The state of freedom of expression in Turkey continues to deteriorate, with the government tightening the noose around social media platforms. Kurdish culture and language are already suppressed and many journalists from Kurdish or pro-Kurdish outlets are in prison, having been tried on trumped-up charges of terrorism. These include news editor and poet Nedim Türfent (LR, March 2019; July 2021) and writer and former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party Selahattin Demirtaş (LR, June 2019). Another writer, Gulgeş Deryaspî, was sentenced to six years and three months in prison for ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ in December 2020. A verdict on her appeal is pending. The country now ranks 153rd out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
The latest victim of state repression is the Kurdish writer and poet Meral Simşek, who faces up to fifteen years in prison for ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ and up to seven and a half years on the charge of ‘making terrorist propaganda’. In a separate case, Simşek could receive a prison sentence of up to five years for ‘entering a restricted military area’ after she fled to Greece earlier this year and was returned to Turkey.
PEN International believes that Simşek is being targeted for her writings. She works as an editor and is the prize-winning author of three poetry books: Mülteci Düşler (‘Refugee Dreams’), Ateşe Bulut Yağdıran (‘Clouds on Fire’) and Incir Karası (‘Black Fig’). Simşek’s 2017 novel Nar Lekesi (‘Pomegranate Stain’) tells the story of her family and the turmoil endured by the Kurdish people in Turkey in the 1990s, a period marked by mass displacement, scores of disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
On 9 December 2020, anti-terror police detained Simşek in Malatya province, eastern Turkey. She was released the following day pending trial and banned from travelling abroad. In January this year, Simşek was formally charged by the Malatya 2nd High Criminal Court. The indictment mentioned her short story ‘Arzela’, which features in the forthcoming anthology Kurdistan + 100, in which twelve contemporary Kurdish writers imagine a country they can call their own coming into existence by the year 2046. The collection is due to be published by Comma Press in February 2022.
On 29 June, Simşek fled to Greece but was stopped by the Greek police, who strip-searched her and confiscated her identity documents and phone. She claims she was handed over to masked individuals who forced her to cross the border back into Turkey. The following day, she was detained by the Turkish police at the Ipsala border crossing and sent to Edirne prison, where she was held for seven days in poor conditions. On 6 July, she appeared in court via video link, was released on condition that she remain in Turkey and was ordered to report to a police station three times a week. The next hearing will take place on 16 November.
Another writer, Yavuz Ekinci, faces up to seven and a half years in prison for social media posts. He has been charged with ‘making terrorist propaganda’. The charge relates to eight tweets published on his Twitter account in 2013 and 2014. The tweets, none of which promote or incite violence, referred to the New Year celebrations in Diyarbakır, southeast Turkey, and to the battle for Kobane in Syria. Ekinci has received multiple awards for his short stories, including the 2005 Haldun Taner Award and the 2007 Yunus Nadi Award. His work focuses on the plight of the Kurds and has been translated into English, German and Kurdish. His next hearing is on 11 January.
Turkey’s amendments to the Internet Law, adopted in July 2020, effectively curtail freedom of expression online. Social media companies with over a million users a day are required to have offices in Turkey and comply with government demands to block and remove content, or else face fines of up to forty million liras (approximately £3.5 million), a ban on advertising on their platforms and the reduction of their internet bandwidth by up to 90 per cent, rendering them unusable. In the past, platforms including Twitter, YouTube and Wikipedia have been blocked because of content shared on them.
In recent years, tens of thousands of people in Turkey have been arrested and prosecuted for social media posts. They are typically charged with spreading terrorist propaganda, defamation or insulting the president. Between 11 March and 21 May 2020, hundreds of social media users were allegedly detained for posts deemed to ‘create fear and panic’ about Covid-19. Some of these posts criticised the authorities’ response to the pandemic.
Readers might like to send appeals to the Turkish authorities calling for all charges against Meral Simşek and Yavuz Ekinci to be dropped and for the immediate release of all those held in prison for exercising their right to freedom of expression; urging the authorities to end the prosecution and detention of journalists and writers on the basis of their writings or alleged affiliations; and calling for an end to the crackdown on the Kurdish people and a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Minister of Justice
Adalet Bakanlığı, 06659
His Excellency Abdurrahman Bilgiç
43 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PA
Fax: 020 7393 0066