Turkish Publisher to Receive Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New York, NY, April 4, 2005—Abdullah Keskin, the courageous publisher of Avesta, has been selected as the 2005 recipient of the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award. He is being recognized for his long commitment to Kurdish writings in the face of great political obstacles—and personal peril—over the past decade. The annual award, given for the third year by the International Freedom to Publish Committee (IFTPC) of the Association of American Publishers, will be officially presented at PEN’s annual Gala on April 20, 2005 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Hal Fessenden, chair of the International Freedom to Publish Committee, said “Abdullah has courageously published politically sensitive books on Kurdish issues, books long banned in Turkey, books on current affairs, women’s studies, Mesopotamian culture, and classics of Eastern and Western literature. We’re delighted to recognize Abdullah with this award for his unfaltering commitment to freedom of expression and for publishing such a rich and varied list.”
Abdullah Keskin was born in the Kurdish town of Nusaybin, in eastern Turkey, in 1967. He is the eldest of ten children, and the first person from twenty surrounding villages to go to university. While at Ankara University, he was arrested and charged with reading an illegal publication; he was held for five months before his trial, and then acquitted. In 1992, he became the publisher of a weekly Kurdish newspaper in Istanbul, one of the first to be published in this prohibited language in Turkey.
In 1996, together with his wife Ruken Bagdu Keskin and sister Songul Duraker, Abdullah Keskin founded Avesta, the first company in Turkey to publish books in Kurdish, then still a prohibited language. They began with four books in Kurdish, and have now published more than 200 books in Kurdish, Turkish, and French by writers from around the world and across many genres, including women’s studies, literature, poetry, travel, science, current affairs, minority studies, and history. Avesta’s books have also been translated into more then ten languages, including French, English, German, Bulgarian, Arabic, Farsi, Norwegian, Swedish, Armenian, and Russian. Books prohibited in Turkey for 150 years were brought to light through their efforts.
More than ten of Avesta’s books have been banned by the Turkish State Security Council under Turkey’s Anti-Terrorist Law. These have ranged from doctoral theses by respected scholars to Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal’s “After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness: My Encounters with Kurdistan.” Keskin has been charged with disseminating “separatist propaganda,” and has faced both imprisonment and stiff fines. The books remain banned even though Turkey’s laws have now changed. According to one judge’s statement, Avesta’s fines could not be reduced because the publisher did not show sufficient regret for his actions.
Although the Turkish Parliament has in recent years passed constitutional reforms aimed at enhancing freedom of expression, writing about – and in – Kurdish remains a sensitive and often dangerous activity. In a recent meeting with a delegation of American publishers, Keskin wisely commented that while he was not currently on trial, he was only “storing the coffin” for future use. Throughout his trials, and despite widespread publicity campaigns to discredit Avesta’s work, Abdullah Keskin has never retreated from his commitment to freedom of expression.
“I am pleased this year’s prize is being presented to a Kurdish-language publisher,” said Keskin, reached in Istanbul. “Throughout the Kurds’ modern history, our ability to express ourselves and our culture freely has been repressed. I hope the work of Avesta and the authors we work with can contribute to the widening of freedoms enjoyed by Kurds.”
The International Freedom to Publish Award recognizes a book publisher outside the United States who has demonstrated courage and fortitude in the face of political persecution and restrictions on freedom of expression. The award is named in honor of Jeri Laber, one of the founding members of the IFTPC and the committee’s professional advisor for more than twenty-five years. She was a founder of Helsinki Watch (which ultimately became Human Rights Watch), and was its executive director from 1979 to 1995. Her memoir, The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement, was published in 2002 by Public Affairs Books.
The IFTPC was founded in 1975 by the Association of American Publishers (AAP). It was one of the first groups in the world formed specifically to defend and broaden the freedom of the written word and to protect and promote the rights of book publishers and authors around the world. Among its activities, the committee monitors and publicizes free-expression issues around the world, sends fact-finding missions to countries where free expression is under siege, lobbies both at home and overseas on behalf of persecuted book publishers, and offers moral support and practical assistance to threatened publishers abroad.
The AAP is the national trade association of the U.S. book publishing industry. The AAP’s approximately three hundred members include most of the major commercial book publishers in the United States, as well as smaller and nonprofit publishers, university presses, and scholarly societies. The defense of intellectual freedom at home and freedom of expression worldwide, the protection of intellectual property rights in all media, and the promotion of reading and literacy are among the association’s primary concerns.
PEN American Center and the AAP are partners in ongoing efforts to protect the freedoms to write, publish, and read in the United States and to expand these freedoms internationally. Presented at the PEN Gala in New York, The Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award, the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards and the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award all serve to draw attention to women and men who have fought, often at great personal cost, for these essential freedoms.