(New York, NY) — In the five years since a coup attempt in Turkey, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has orchestrated a repressive, society-wide crackdown that has dramatically limited free expression in the country. In a new analysis from PEN America, Cracking Down on Creative Voices: Turkey’s Silencing of Writers, Intellectuals, and Artists Five Years After the Failed Coup, the literary and free speech organization outlines the legal mechanisms that the Turkish government has used to muzzle writers, activists, artists, academics, and creative professionals, casting a chill over free speech across the country. These trends have turned Turkey into the third-worst jailer of writers globally, and have forced countless writers into silence or exile.

“In the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup, Erdogan’s government put into motion a series of legal, constitutional, and political changes that have deeply impacted the space for freedom of expression, debate, and cultural work within the country,” said James Tager, PEN America’s director of research. “Compliant judges and prosecutors are throwing publishers and activists into prison. Journalists and writers are being exonerated only to find themselves facing new charges that could lead to years or decades behind bars. Authors and artists are fleeing the country in order to escape the constant fear of retaliation for their work or their words. Turkey’s rich tapestry of artistic and literary expression is fading, the space for freedom rapidly shrinking.”

In over a dozen interviews with members of Turkey’s literary, artistic, and human rights communities, PEN America found that the whole-country crackdown has placed strictures on the country’s cultural life. Since the 2016 coup attempt, 29 publishing houses have been closed, and over 135,000 books have been banned from Turkish public libraries

In addition to wide-scale censorship and the shuttering of news outlets critical of the state, the Turkish government has continued to round up and prosecute writers and cultural figures it deems a threat. In 2020, as documented in PEN America’s annual Freedom to Write Index, the country held some 25 writers and public intellectuals behind bars. While countless more have fled, those who have stayed do so in the face of increasing pressure to either self-censor or risk facing legal consequences or other restrictions, including protracted trials and travel bans.

Exiled Turkish writer Aslı Erdoğan told PEN America that the government’s targeting of creatives was part of a “systematic approach towards cutting the vocal cords of society. How do you cut the vocal cords? You start with journalists, because they know the sins of the system. And then comes the turn of the columnists, the writers, artists, professionals, academics. It is actually quite a well-planned act, silencing an entire society. And it has worked so far.”

Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism has constructed a climate of fear for creatives and intellectuals who worry that their work or opinions will trigger retaliation from the government or those aligned with it. Writers and activists told PEN America that they fear the arbitrariness or unpredictability of what the government will react to, creating a culture of widespread fear.

The PEN America report outlines six areas of Turkish law that have increasingly been used to silence or chill the expression of writers, artists, and public intellectuals, including laws that criminalize:

  • Attacking someone’s “honour, dignity, or prestige,” a criminal defamation provision that allows for up to two years imprisonment;
  • “Publicly degrading religious values,” which can carry a year in prison, or “provoking hatred,” which can garner up to three years of jail time, frequently used against LGBTQ+ people, non-Muslims, writers, and artists who express views deemed anti-religious;
  • “Insulting the president” including in private comments, an act that can carry a four year sentence; 
  • Acts or expression that “publicly degrades” state entities, a provision used in several high-profile cases against writers and that is flatly inconsistent with human rights law;
  • Attempts to violently overthrow “the constitutional order,” a charge used against cultural workers and writers including philanthropist Osman Kavala, academic and author Mehmet Altan, and journalist and author Ahmet Altan;
  • Expression that the government deems “terrorist propaganda” under its 1991 anti-terror law, wielded against artist Zehra Doğan, the musical group Grup Yorum, and other creatives and intellectuals.

“Many of these legal instruments predate the coup attempt, but we found that their use to target and criminalize the work of activists and writers has increased dramatically these past five years,” said PEN America’s Tager. “And the crackdown isn’t just impacting writers but the broader community of intellectuals and artists as well.”

“Just as is the case with every dictator, Erdoğan’s hatred of artists and intellectuals is strong, since they create the peoples’ memory, build its archives, come from the people and stand in their ranks and—by using art and literature as means of expression—can reach every layer of the people,” artist Zehra Doğan told PEN America.

Among the paper’s recommendations: PEN America urges the U.S. and the European Union (EU) to coordinate their responses to ongoing human rights violations in Turkey; advises the Council of Europe to trigger infringement proceedings against Turkey for failing to uphold its rulings concerning the cases of Osman Kavala and author and politician Selahattin Demirtaş; demands the U.S. and EU increase public diplomacy to pressure Turkey to release writers, journalists, creative professionals, and dissidents; and advises the U.S. and the EU to utilize authorities under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, respectively, to sanction Turkish officials responsible for serious human rights abuses.