PEN Turkey continues to fight for freedom of speech

PEN Turkey continues to fight for freedom of speech

Emrah Güler ANKARA
PEN Turkey continues to fight for freedom of speech

Tarık Günersel is the president of PEN Turkey, one of the busiest members of the worldwide association of writers.

“At present, Turkey is still a wonderful country for tourists, but it is becoming an increasingly difficult place for its citizens. You wouldn’t want to be a writer, journalist, translator, publisher, human rights activist, democrat, thinking person, or anyone who seeks justice in ‘my’ country,” Tarık Günersel wrote recently for, an online magazine for literature, free speech and social justice.

Günersel is a poet and a playwright. He is also the president of PEN Turkey, one of the busiest members of the worldwide association of writers. Established in London in 1921 as the acronym for Poets, Essayists and Novelists, the oldest human rights organization and the global literary organization now has around 20,000 members in 144 centers in 102 countries. Journalists and historians are now included in the original list that made up the name PEN.

PEN Turkey continues to fight for freedom of speechTwenty-eight years ago this week, the late Turkish humorist Aziz Nesin received an honorary membership from PEN UK. Back then, PEN wasn’t as popular (or notorious to some fear mongers) in Turkey. PEN Turkey was originally founded in 1950 with its first president the woman novelist Halide Edip Adıvar. Today, the members of PEN Turkey continue vehemently to fight censorship and condemn free speech violations publicly.

Right now PEN Turkey is fighting another battle on a closer front, with eight members of its board of directors facing a criminal investigation for criticizing the prosecution of Fazıl Say, the composer and pianist of global fame, who is charged with “insulting religious values” through his Twitter account.

The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s office launched an investigation in January against Günersel, Vice President Halil İbrahim Özcan and six others on the board after an article posted on PEN Turkey’s website last June, in which it was suggested that Say’s prosecution, along with an alarming number of similar ones, are showcasing “fascistic developments” in Turkey. The investigation against the members of PEN Turkey has been made on grounds of the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, prohibiting insults to the Turkish Republic, Turkish ethnicity or Turkish government institutions.

Visit sparks investigation

Both PEN Turkey and PEN International have been strong advocates of the abolition of Article 301, as well as voicing concerns and calling people to action over the imprisonment of journalists, writers, activists and politicians without conviction in recent history. PEN Turkey has been vocal against the imprisonment of journalists Tuncay Özkan and Mustafa Balbay, among others, due to their alleged connection to the ongoing Ergenekon case, a hunt (witch-hunt to many) for politicians, journalists and high-ranking army officials for organizing a military coup.

The members of PEN Turkey have also defended those imprisoned for their connection with the illegal Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), including Muharrem Erbey, a Kurdish writer, human rights activist and lawyer. The recent sentencing to life in prison of sociologist and writer Pınar Selek, acquitted repeatedly in the last decade for planting a bomb that didn’t exist according to investigations, was also a priority for PEN Turkey in voicing their outrage.

All throughout its efforts for freedom of speech and human rights, PEN Turkey has always been supported by PEN International and other centers. Last November a 20-member delegation led by PEN International President John Ralston Saul paid a visit to Turkey.

While the visit by PEN International made the news, it wasn’t all good news to some. Around one month after the delegation went home, police visited PEN Turkey’s Istanbul office, asking for the home addresses of the board members. In January the board members gave their statements for the investigation against them. As freedom of speech is put to the test and censorship is becoming the norm in Turkey, meaning of PEN is becoming ever more important.