John Ralston Saul's November monthly letter to the PEN membership


John Ralston Saul’s November letter to the PEN membership

Dear PEN Members, Dear Friends,

Some 20 of us are just back from Turkey. It was a long and complex mission in difficult circumstances – difficult because the freedom of expression situation in Turkey has been in decline for almost two years. But I do feel that we have helped to create a new atmosphere in the public debate around freedom of expression.

A dozen of us went first to Ankara for governmental and diplomatic meetings. We then joined the others in Istanbul.

Our position in both cities was carefully laid out in our formal statement. The core of our argument is that approximately 70 writers, publishers and journalists are in jail; approximately 70 more are caught in a legal quagmire. A good 70% of these are either Kurdish or have written on the Kurdish situation. This decline in free speech rights has been made possible by several things. First, a badly written Anti-Terror law, so broad that it can be used by almost anyone anywhere in the governmental system for almost anything. And is. Beyond that law we see unconscionable pre-trial detentions; unconscionable drawn out trials; irresponsible delays of several years in trials. And so on. Under properly written and fairly enforced laws most of these charges would be dropped, most of these individuals freed.

We repeated these messages on every occasion.

At the beginning of the trip we were received by the President of Turkey, Abdullah Gül. It was a formal and long meeting, during which we were able to put forward all of our concerns. He in his comments created an interesting public dimension by agreeing that the situation was casting a shadow over Turkey’s reputation and expressing the hope that the cases, which he said he was following, would be resolved quickly.

This can and must be seen as a signal from the head of state that action is needed. And that context meant that we were able to bring PEN’s arguments to a large national audience. Our Delegation was, of course, in part as a gesture of solidarity with writers and publishers in Turkey. But our recommendations are also clear, realistic and can be put into effect. And they are now on the table. We need to persist in working for their adoption.

One other important point. Public officials keep repeating that because there is a war situation inside Turkey, therefore the anti-terror law is necessary. We keep repeating the obvious. You may or may not need an anti-terror law. But you definitely do not need a badly conceived, broad and sloppy law. Make it narrow and exact and apply it fairly; them most writers, publishers and journalists will be freed.

Besides, free expression is the best weapon against terrorism. Free expression is not some sort of reward for having defeated terrorism. Free expression creates the public self-confidence that marginalizes violence.

– – –

In Ankara, the British Embassy, the Canadian Embassy, and the Norwegian Embassy, each organized important gatherings around our Delegation. We also met with the senior Minister to the EU, Egemen Bağış; with other NGO’s; and with members of Parliament. Our press conference in Istanbul was heavily attended. In fact, the remarkable level of reporting on the Delegation’s work is one of the signs that we were able to get our message through.

One of the key moments during the week was a large event in Istanbul. The Delegation and many writers from Istanbul spoke briefly. As in Mexico City’s PEN Protesta event, each had two hundred words. Some 50 spoke. Many of them on trial or out of prison. It came shortly after our press conference and took up most of the afternoon – a great gesture of solidarity that I found incredibly moving. We all did.

I should say that the other issue we continually raised was that of language rights. We made much use of The Girona Manifesto, which is already in Turkish. It was not yet in Kurdish but now is. I am sure that it will be a valuable tool for language discussions in Turkey in the future.

A number of us were able to go to the Oda TV trial in the large new Istanbul court house. There is something deeply disturbing about this gigantic commercial-style, anonymous, almost shopping centre architecture in which justice is so often not done. Given our new Digital Declaration, I was struck by a day of testimony entirely based on what was or was not done to internet material; whether authorities manipulating emails was the new way to frame people. In an example of the problematic nature of Turkish Justice, two writers, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, were somehow dragged into this case.

The Delegation finished its work at the Istanbul Book Fair. We held two back to back discussions and during the opening ceremony on Saturday the 17th of November, the President of the Fair, the President of the Publishers Association and myself, one after the other, reiterated what needs to be done to support free expression and convince people that the legal system is fair. It was a dramatic moment, particularly as a senior government minister also spoke.

Almost every commentator noticed the size of our Delegation and said that this showed how seriously we took the situation. I am attaching the Delegation list along with our statement,and my own statement at the end of the trip.

Thanks to Tarik Günersel, President of Turkish PEN and his colleagues for their invitation and the quality of their welcome; to Eugene Schoulgin, our Vice-President and resident of Istanbul; to Sara Whyatt, our Deputy Director who has given so many years to the situation in Turkey; and to the whole Delegation and support group, who worked so hard.

Best wishes to you all,

John Ralston Saul