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Media Watch 2007

07 March 2007
Source: Independent
Author: Elizabeth Davies
Comment: The following article appeared in the Independent of London on 7 March 2007.
Silenced: The nationalist war on Turkey's intellectuals
"Free-thinkers are under siege from a campaign of intimidation by the far right which has created a climate of repression and self-censorship."

"Perihan Magden is not, by her own admission, "a bodyguard kind of woman". Energetic and feisty, with a mass of tousled hair falling in her face and a decrepit, fading rucksack slung carelessly over one shoulder, she doesn't look like someone who would need - or want - protecting. A best-selling novelist and celebrated commentator, hailed by the Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk as "one of the most inventive and outspoken writers of our time", Magden regularly shuns the spotlight in favour of a quieter life at home in Istanbul with her teenage daughter. She rarely gives interviews and, she says, has no desire to see her face on the evening news or "spread across the papers".

It is hardly a high-profile, celebrity lifestyle. Yet last month, despite all her efforts to stay out of the public eye, Magden was considered to be sufficiently at risk to be given a 24-hour security detail. For 10 days after the murder of the prominent Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, her every move was watched by a government bodyguard. In an indication of the gravity of the threat, at least a dozen others needed similar protection. All of them, from novelists to researchers to newspaper editors, had at some point voiced their criticism of the Turkish state - and now all were paying the price.

"We don't want to live like hunted animals," Magden says, her eyes blazing with indignation. "But we have been made international targets. It's a lottery and this time it stopped at Hrant's slot. What if next time it stops at mine?" She breaks off, gazing wistfully through the window out to the glinting blue of the Bosphorus.

Turkey's intellectuals are living in fear. Dink's assassination in January was just the latest, if by far the most brutal, manifestation of a rising tide of nationalism which is posing an increasing threat to the country's pro-European aspirations and democratic reform. A climate of repression and of self-censorship has set in among the intelligentsia, leaving the people who should be their country's most eloquent and effective ambassadors scared to speak out - and those who are the country's worst enemy holding the rest of the nation to ransom by means of a relentless campaign of violence and intimidation.

For a great many people it has become almost impossible to live a normal life. There are those like Ismet Berkan, the editor of the liberal newspaper Radikal, who receive death threats in the post. Those like Baskin Oran, a 62-year-old professor of political science at Ankara University, who are unable to leave their house without police protection. Others have lost their jobs after writing reports just a little too critical of the military, or the judiciary, or the enigmatic quality of "Turkishness".

For Orhan Pamuk, the author of a string of acclaimed novels including Snow and My Name Is Red, it was all too much. Just days after Dink's funeral he abruptly left the country for self-imposed exile in the US, declaring himself to be "furious at everyone and everything".

It was a coup for the far-right mob and a major blow for liberal, pro-democratic Turks. The man who, through his writing, had done more than perhaps any other to introduce modern Turkey's complexities to the West had been forced out. It is as yet unclear when he will return.

In a sign of how deep-rooted and fundamental the problem is, by far the most effective method of intimidation has proved to be none other than the Turkish penal code itself, which decrees that denigrating the national identity is punishable by up to two years in prison.

At least 50 people, from a 92-year-old archaeologist to the Nobel laureate Pamuk, who enraged conservatives by referring to the mass killings of Armenians in the early part of the 20th century as genocide, were charged with offences under the infamous Article 301 in 2006 alone. As Magden, herself on trial last year for defending conscientious objection, says, the process is highly disturbing. "They show you that you are being threatened. My life was shattered. Isn't that punishment enough?"

Magden's case was unusual in that it was brought by the still-powerful military, which was enraged by her defence of conscientious objection in one of her columns. Almost all the other cases have been brought by members of the ultra-nationalist Turkish Lawyers' Union, at the helm of which is a lawyer called Kemal Kerincsiz who has made it his mission to protect Turkey and "Turkishness" from such malevolent outside forces as the EU and democracy. If there is one man in Turkey who is reaping the rewards of the surge in support for nationalism, one man who has almost single-handedly waged a legal war on intellectuals and is driving home the message of the far right to the people most vulnerable to its rhetoric, it is Kerincsiz. Speaking from a workers' cafe after the Taksim rally, where he moved stealthily through the side crowds, a little man with a long dark overcoat and toothbrush moustache, he explains with unfailing politeness but absolute conviction why Turkey should be left alone."