Freedom of Expression in the Arts and the Current State of Censorship in Turkey


As the director of the Black Ribbon Project1, under which cases of censorship imposed on the arts by different actors through a variety of methods are being investigated, documented and discussed on its website, in this article I intend to conduct an analysis regarding the impact of AKP’s cultural policies on the freedom of expression in the arts.

In Black Ribbon Project, the idea of censorship is used in its broadest sense. This encompasses not only censorship implemented by laws, but also various methods of censorship implemented by different actors. Sanctioning, banning, targeting, threatening, intimidation, humiliation, obstruction, aggression, de-legitimization and alienation are methods employed in cases of censorship. Implementers of censorship include state institutions, political groups and parties, individuals who pursue the interests of the state, local organisations, cultural and art institutions, curators, occupational organisations, sector representatives and funding institutions.

If we consider that censorship in the arts exists in every country and government, and that only the players in censorship differ, conducting an analysis on a particular political era is only possible by combining the cases of censorship, close examination, comparing them with other cases of censorship and associating them with the discourse and practices of the political era in question.

Firstly, what should be considered more extensively is, as described by a human rights activist from Batman, the state’s suppression policy towards artists in the Kurdish region to criminalise, marginalise and terrorise them in parallel with ongoing KCK arrests that started in 2009.

According to a news report published in Yeni Özgür Politika newspaper on 10 April 2010,2 a criminal lawsuit was brought against 13 members of the first Kurdish music group and the only Kurdish theatre company in Batman, affiliated with the Spring Cultural Centre, before the 4th High Criminal Court of Diyarbakir for violation of “Law No. 2911 on Meetings and Demonstrations” on the grounds that they held a demonstration by participating in Newroz celebrations, issued a press statement, and inflamed the public with erbane (tambourine with disks) that they sang along with. The court sentenced them to the punishment of “non-performance of art”. The artists were prohibited from performing plays at any social event, playing tambourine and singing. In the interview I conducted with the artists within the scope of the Black Ribbon Project, I learned that this was not an isolated punishment and many actions were brought against almost all members of the Cultural Centre with charges of “propagandizing for the terrorist organisation”, “being a member of the organisation” on grounds such as participating in press conferences, shouting slogans, singing, being a host for Newroz celebrations; two artists have been imprisoned and some were released owing to the “Probation Law”. Probation means that the artists temporarily were banned from social life entirely and that if they did not obey this sentence, they would be imprisoned to serve the original sentence rendered against them. In addition to the pressure on the artists, youngsters who attend the training programme are being threatened and obstructed in order to reduce the culture centre’s effect on the public and harm its legitimacy.

Indeed, the background of suppression and restrictions, which is not limited to the Kurdish region, can be observed from the Minister of the Interior, Idris Naim fiahin’s speech in which he expressed the sentiment that “weeds in the backyard, which feed terrorism should be identified properly”:

“… however, operations run by the terrorist organisation do not consist of only attacks in treacherous ambushes in mountains, hills, cities, streets and backstreets in the night, it is not only armed terrorism. There is also psychological terror, scientific terror. There is a backyard that feeds terrorism. In other words, there is propaganda, terrorist propaganda. There is an effort to represent terrorism as innocent and justified. Some cannot see this structure. Some, support it despite their knowledge, providing personal justifications in orter to  render it reasonable. What kind of support are they delivering? Perhaps they are reflecting it on a canvas with a painting. Reflects it in his/her poetry, writes here and there, writes daily articles in columns. Unable to slow down, he/she tries to demoralise the soldiers, police who served in the fight against terrorism by making them the subject matter of his/her art directly. Those who fight against terrorism are being fought against, picked at in some way. Terrorist operations run in the backyard by going around the back – and here the backyard is Istanbul, ‹zmir, Bursa, Germany, London, whatever, it is professorships in universities, institutions, non-governmental organisations.”3

This speech by the Minister of the Interior means the abandonment of the responsibility borne by the relevant state through the enforcement of laws that protect the right of freedom of expression, and even the encouragement of the widespread practice of censorship by state institutions themselves as well as individuals who pursue the interests of the state by targeting state democratic institutions, educational institutions and artists.

Another point, as recently observed in discussions regarding the privatisation of theatres,4 is the state’s arbitrary actions and efforts to legitimise its decisions by various strategies. Instead of determining and remedying content and organisational problems of theatres working in affiliation with it, through a regulation that it suddenly put in effect excluding the main actors from the solution process, the state changed the organisational structure and shifted the function of creating a repertoire from the art director to a bureaucrat appointed by the state. Attempts were made to legitimise this process through speculative reasoning such as disconnection between the theatres and public and the low number of spectators. Similarly, many actors engage in arbitrary censorship, which is not always labelled as such, attempts are made to legitimise them with reasons such as “sensitivities of the public”. An example of this is the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s demolition order regarding the Monument to Humanity (Insanlik Aniti).5 It was claimed that the Monument to Humanity, which was described by the Prime Minister as a “freak of nature” during his visit to Kars, damaged social values due to its proximity to a tomb (turbe), and the monument was demolished soon after the Prime Minister’s statement about the demolition of the monument. In spite of the campaign and legal action pursued by MHP concerning the demolition of the monument, the real reason for the demolition in such a short period of time was the Prime Minister’s desire to cement his power before the general elections by removing this monument, which was located on the Armenian border and was somewhat of a reference to the peace between Armenia and Turkey.

As seen in the events in 2010 regarding the play entitled “Lick but Don’t Swallow (Yala ama Yutma)” written by Özen Yula and directed by Biriken Grubu (Biriken Group),6 various communities and media organisations, which have internalised the said discourse of the government, are imposing censorship through methods such as intimidation, obstruction and targeting based on their social sensitivities. Regarding that play, which told the story of an angel who found itself in an actress’ body on a porn set in Turkey, Vakit newspaper reported in an article titled “Messages Full of Provocation from the Immoral Play” that “sensible Muslims want this immoral play discarded before it is performed at all”. Due to the effect of successive reporting by the newspaper, the play crew demanded protection from the police. On the day that the crew visited the police; Beyoglu Municipality officers arrived at Kumbaraci 50 and sealed the theatre on the grounds that “there are no fire escape ladders”. When the number of threats through electronic mail and telephone increased, the crew decided not to perform the play any more. After necessary arrangements were made at the venue, Kumbaraci 50 was licensed and opened to the public again. The Biriken Group could perform the play only two times within one day at ‹DANS under the category “new production” without much publicity and it was performed once abroad.

When we consider the statement of the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ertugrul Gunay, regarding these incidences, we can see that in addition to his remarks supporting freedom of expression in the arts, he also underlines that it is necessary for art to respect social sensitivities; with such a stance he has failed to fulfil the constitutionally guaranteed duty conferred upon the Ministry to protect the arts and artists.

The question that should be raised here is which social sensitivities are being employed to legitimise censorship and which values are being re-created.7 If we consider these questions within the framework of the General Secretary of the Presidency of the Republic, Mustafa Iflen’s statement dated 25 March 20128 mentioning his responsibility to form the structure of “conservative art”, we have an indication as how the government will shape its future cultural policies and by which strategies it will legitimise these policies.


  1. For more information please visit the website of
  2. Access to this website is blocked. See
  3. CnnTurk, 26 November 2011,
  4. For archives, please see
  5. For archives, please see
  6. For archives, please see
  7. Karaca, Banu (2011): When Duty Calls...: Questions of Sensitivity and Responsibility in Light of the Tophane Events”, Red Thread, No: 3, p. 40.
  8. GazeteVatan, 25 March 2012,