Leading international writers join PEN in calling for greater freedom of expression in Turkey

Leading writers from Turkey and around the world have expressed grave concern regarding the severe threats to free expression in the country in an open letter published today

Influential writers including Orhan Pamuk and Günter Grass have joined PEN, the international association of writers, to call on the Turkish authorities to respect freedom of expression as a universal and fundamental human right, and to create an environment in which all citizens are able to express themselves freely without fear of censorship or punishment.

The open letter follows the recent publication of English PEN and PEN International’s report, The Gezi Park Protests: the Impact on Freedom of Expression in Turkey. The report documents individual allegations of human rights violations that took place during last year’s protests and examines Turkish legislation concerning freedom of expression, assembly, and the press in light of obligations under international human rights treaties to which Turkey is a state party.

In February 2014, the Turkish parliament passed a new internet law, giving Turkey’s telecommunications authority almost unlimited power in tightening its control over the internet. Furthermore, last week Turkey announced a blanket ban of the social media platform Twitter  to Turkey’s 36 million users ahead of local elections on 30 March.

The ban remains in place despite an administrative court order on 26 March ordering the suspension of the ban, pending a court judgment.

PEN is also gravely concerned by reports that YouTube has now also been blocked in Turkey and calls for access to be restored immediately.

The letter is signed by acclaimed writers from Turkey and across the globe including Hanan al-Shaykh, Ahdaf Soueif, Elif Shafak, Samar Yazbek, Elfriede Jelinek, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Alberto Manguel, Margaret Atwood, Peter Englund, Per Wästberg, Sjón, John Ralston Saul, Maureen Freely, Svetlana Alexievich, Can Dündar, Adam Zagajewski, Karl Ove Knausgård.

‘Turkey’s politicians need to understand that democracy is not solely about getting a majority of votes in the ballot box. Far beyond that, democracy is a culture of inclusiveness, openness, human rights and freedom of speech, for each and every one, regardless of whichever party they might have voted for. It is the realization of the very core of democracy that is lacking in today’s Turkey’ said Turkish author and former PEN Writers in Prison Committee Main Case, Elif Shafak.

The letter calls on Turkish authorities, ‘not to retreat from democracy and its keystone, freedom of speech; but rather to recognize their obligations under international treaties… We urge them to remember that this beautiful country will be stronger and happier when, and if, it appreciates pluralism, diversity and the freedom of words.’

PEN has a long history of supporting writers at risk and campaigning for the protection of freedom of expression in Turkey. Journalists, writers and social media users continue facing pressure and often prosecution from the regime’s crackdown on free expression, pressures which have only increased since the introduction of the new internet law. PEN calls on the Turkish authorities to respect and protect freedom of expression in line with international standards.

Read PEN’s report – The Gezi Park Protests: the impact on freedom of expression in Turkey here.

The full text of PEN’s open letter follows

We, the signatories named below, are writers from around the world who love, live and breathe words. We are united in our belief that freedom of expression is a universal and fundamental human right. We hereby express our grave concern with regard to “the freedom of words” in Turkey today.

As human beings we connect both within and across borders through words, written and spoken. A free exchange of ideas is essential for democracy, as well as for creativity, empathy and tolerance. As shown in a recent PEN report on last year’s protests, Turkey has a wide range of free expression issues, from criminal defamation to self-censorship within the mainstream media and from police violence against journalists to a narrowing sphere for freedom of expression on the internet.

Turkey ranks 154th among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index. To this day, translators, editors, publishers, poets and writers face criminal proceedings and even imprisonment for  legitimate expression under a variety of legislative fetters, such as the country’s draconian Anti-Terror Law, the Law on Meetings and Demonstrations and the Turkish Penal Code’s articles criminalising defamation (Art.125), religious defamation (Art.216), obscenity (Art.226), insulting the Turkish people, state or its organs (Art.301) and promoting conscientious objection to military service (Art.318).

The blanket ban on Twitter and YouTube comes in the aftermath of a regressive new internet law, and is an unacceptable violation of the right to freedom of speech. Turkey should be proud to be home to Europe’s youngest internet audience with over 36 million internet users, placing it among the most globally connected countries in the Muslim world. By connecting people from a range of backgrounds and making it possible for them to express their thoughts, the internet is a valuable network that supports and strengthens democracy.

Twitter and YouTube are vehicles of expression that give a voice to each and every user, regardless of class, religion, ethnicity or political stature. There are more than 12 million Turkey-based Twitter users, which shows the vibrancy of civil society.  Turkey is a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which protect the right to legitimate freedom of expression.

We welcome the administrative court in Ankara’s decision to suspend the ban on Twitter ahead of a full judgment and urge the telecommunications authority to restore access immediately.

Among our signatories there are writers from Turkey and across the world. As fellow human beings sharing the same planet, we care about one another’s problems and we know that we are all interconnected.

Turkey is a country where Western democratic values, secularism and Islamic culture come together. It is not surrounded by enemies. It is not an isolated or inward-looking country. It is part of an international community. Our plea to Turkey’s leaders is not to retreat from democracy and its keystone, freedom of speech; but rather to recognize their obligations under international treaties and to lift the block on Twitter and YouTube with immediate effect. We urge them to remember that this beautiful country will be stronger and happier when, and if, it appreciates pluralism, diversity and the freedom of words.

Héctor Abad Faciolince
Boris Akunin
Svetlana Alexievich
Hanan al-Shaykh
Ahmet Altan
Mehmet Altan
Meltem Arikan
Jirō Asada
Margaret Atwood
Oya Baydar
Marian Botsford Fraser (PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee)
Martín Caparrós
Fethiye Çetin
Paulo Coelho
Can Dündar
Kerstin Ekman
Peter Englund (Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy)
Álvaro Enrigue
Moris Farhi
Maureen Freely (President of English PEN)
Maggie Gee
Kaya Genç
Graeme Gibson
Francisco Goldman
Günter Grass (Nobel laureate)
Tarık Günersel (President of Turkish PEN)
Josef Haslinger (President of German PEN)
Eva Hoffman
Elfriede Jelinek (Nobel laureate)
AL Kennedy
Abbas Khider
Karl Ove Knausgård
Hari Kunzru
Valeria Luiselli
Alain Mabanckou
Perihan Mağden
Alberto Manguel
Ángeles Mastretta
Bejan Matur
Murat Menteş
Pankaj Mishra
Blake Morrison
Neel Mukherjee
Sofi Oksanen
Michael Ondaatje
Orhan Pamuk (Nobel laureate)
John Ralston Saul (President of PEN International)
Sergio Ramírez
Salman Rushdie
Elif Şafak
Eugene Schoulgin
Kamila Shamsie
Mikhail Shishkin
Sjón (President of Icelandic PEN)
Zadie Smith
Ahdaf Soueif
Hori Takeaki (International Secretary, PEN International)
Janne Teller
Ece Temelkuran
Olga Tokarczuk
Tatyana Tolstaya
Jarkko Tontti (International Treasurer, PEN International)
Ayfer Tunç
Dubravka Ugresic
Lyudmila Ulitskaya
Günter Wallraff
Per Wästberg (President of the Nobel Committee for Literature)
Sarah Waters
Hyam Yared (President of PEN Lebanon)
Samar Yazbek
Adam Zagajewski

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