NEW YORK—The prison sentences imposed this month on award-winning Turkish documentary filmmakers Ertuğrul Mavioğlu and Çayan Demirel represent a “serious blow” to artistic freedom, and one more effort to silence those who fail to promote views held by President Erdoğan, PEN America said in a statement today.

The two were sentenced to four years and six months in prison on July 18 for their documentary Bakur, which follows the lives of PKK guerilla fighters in Kurdistan during the failed 2013-2014 peace talks.

“Criminalizing Ertuğrul Mavioğlu and Çayan Demirel’s work is a serious blow for artistic freedom of expression in Turkey.  Artists must have the freedom to explore any subject matter, regardless of its political implications,” said Julie Trebault, Director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) of PEN America. “This decision is yet another example of President Erdoğan’s incessant efforts to weaken freedom of speech in Turkey and silence anyone who does not promote his version of the truth. We call for an immediate reversal of this decision, which violates basic human rights and is inconsistent with the commitments Turkey has made to protect free expression in its constitution and in international agreements.”

Bakur, which translates to “North” in English, follows the daily lives of guerrilla fighters in the mountains of northern Kurdistan. Filmed during the peace process in 2013–2014, the film marked the first time that a professional film crew had accessed the camps in more than 40 years of armed conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK.

Although filming was done during peace talks, the filmmakers were charged with “making propaganda for a [terrorist] organization” under Article 7/2 of Law no. 3713 on Counter-Terrorism. The filmmakers were given a higher sentence than expected because the court “was not convinced that the defendants would not repeat the same crime.” As reported by supporters present in court, the statement made by the judge left unclear whether their crime was shooting a documentary or ’disseminating propaganda.’ The defendant’s lawyers were not allowed to make any final statements, nor did the verdict consider the health implications for Çayan Demirel, who needs round the clock care due to a stroke. A press conference held by the filmmakers and their supporters on July 20 had to be moved at the last minute due to police pressure on the venue. Although the filmmakers remain free pending appeal, they have been banned from foreign travel. 

Persecution of the directors began in May 2015 when the film’s premiere at the 34th Istanbul Film Festival was cancelled at the last minute by the Ministry of Culture. In protest, many directors withdrew their own submissions and organized protests in Istanbul and beyond. A lawsuit was filed against the filmmakers in 2017. Since then, Mavioğlu and Demirel were forced to make numerous court appearances in a court distant from Istanbul, where both are based. The court appearances were set despite Demirel’s poor health.

PEN America, along with more than 50 human rights and arts organizations, issued an open letter to the Turkish Minister of Justice and Minister of Culture and have been advocating on behalf of the filmmakers. The case against Bakur marks one of the first times in Turkey’s recent history that a severe penalty has been imposed on filmmakers for their work, endangering the future of cinema and documentary film in Turkey. Artistic freedom and broader freedom of expression in Turkey have deteriorated at an alarming rate since the alleged coup attempt and the implementation of the State of Emergency in 2016. With the purging of academics and teachers, dozens of journalists, writers, and activists have been arrested, and more than 180 news outlets have been shut down by presidential decree. 

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

 Contact: PEN America media consultant Suzanne Trimel, [email protected]