Marking Nov. 15, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, a delegation of 20 PEN International Writers Association members -- the biggest ever group of PEN members sent to another country to express concerns -- called on the Turkish government to take urgent action to lift pressures on Turkey's writers, journalists, publishers and translators.
PEN International President John Ralston Saul said at a press conference on Wednesday that many positive developments related to Turkey's democratization process have been overshadowed by concerns about freedom of expression in the country. Indicating that eight members of PEN Turkey are in prison, Saul said: “We are asking the government of Turkey to act now to ensure that no one is being penalized for practicing the right to peaceful freedom of expression, and release all who may be held in violation of that right.”
Saul also said that their main concern relates to the broad and arbitrary use of anti-terrorism laws in Turkey.
“There are anti-terror laws in many countries and they are misused in many countries. There are officials here who believe they need anti-terror laws to fight terror,” he said, adding that PEN has always been against violence. “However, there is no need to use it broadly and apply it to limit freedom of expression.”
Saul spoke at the press conference attended by journalists, writers and publishers, including publisher Ragıp Zarakolu, who was arrested and then released pending trial on terrorism charges as part of an investigation into the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), and journalist Ahmet Şık, who was also arrested and then released pending trial in a coup plot case.
PEN members from Japan, Lebanon, the United States, Norway, Switzerland, Canada and the United Kingdom joined Saul in stating that the recent surge in the prosecution of writers, publishers and journalists in Turkey is reminiscent of the situation in the 1990s, even though Turkey has gone through a democratization process, and that the current increase in prosecutions overshadows and undercuts these achievements.
Sara Whyatt, deputy director of PEN International, who has been following freedom of expression issues in Turkey for 20 years, said at the news conference that she was dismayed when the KCK arrests started in October last year.
“In 2005, I was feeling so optimistic about developments in Turkey that I thought I wouldn't have a job in Turkey,” she said. “But things have been going down, especially since 2010.”
According to data collected by Whyatt, about 20 journalists, writers and publishers were in prison in Turkey prior to 2010 but this number might be as high as 100 today.
“The numbers are difficult to pin down. We estimate there are about 60-70 people in prison today and two-thirds of them are related to the KCK,” she said. “They are caught in the complicated judicial labyrinth.”
Eugene Schoulgin, vice president of PEN International, noted at the same news conference that high-level political officials publicly state that these 60 to 70 people, none of whom have yet been convicted of a crime, are murderers, rapists, bank robbers and terrorists.
“According to international law, a person is innocent until convicted,” he said. “These high-level officials are putting pressure on courts and politicizing the trials. If a minister in another country [did] the same, he would severely risk his future.”
Schoulgin also said that this environment creates an atmosphere in which people are afraid to speak and practice self-censorship.
Wednesday's press conference followed meetings in Ankara on Nov. 13 with President Abdullah Gül and Minister for European Union Affairs Egemen Bağış.
“President Gül's recognition of the negative impact of free speech violations on Turkey's future is important. We are particularly encouraged by his personal commitment to freedom of expression and to the promotion of fundamental rights as the best, most effective tool against terrorism,” Saul said.
Also at the news conference, PEN International's Turkey President Tarık Günersel spoke about three cases in Turkey: that of human rights lawyer Muharrem Erbey, in pre-trial detention for almost three years; translator Ayşe Berktay, in detention for one year, and Mustafa Balbay, in prison since 2009 on charges ranging from membership in an unlawful organization to attempting to provoke a military coup.
Günersel declared that these people have only been engaged in peaceful expression.