists, Kurdish films could not be shown, and making theatre in Kurdish was not possible. With the resolution process, the government softened its agenda towards the Kurdish population and language. During the peace process, some Kurdish theatres, publications and films were supported by the state. However, since 2015, the conflict has been increasingly violent again and the declaration of the State of Emergency is used as a justification to put more pressure on Kurdish population that includes also the artists of Kurdish origin. Most of the artistic expressions of Kurdish artists who are related to the Kurdish rights movement and active in the region are considered as illegal political activism or provocation to separatist politics and terrorism. Systematic repression through harassment and intimidation constitutes a significant part of the silencing strategy of the Kurdish artists. In case of Kurdish artists, most of the time, freedom of artistic expression is not a valid defense because the courts are considering the artistic expressions of Kurdish artists as a method of integration with the masses involved in an illegal act or as motivating expressions for the activists participating in illegal activities.

The reality that emerged from the lynch attempts against Kurdish artists sourced from the racist and nationalist mentality, especially of the state. The denialist and racist policy that the state continues throughout the history of Turkey for different ethnicities, cultures and beliefs makes it difficult to think differently in Turkey. Therefore, offering different solutions independent from the official view of the state and revealing opposing works in the field of art are also becoming harder. Expressions of Kurdish artists, Kurdish expressions or expressions that are sensitive in this sense are discouraged by the developed fear and lynching mentality. The artists who did not come to these imperatives and regarded their own identity, culture and belief as a means of honor and own it were almost declared enemies. This picture was an indication that Turkey was increasingly turned into a fear empire. Artists who oppose the discourse of the state because of their political stance and ethnic identity are paying big price in terms of both economic and political pressure today. This intolerance policy makes the life of artists difficult and normalizing the pressure and censorship.

The director Öz states that as a Kurdish, Alevi, leftist and someone from Dersim, he experiences enormous pressure on his artistic expression since the beginning of his cinema career. His first film Ax (1999) was censored and then banned by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. In 2010, Kazım Öz’s film The Photograph was removed from the program of 10th New Horizons International Film Festival in Poland with the intervention of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey. The Ministry of Turkey was supporting the festival. By throwing away the threat of withdrawal of financial support, Turkey applied censorship abroad. And the festivals’ submission to these threats is resulting as a loss of space for independent films, which is already narrowed down in Turkey. After almost twenty years of starting his film journey, Kurdish director is still having trouble to express himself. During the interview, Öz said “We are talking about a cinema that comes out as a result of struggle by the Kurds and the revolutionary movements of Turkey. If we can show our films despite everything, I think we need to talk about a legitimacy that this struggle created. It's not a little thing. People paid a huge price just to speak their native language. Despite everything, Kurdish cinema is emerging with a will.” Veli Başyiğit (2016) also states, “The recording and registration license occurs as a useful tool for the state in preventing the screening of the films tackling with the Kurdish rights struggle.”

The resources to make films that reflect the daily experiences of Kurdish people are extremely limited. It is stated in Siyah Bant’s Research Report on Developments in Cultural Policy and Their Effects on Artistic Freedom of Expression (2013), it is almost impossible to shoot film scenes about military interventions, burning down and evacuation of villages and even ordinary identity checks because for these shots, the military and police vehicles must enter the frame. There is no such problem for the mainstream Turkish productions; they easily get the permission and support when they want to use Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) tanks and other vehicles, as they also do not have a budget problem. The same is true in terms of shooting scenes of mass actions. Even the small-scale cinematic representations of these experiences immediately draw attention of the local security and gendarmerie, and prepare the ground for potential interventions. For example, in 2012, ten film workers, who worked in the Cinema Unit of the Mesopotamian Cultural Center and went to Batman's Soson district for filming, were taken into custody. The director Kazım Öz was among the detainees. Police officers detained the shooting team with the allegation that the team entered a dialogue with a local person and reacted to the Turkish-speaking local person by saying, "why are you not speaking Kurdish?" The shooting team said that the shooting of the mentioned scene was in a car and they did not talk to anyone. The team stressed that accusation and detention were completely arbitrary and put forward by the police to prevent their work.

In relation to multi-ethnic and multilingual nature of Turkey, all of the expressions that go beyond the boundaries set for the “domesticated diversity” approved by the state’s multicultural understanding can be interpreted as a threat to the integrity of Turkey. Since the state of emergency, Turkey has taken a quite heavy toll on eastern part of the country, especially in Kurdish cities such as Diyarbakır, Batman and Hakkari. According to Elif İnce, many prominent Kurdish arts and culture associations, including prominent theatre companies, were shut down with the state of emergency decrees. 375 of 1400 foundations that shut down, are “related, belonging to or in contact with terror organizations and structures acting against national security.” Since the failed coup of July 2016, the Gülen movement has been designated as a terrorist organization by the government. After the declaration of the State of Emergency and derogation from the ECHR, a cleansing has started. PEN International’s report (2017) says, “Although initially those suspected of affiliation to the Gülen movement were targeted, Kurdish and pro-Kurdish journalists have also been arrested, along with others known to be critical of the government.”


What Happens After the Censorship

When a case of intervention to the freedom of artistic expression becomes public, the artist and her/his artwork(s) also become visible. There are some artists and artworks that they would not be known as today if they were not censored. Publicity of censorship incident might work as a free-PR because the people who are might not have heard of the art work if the censorship didn’t happen are informed about the art work through this publicity. In almost every period, cultural and artistic works that have been banned have received great interest. In recent years, the phenomenon called the Streisand Effect has been used to explain the increasing interest of people to something banned. Dean Burnett (2015) explains the Streisand Effect, “where high-profile attempts to censor or prevent people seeing something result in massively increased attention for the something, is a brilliant example of psychological reactance, the tendency of people to strongly object when a freedom is being taken from them and do whatever they can do to restore it.” Therefore, what is banned and censored can be desired. It is also known that there are artists who try to take advantage from the censorship because of its well-known effect of bringing visibility.

UN’s former Special Rapporteur on the field of cultural rights Farida Shaheed (2013) puts, “In many cases, censorship is counterproductive in that it gives wider publicity to controversial artworks. However, the fear of censorship generates in artists and art institutions often leads to self-censorship, which stifles art expression and impoverishes the public sphere.” Also, censorship might fail is the ultimate aim is to suppress an individual work, however the censorship of a controversial work might mobilize the anger of non-state actors and plant the doubt in art institutions regarding to exhibit controversial works next time or to work with the censored artists. Therefore, the visibility and publicity brought by the censorship can be hazardous for artists and artworks since sometimes the censorship is taking precedence over the content of the artwork. For example, Kazım Öz expressed his concern about the censorship’s shadowing the film itself. The director thinks that when the censorship incident occurs, the audience is having certain prejudices or expectations about the artwork, which is reducing the dimension of the work. There is also another dimension of being mentioned with the censorship, which is to become an open target.

In addition to those, the director of Zer, Kazım Öz, was surprised that there was no support or institutional explanation about the censorship he experienced. Some media outlets reached him to talk about the censorship but he did not see any support of the festival or the other artists or filmmakers, except his circle of friends. As it can be understood from the artists’ self-reflection on the reactions, the support of the culture and art scene is very important in censorship cases since the artists often feel lonely after the incidents because there is not any organized reaction against the censorship. As Asena Günal (2016) states, “People from the art scene are in need of each other more than ever, aware of the vital importance of solidarity in times of hardship.”


Impact of Censorship on Creative Process and Artistic Production

The increasing threats and sometimes not knowing the sources and agents of those threats are raising fear for the artists and they are thinking that danger can be everywhere and any harm can happen to them anytime. This fear spreads everyday life, and it makes itself felt in production and creation process of artists. As Index on Censorship’s Art and the Law guide (2015) also mentions, fear of offence, demands of the sponsors, problems arising from police, regulations on safety, aggressive reactions to artworks, dynamics of the art sector, all these known and accepted factors of art scene contributes to the climate of censorship. Censorship prevents the free flow of expressions. As Farida Shaheed (2013) says, “The effect of art censorship or unjustified restrictions of the right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity are devastating. They generate important cultural, social and economic losses, deprive artists of their means of expression and livelihood, create an unsafe environment for all those engaged in the arts and their audiences, sterilize debates on human, social and political issues, hamper the functioning of democracy and most often also impede debates on the legitimacy of censorship itself.” The impact of interventions to the freedom of artistic expression on creative process of the artists is most of the time destructive. The devastating effect of censorship by the state on the censored artists and the others in the field is also summarized in Turkish Cultural Policy Report: A Civil Perspective (2011) as:

“One of the most significant problems affecting the artists and the production of art is state interference in the field of art. Requests for permission for exhibitions are not granted, or exhibitions are banned outright, for reasons such as transmitting a political message which does not conform to national culture, carrying the “vestiges of the former regime”, being immoral, creating “inter-class antagonism”, “deprecating the military”, “containing slang”, “having an unfavorable impact on the security forces”, “being pornographic”, “being insensitive to ethical considerations”, “having a potentially negative impact on the people”, and “undermining the integrity of the nation-state and its history”. Moreover, some artists are prosecuted for the ideas contained in their works. At times, these factors give rise to auto-censorship and, by serving as an example to other artists, have a negative impact on production.”

Once censored artists are already traumatized which affects their means of artistic expression. Şenay Aydemir (2017) says, “In the last few years, censorship practices in particularly faced by documentary films, decreasing festival screening opportunities, the attitude of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism that blacklisted the film workers who supported the Academics for Peace and the political sensitivities constitute serious obstacles to the production of new films.” The director of Zer, Kazım Öz said, in the future, he is considering to control the censorship process by blacking out the scenes that he thinks the Ministry would censor. Therefore, the director thinks that he can reveal the threat of censorship through revealing the self-censorship and leaving the piecing together to audience. In Turkey, blackout strategy to reveal censorship practices is not new. In 1971, upon the acceleration of censorship practices, Emek Cinema in Istanbul started to an interesting application. While screening a film that the Censorship Board censored some of its scenes, the cinema put a black square on censored scenes, “censored” written on it. However, after a while this practice was also banned by the state, similar to the film Zer’s double-censorship. On the other hand, Öz assumes that there will be economical consequences of the previous censorship case on his creation process because he does not think that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism would support his films again, unless the current government changes. No matter what, he will keep applying for the Ministry support since he is considering the support as his right as a citizen of Republic of Turkey.

During the round table meeting series in 2017 on the censorship and self-censorship in Turkey conducted by the Susma24 Platform, established under the roof of the P24 Independent Journalism Platform to form a well-organized attitude against the censorship, the documentary maker Berke Baş said, “In our previous works, we always had a struggle with the history of Turkey, Now, there is desire for reckoning with the present time. How can we understand the present time, how can we look at it, how can the works of present time witness today? We are in an environment where we are personally pressured, people surrounding us are pressured and we are trying to create something creative and original.” The artists are feeling stuck in the present time’s violence and heaviness which reflect on their creative process. Since the agenda of Turkey is rapidly changing and artists often inspired from their surroundings, the artists are having hard times to keep the memory of the day in Turkey. However, the artists also think that, even if they cannot produce art works reflecting the present time, it is valuable to keep documenting and achieving for next generations. One of the participants of the round table meetings, the director Özcan Alper said, “The governments censor, want to censor, will censor. But if you are an artist, a creator, you need to think how to protect yourself ethically in such situations and how to operate the censorship.” By saying so, the director wants to suggest the alternative ways of artistic expression in order to overcome the censorship practices and mechanisms in cinema. In fact, the use of metaphors, allegory and inter-textuality has been appeared in the works of several Iranian filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panhabi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf whose films have been meeting with a wide audience despite all the censorship application in Iran. The artists under the threat of silencing are likely to employ the stylistic innovations and dissimulation strategies. In an interview with Berlin Art Link (2017), the curator Beral Madra says about the reinforcing effect of censorship to think and produce differently, “At this points, “art activities” can have an important role in the fight for individual freedoms, freedom of expression and other fundamental democratic rights. Some artists are producing very effective works and curators are realizing target exhibitions and attempting to find ways to bypass censorship and to avoid self-censorship.” Therefore, the best way to cope with censorship for the artist is to keep creating, to make their art and to produce more and more, despite everything. However, self-censorship remains as the most dangerous form and result of censorship and the biggest obstacle in front of artistic creativity.

The experience of censorship influences future creative process, and that such intimidation causes and maintains self-censorship as a state of paralysis. Self-censorship is a method in which the producer of artwork applies to maintain her/his existence without going against the power. Self-censorship occurs as a process that needs to be questioned constantly. In Turkey many artists, researchers, journalists continue their lives with institutionalized and internalized self-censorship methods. It is known that in the cultural scene of Turkey, self-censorship is common. Artist Burak Delier (2012) says, “The impasse of self-censorship is here: Before repressive and aggressive censor action, the probable object of the possible attack is cancelling itself by anticipating the attack. The traces of past and recent attacks in memories are provoking this cancellation. Fear and its memory produce itself and confirm self-knowledge by performing self-erasing action. By being drawn into fear, we are producing and growing fear again and again.” Fear is feeding self-censorship and vice versa. After conscious or unconscious self-censorship mechanisms, what remains is not a piece of truth, but a polished, trimmed and lovable presentation. The impact area of self-censorship is the created fear and pressure atmosphere. Considering the previous interventions to artistic freedom and censorship incident in Turkey, more and more artists are self-censoring themselves. The dangerous thing about self-censorship is that it often remains unseen and the artists do not talk about the self-censorship openly. Even though, self-censorship means silencing of certain ideas, the artists still find their ways to express their ideas, maybe not in a way that they wish but by inventing new and alternative ways of doing so. The art is transferring the self-censorship to a tool to move forward and the artist can take something even out of self-censorship.


Coping with Censorship

In order to cope with censorship, the most useful thing for an artist would be to know her/his rights prior to the intervention to one’s artistic freedom. In the Freedom of Artistic Expression Guide (2016), prepared by Siyah Bant and Istanbul Bilgi University Human Rights Law Research Center and written by Pelin Başaran and Ulaş Karan, there are practical information and suggestions for the artists from Turkey and the artists whose freedom of artistic expression is violated in Turkey. Within the guide, the ways of seeking legal remedies, possible violations of freedom of artistic expression and what can be done in such situations are explained very clearly. In addition to these, the scope of freedom of artistic expression and national and international regulations regarding to freedom of artistic expression are explained and the contact information of relevant institutions and organizations are given. Kazım Öz said he was not well informed about their rights when he encountered with the interventions to his freedom of artistic expression, however, after the censorship incidents, he has been learning his rights and how to seek them.

When one’s freedom of artistic expression is violated, it is better to look for local remedies such as contacting with knowledgeable organizations for available legal advice since the support from individuals and organizations in the local area comes first hand knowledge about the issues and legislation. In Turkey, Susma24 Platform has become very active in the field of defending artistic expression. The platform against the censorship and self-censorship creates awareness, makes advocacy, documents and achieves the censorship cases, creates alternative ways to reach audience for the censored artists and artworks and provides legal support for the one’s whose freedom of expression is violated.

Having the support of other artists, lawyers, human rights defenders and other individuals can be a source of solidarity to cope with censorship. Establishing solidarity on the censorship incidents attracts the attention of related authorities and the media, which gives publicity to the censorship case. While coping with censorship, it is always useful to have opinions and advices of the other censored artists, therefore sharing the experience of censorship is crucial.

While some of the censored artists are trying to keep themselves safe from repression in their own area, there are some artists who consider leaving Turkey. By going abroad, the artists are creating a space to breathe for themselves, staying away from the constant fear and pressure atmosphere, having a chance to evaluate the situation in Turkey from away, exploring different opportunities of artistic expression and exchanging ideas and experiences with the people from culture and art field. However, there are some acute situations where the artists have no other option than to find a safe haven in another country. There some organizations that provides places for the artists at risk such as ICORN, Artist Protection Fund, Safemuse, ArtistSafety.net and Lisiere.

One of the key actions to cope with censorship is the advocacy in order to have long-term impact regarding to artistic freedom. In addition to resorting to legal remedies, Ulaş Karan and Pelin Başaran (2016) say, “It is necessary to identify long-term strategies within the framework of human rights activism, which question existing legal opportunities, expand the scope of the law, and aim at crossing other rights struggles. For example, it may be a strategy to resort to the legal means, regardless of the positive or negative consequences. Whatever the end result, the case can be transformed into strategic action in order to create broad public opinion and to put pressure on the arbitrary implementations of the institutions.” Advocacy on defending freedom of artistic expression might create better changes in legislation. Media campaigns, writing officials appeals and petitions, lobbying governments and influencers, social media campaigns, boycotts and sanctions, monitoring and documenting censorship incidents, joining trades unions and national and international networks for artists and reporting violations of freedom of artistic expression are other useful and beneficial ways of coping with art censorship. Also, the definition and scope of freedom of expression is directly influenced by developments in the world. The violation of freedom of artistic expression is not a problem of Turkey but a universal problem. For this reason, the struggle on freedom of expression should be given in more organized way and solidarity with the international community. An organized and international activism on the freedom of expression can reveal that the censorship has been occurring in a systematically rather than individually.

On the artistic level, many artists are finding alternative ways of expression and developing guerilla tactics to reach the audience. Art works can have a metaphoric language and various relations that the actors of censorship cannot find a way to censor these works. Since art has the power to open different spaces in minds, the artists think that the ways to bypass censorship can be created and considering the given circumstances in Turkey, these tactics can be the most useful strategy for the sustainability of artistic expression. Also, the artist think that the most essential way to cope with censorship is to keep documenting, recording, producing, creating and making art despite all the obstacles.


In Lieu of Conclusion

Since the declaration of the State of Emergency, the pressure of the state and non-state actors on the cultural and artistic productions and expressions has increased and began to be experienced more clearly, comprehensively and systematically. The intellectuals, writers, publishers, journalists, artists, filmmakers and individuals are suffocating in Turkey because they cannot express themselves freely. The situation regarding to free speech, freedom of expression, freedom of artistic expression and cultural rights in Turkey is not promising, on the contrary, it is alarming. Turkey’s democratic credentials and international reputation have been damaged by the violations of freedom of expression. The tension and insecurities caused by these violations have begun to oppress everyday life.

Despite being discussed more recently, the issue of art censorship is still not sufficiently visible, not well known in the public and not taken seriously. Within this environment, there is an urgent need to create awareness on art censorship, defend freedom of artistic expression and announce the art censorship cases in Turkey in both local and international environments. Because of the mainstream media censorship and lack of organized structures, many art censorship cases are not known, discussed or documented even among the artists. While disseminating the knowledge about art censorship cases in Turkey, how these cases are framed, evaluated and discussed, even if they are known, is another important issue. Just as it is in the freedom of expression, the subject of freedom of artistic expression is also everyone and there is no categorical limitation in this respect. However, the practices of censorship show that artistic activities of Kurdish artists or Kurdish art works are often exposed to violation of artistic freedom. This situation arises not only from being a Kurdish but also for other artists who have got a pro-Kurdish attitude.

In Turkey, the reasons for justifying censorship by the censors are hidden under the mask of natural security, public order, religious norms, unclear concept of sensitivities and unwritten moral rules. Most of the interventions to artistic freedom are arbitrary and contradictory in terms of political and ideological reasons. The ambiguity of the existing laws related to freedom of expression and artistic freedom is blurring the vision of artists where it is very unclear what cannot be expressed. Making clear legal arrangements for the protection of freedom of artistic expression, therefore, for the protection of art and artists, occurs as an urgent need for Turkey. Unfortunately, the artists in Turkey are not well informed about their rights and the ways to seek legal remedies when their rights are violated. There is lack of organized standing against the interventions and violations to freedom of artistic expression.

The artists do not know when, where and by whom their artistic freedom can be violated. Within the current political, social and cultural circumstances in Turkey, the interventions to freedom of artistic expression is creating a fear, paranoia and pressure atmosphere which feeds the climate of self-censorship. The artists prefer not to talk about self-censorship openly since the acceptance of self-censorship damages their existing works. Therefore, the self-censorship still remains as a taboo, which is hard to openly measure and record. Even though censorship occurs as a process and creates new ways of artistic production while resisting against censorship, the previous censorship practices affect the aesthetics and the contents of future works and the creative process and artistic productions of the artists, most of the time in a negative way. Once again, there is a need to take urgent action to stop the violations of human rights and current repression in Turkey. For this purpose, the solidarity of international groups, human rights defenders and activists and all the actors of culture and art scene in Turkey is an essential.





Hazal Sipahi (1992) is a freelance writer and journalist from Turkey, currently based in Belgrade, Serbia where she completed her master studies at the University of Arts’s UNESCO Chair in Cultural Policy and Management and wrote her thesis on the Interventions to Freedom of Artistic Expression: Coping with Censorship in Turkey.