Award-winning filmmaker Çayan Demirel and veteran journalist Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, the two Turkish directors of the documentary Bakur (which means north in Kurdish), are facing up to 5 years in jail on charges of “terrorist propaganda.”

Bakur was shot during the 2013-2015 peace talks between Turkish government and Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) to end the 40 year long Kurdish-Turkish conflict. Nearly three years after the film’s Turkish premiere, the directors are facing trial, with their next court date set for October 23, 2018. Both of them stand charged with disseminating propaganda in favor of a terrorist organization under Article 7/2-1 of Law no. 3713 on Counter-Terrorism for their documentary film Bakur and face up to five years of imprisonment.

Case background

For decades Turkey has silenced reports on the armed conflict with the Kurds. Bakur investigates issues of national identity, the history of the PKK, human rights, and the role of women in the conflict. The narrative is set against a backdrop of scenes from different PKK training camps in the mountainous border region between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, where the directors met confident young PKK members. The film is both honest and personal, linking individual lives with ideas of home and the right to resistance. The film expands this personal angle through political and historical evaluations by military and political PKK leaders. Bakur takes a clear political stance and describes self-determination as a universal human right.

Since 2015 the film has been playing at prestigious international festivals, including DOK Leipzig, Visions du Réel, Trento Film Festival, Montreal World Film Festival, and brought home Best Documentary Awards from Berlin-based Festival International Signes de Nuit, Mexico International Film Festival, and Mediterranean Film Festival.

Now, nearly three years after its premiere, Bakur’s directors Demirel and Mavioglu are facing up to 5 years in jail on charges of “terrorist propaganda.” This will be the first court case in Turkey’s recent history to put filmmakers on trial with prison sentence for their film.

Case updates

May 29, 2018: Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu appeared before the Batman 2nd Assize Court for trial. After the directors gave short statements, their legal representation presented the expert opinion conceived by Article 19, an organization dedicated to preserving freedom of expression through lobbying, policy work, and awareness campaigns. The Court accepted the expert opinion to evidence, and upon request, exempted Demirel and Mavioğlu from attending future hearings. The trial was then adjourned until October 23.

May 28, 2018: PEN America signs an open letter along with 50 other international human rights and arts organizations demanding that the Minister of Culture and Tourism and the Minister of Justice in Turkey drop charges against the filmmakers.

February 8, 2018: Co-director Çayan Demirel was scheduled to give his deposition at the Istanbul Courthouse in Çağlayan but decided against it, given his difficult health condition after a heart attack.

February 5, 2018: Co-director Ertuğrul Mavioğlu arrived to give a deposition only to hear after hours of waiting that the judge did not have the correct indictment.

January 18, 2018: First hearing in court. Dozens of filmmakers came in solidarity to protest outside the courthouse. Their signs read: “Keep Films Out Of Court!” Actors, journalists and HPD Deputy Garo Paylan endorsed it: “We are here with our friends Çayan and Ertuğrul today because of this unjust judgment against the Constitution and laws, European Human Rights Court and Constitutional Court decisions.”

December 28, 2017: Co-director Çayan Demirel was called to give a deposition in the case, but the board of judges was on leave. The deposition was postponed.

April 2015: Bakur’s Turkey premier at the 34th International Istanbul Film Festival was cancelled, only few hours before its screening, by the festival committee due to intervention from the Turkish Ministry of Culture. This intervention immediately provoked outrage among filmmakers in Turkey and many withdrew their films from the festival in solidarity with Bakur. Nevertheless, during the following months, while the peace talks were still active, the documentary could reach its audience in many cities throughout Turkey.

Free expression in Turkey

The case of Bakur is one more sign of a growing crisis for Turkish arts and culture in recent years. The Turkish government’s sprawling crackdown on its real and suspected opponents is in response to a coup attempt which began in July 2016 and continued throughout 2017. Using emergency powers and vaguely-worded terrorism laws, the authorities had suspended or dismissed more than 110,000 people from public-sector positions and arrested more than 60,000 people by the year’s end. Extensive use of pretrial detention meant that many suspects were held behind bars for long periods without due process.

Turkish officials arrested many human rights activists, journalists, and intellectuals on terrorism charges or for insulting state leaders, with more than 3,000 cases opened on the latter charge during Erdoğan’s presidency. The Turkish-Kurdish artist, journalist, and activist Zehra Doğan was sentenced to nearly three years in prison for creating a painting that portrays the Kurdish town of Nusaybin after its destruction by Turkish security forces. Osman Kavala, perhaps Turkey’s most prominent civil society leader, was detained in October 2017 and eventually charged with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. On June 6, 2017, Taner Kılıç, a human rights lawyer and the Chair of Amnesty International Turkey with 10 other human rights activists, was arrested. Kılıç was released on January 31, 2018, and brought back to jail the next day. His next hearing is scheduled for November 7, 2018.

According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2017 report, since the attempted coup, at least 1,500 civil society organizations have been summarily closed and their property confiscated. The prosecution of journalists and thinkers continues. Arrests based on messages shared via social media are common, leading to widespread self-censorship and a general chilling effect on political discourse.

As the European Court of Human Rights has pointed out, “those who create, exhibit or distribute works of art contribute to the dissemination of ideas and views that are of great importance to a democratic society.” According to the Turkish Constitutional Court, “the public authorities can not impose limits on unpleasant thoughts for a segment of society, do not encourage violence, do not justify acts of terrorism, and do not support the formation of hatred, for instance.”

Learn more here.

In their words

“While making this film, Çayan and I focused entirely on the documenting the peace process. Any propaganda one can find in this film would be a propaganda for peace. Yet whenever we say ‘Peace’ the state tends to hear it as ‘Terror’ and they base their allegations on this perception. For me, this case is illegitimate and against law.”  – Demirel

Watch Bakur: