Zehra Doğan, a Turkish journalist, artist, and activist, was sentenced on March 24, 2017 to two years and ten months in prison for creating a painting of a Turkish city heavily damaged by state security forces. Despite arguing that she made the painting as part of her work as a registered journalist, Doğan was charged with having connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is fighting an insurgency against the Turkish government. PEN America condemns Zehra Doğan’s arrest and prison sentence as an unacceptable infringement on the right to free expression. On February 24, 2019, Dogan was released after spending 600 days in prison.
Prior to her imprisonment, Doğan worked as a journalist in Turkey. She served as the founding editor of Jinha, a feminist Kurdish news agency staffed entirely by women that publishes articles in English, Turkish, and Kurdish. In 2015, she won the annual Metin Göktepe Journalism Award for her series of articles about Yazidi women escaping from ISIS captivity.
Doğan was living in Nusaybin, a city close to the Syrian border and populated largely by Kurds, when she created the painting that ultimately resulted in her arrest. The city was bombarded in 2016 during a period of intense fighting between the Turkish military and the PKK. Doğan’s painting was based on an image circulated on social media by the Turkish military itself in the aftermath of operations in Nusaybin. The image and Doğan’s painting both depicts the damage inflicted upon Nusaybin.
On July 21, 2016, Zehra was arrested in a cafe in Nusaybi. Her artistic work of protest was deemed by the Turkish state to be an act of terrorism. During her trial in February 2017, Doğan argued that in producing a painting of a real-life event based upon a photo taken and disseminated by the Turkish military, she was carrying out her work as a journalist. Nonetheless, she was sentenced to two years, nine months, and twenty-two days in prison by the Second High Criminal Court of Mardin province.
Since her imprisonment, Zehra has refused to bend to the state’s will or cease her work as a journalist. In prison she founded the newspaper Özgür Gündem Zindan (Free Agenda Dungeon) with the help of several of her fellow inmates. However, prison authorities are not allowing her use of painting materials and have said that the prison guidelines regarding this are non-negotiable. They have also refused any statements or letters that aren’t penned in Turkish. A number of organizations are heading a campaign calling for her release and demanding that she be allowed to practice her art while imprisoned.
February 24, 2019: Zehra Doğan is released uniting with her family and friends after spending 600 days in prison.
July 18th, 2018: In a thank-you letter to Banksy, Zehra called his mural protesting her arrest “the best reply to the crooked regime that can’t even tolerate a painting.” She added that “with your support, my painting now accomplished its mission of showing the atrocities.”
March 16th, 2018: World-famous graffiti artist Banksy, together with fellow graffiti artist Borf, painted a mural in New York City in support of Zehra.
November 15, 2017: In celebration of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Ai Weiwei writes a letter to Doğan.
June 12, 2017: Doğan was taken into custody while she was on her way to visit her family. Doğan is held in Diyarbakır Prison.
March 24, 2017: The Second High Criminal Court of Mardin province charged Doğan with having connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and sentenced her to 2 years, 9 months and 22 days in prison for spreading “terrorist propaganda.”
December 9, 2016: Doğan is released from Mardin Women’s Prison, pending trial.
October 29, 2016: Jinha is one of over 180 media outlets closed in Turkey under Statutory Decree No. 675.
July 21, 2016: Zehra Doğan is arrested in a cafe in Nusaybi.
IN THEIR WORDS
“I was given two years and 10 months [jail time] only because I painted Turkish flags on destroyed buildings. However, they [Turkish government] caused this. I only painted it.”
To learn more about Zehra and her case, click here.
FREE EXPRESSION IN TURKEY
Doğan’s arrest and imprisonment take place against a backdrop of ongoing suppression of the media in Turkey, particularly in the aftermath of the attempted coup of July 15, 2016. Using emergency powers and vaguely-worded terrorism laws, the authorities 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. Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, directors of the documentary Bakur, are accused of producing “propaganda for an illegal group” and could face up to five years in prison. 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.