Turkey is a country of contrasts. An advocate of public free speech, yet one can be prosecuted for ‘insulting Turkishness’ if one calls the historically proven fact of the massacre of 1.5-2 million Armenians 100 years ago a ‘genocide’. A member of NATO and seemingly close to the West, it has been steadily eroding its attitude to democracy and human rights. It practises freedom of the press but locks up more journalists than Russia.
Comparing Turkey with Russia is apposite, if only as a yardstick of how a democracy can revert to authoritarianism. Leviathan, by Andrey Zvyagintsev, received 35 per cent of its funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture, yet was an unflinching, if oblique, critique of the forces that govern Russia today. The Russian Ministry of Culture subsequently altered its rules on funding, yet it still got made in a reactionary climate. Bakur (North), the first ever documentary set in the camps of the Turkish-outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was set to open the Istanbul International Film Festival before being pulled only hours before the screening. Organisers received a letter from the Turkish Ministry of Culture claiming the film did not have the required registration certificate.
Now protest can take many forms, not just putting bodies on streets with placards. Complying with the directive from Ankara prompted more than 100 filmmakers to publish an open letter decrying government ‘oppression and censorship’. More than 23 Turkish filmmakers withdrew their entries from the festival, undermining the latter to the extent that the organisers announced that all competitions – and the closing ceremony – were cancelled.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will probably not lose too much sleep over such protests. Indeed, they may do him some good ahead of June’s General Election as his conservative, Islamic base, the bedrock of the success of his Justice and Workers’ Party, will view them as another example of the secular, liberal elite trying to smear their leader. But that the film provoked such a furious reaction from the artistic community, with the coded warning given to the festival’s organisers, proves that though the country may be free from military interference in politics, plurality is nevertheless under threat.
Twitter services and other social media have been interrupted on several occasions. It will not have been lost on Ankara that Twitter was the main method of communication among those involved in the abortive Green Revolution in Iran and the later Arab Spring. Other echoes of the Arab Spring are just as grim. The arrest of a 16-year-old boy for insulting the President is eerily reminiscent of Syrian schoolchildren being taken into police custody and maltreated for daubing some anti-President Bashar al-Assad graffiti; this being the catalyst for what has become the Syrian Civil War.
It is not surprising therefore that Erdoğan should turn inwards to assert his power, given the comprehensive failure of his foreign policy vision. The relations with the EU are at an all-time low, then there is his (only recently mended) break with Israel and the supposed neo-Ottoman outreach to the Middle East – which was torn asunder by Assad completely ignoring his advice. A film that chronicles an internal rebellion is therefore too near the knuckle for Ankara.
Maybe the allegations of a threat to free speech should be treated with caution, as sour grapes from the traditional secular ruling nomenclatura who have lost out in the new political settlement that Erdoğan has forged. In the immediate years after the 9/11 attacks in the USA, it became very fraught to criticise the George W. Bush administration. The country and Western band the Dixie Chicks paid the cost for this, leading them to deny their withdrawal of support. Something similar also happened when Miss Turkey recited a poem critical of Mr Erdoğan. But whereas after eight years Bush’s approval ratings were less than 30 per cent and he could serve no more terms, Erdoğan sees little slippage in his general popularity and takes this as validation to go on and on.
If June’s elections go his way and his party can change the constitution to deliver ever greater powers to the formerly symbolic role of president, more protests against the curtailment of artistic freedom seem certain but there will be a greater sentiment just to keep quiet altogether.