erasing clouds

Freedom of expression still at stake in Turkey: John Tirman speaks on Fatih Tas’s case

by anna battista

The trial of prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk has put a spotlight on Turkey in the last few months. The writer was due in court at the beginning of February on charges of “insulting Turkishness” in an interview published last year on the Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger, in which he stated “One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it.”

Charges against Pamuk were dropped in January, but there are still several journalists, writers and publishers facing charges of humiliating and insulting the Turkish identity. The articles of the new Turkish Penal Code most often used to prosecute speech are Art. 301 and 302 (insult to the state, its organs and officials or “Turkishness”) and Art. 288 (attempting to influence the judiciary).

Among the publishers on trial in Turkey, there is Fatih Tas, who will have to reappear in court in April as his case, first held at the Istanbul Primary Court on 8th February, has been postponed.

Tas - owner of Aram Publishing and convicted to 6 months prison sentence for having published They Say You Are Missing by Ali Aydin - is at present on trial for publishing Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade by John Tirman, a book claiming that US weapons were used to carry out human rights abuses against Kurds.

The publisher is charged with “publicly insulting Turkishness, the republic and the Turkish Grand National Assembly” and “insulting the security forces” under article 301 of the Turkish criminal code, and with “insulting the memory of Kemal Atatürk” under Statute 5816, the Law to protect Atatürk. “I felt badly when I first heard about Tas being prosecuted for publishing my book,” John Tirman, political scientist and executive director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), states, “when I was first approached about a translation, I did not think that it would result in a serious legal action against the publisher. I thought Turkey had advanced beyond that sort of childishness. I was mistaken. Some - many - in Turkey have advanced, but not the ‘deep state’, nor the hyper-nationalists.”

Tas was also previously prosecuted for publishing in 2002 Noam Chomsky’s American Interventionism, though the charges against him were dropped when Chomsky appeared in court with his publisher, a thing that, according to Tirman helped. ”As with Orhan Pamuk’s case, much international attention is brought to bear with such ‘celebrities’,” he claims, “Noam, who is a friend, was courageous in going there and standing with Tas. I think Pamuk’s case has already drawn much attention to the others. It is regrettable that such attention could not be generated before, but there it is. There is some danger now that with Pamuk’s case dropped, attention will diminish.”

According to Tirman, the risk that the American media will now turn away from Turkey is tangible. “Turkey, for some reason hard to understand, has never gotten much attention in America, perhaps in part because there are few people of Turkish origins living here. But mostly, Turkey is simply ignored: The Washington Post, for example, has not had a single mention of Tas’s case. There have been a number of editorials about Pamuk, supporting free speech, but that is commonplace to newspapers when they see an injustice of that highly visible kind. Turkey is regarded, probably, as a flawed democracy and ally, though much of the press treatment of Turkey in recent years has focused on the Turkish people’s opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. The Cyprus issue rankles the large Greek population here, of course, and I have paid much attention to that, having lived in Cyprus as a Fulbright scholar and produced a web site on the conflict - - as it happens, I tend to side with the Turkish Cypriot narrative on that issue. American political leaders are not totally silent on Turkey's repression of free speech, but their lack of activism on the issue stems from the perception that they need Turkey to contain Iran, and they do not wish to inflame what is likely to be a very tense situation in Iraq when Kurds move to take Kirkuk, and perhaps declare independence.”

Turkish courts will be busy in the next few months: in March, Ahmet Onal, owner of the Peri Publishing House, accused a total of 26 times for the books he published, will be back in court; the first hearing of the case of Abdullah Yildiz - the editor of Literatür publishers facing several years in jail for his publication of The Witches of Smyrna by Mara Meimaridi of Greece - is scheduled at the beginning of April. The case of Ismet Berkan, editor in chief of the “Radikal” newspaper, the “Radikal” columnists Erol Katircioglu, Murat Belge, Haluk Sahin, and “Milliyet” columnist Hasan Cemal - accused of criticising the cancellation of a conference on the Armenian genocide - has recently been postponed to April. Eight days after their case, Ragip Zarakolu, co-founder and owner of Belge Publishing, will be appearing in court for the publication of Dora Sakayan’s An Armenian Doctor in Turkey: Garabed Hatcherian, My Smyrna Ordeal of 1922 and George Jerjian’s The Truth Will Set Us Free: Armenians and Turks Reconciled, while publisher Songül Özkan will stand trial in May for publishing Kurdish Rebellions by Ahmet Kahraman.

The International Publishers’ Association (IPA) asked in a recent press release to withdraw immediately the charges against these Turkish publishers, or acquit them. The International PEN stated it will continue to protest against the trials and the harassment of writers, journalists and publishers, while it will also call for the quashing of laws that breach the right to freedom of expression in Turkey. In the meantime, the number of signatures collected for the campaign "301 Times No! No Limits on Freedom of Thought" ( - that asks to repeal article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code - has reached over 4,000. Among the signatories of this initiative, there are many academics, writers, journalists and human rights activists.

A while back, writer and sociologist Dr Ismail Besikci - charged in the past with speaking about the Kurds in his writings and readings - stated in Selected Writings: Kurdistan & Turkish Colonialism, “The real question is not that of freedom for a writer. The real question is that of the national rights of the Kurds”. Asked if he agrees with this statement, Tirman explains, “Besikci is probably saying that we in the West should not concentrate so much on individual liberties - like the Pamuk case - if it means ignoring massive human-rights violations, like those I wrote about in Spoils of War, such as the forced displacement of one million Kurds, a truly colossal crime.”

The never-ending trials against intellectuals in Turkey must therefore turn into a reason to fight in the name of freedom of expression and thought, without forgetting major human rights abuses.

John Tirman’s new book explores America’s impact in the world and will be published next fall by Harper Collins.

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