TURKEY: Publishers on trial


RAN 54/11 10 October 2011

Two books by American authors are currently on trial in Turkey on obscenity charges which, if the law is applied strictly, could lead to imprisonment for their publishers and translators. PEN International, the global writers association, is concerned by the growing number of cases being brought against that publishers and translators who are threatened with gaol for publishing books which have been published freely elsewhere.

The publisher and translator of the Turkish translation of William Burroughs’, The Soft Machine, will come before the court for the latest hearing of the case on Tuesday 11 October, fifty years after it was first published in English in 1961. Burroughs’ book is seen as a classic of the Beat Generation, clearly influenced by the author’s own drug use and addiction, which he describes in graphic detail in the book, alongside the central story of a time traveller battling with Mayan priests who use mind control over slaves. It is notable for the use of “cut up and fold technique” where two other books were cut up and rearranged to create new, non-linear text.

The case against the Turkish edition, 2,500 copies of which were published by the Sel Publishing House in 2010, was brought following an investigation by the Board for Protection of Minors from Obscene Publications. The Board pronounced the book as “not compatible with the morals of society and the people’s honour”, “injurious to sexuality” and “generally repugnant”. A number of academics from various Turkish university literature departments have been asked for their view on whether the book can be considered pornography or literature, and their opinions will form part of the hearing.

The book is published by the Sel Publishing House, whose owner, Irfan Sanci has been tried on similar charges in the past, notably last year when he was acquitted for his publication of the Turkish translation of Apollinaire’s The Adventures of a Young Don Juan. He was awarded the 2010 International Publisher’s Association Freedom Prize. Charged with obscenity under Article 266 of the Turkish Penal Code Sanci, and The Soft Machine’s translator, Suha Sertabiboglu, face between six months and three years in prison. PEN Norway’s President, Anders Heger, will be observing the trial on behalf of the International Publisher’s Association Freedom to Publish Committee.

In September 2011, another publisher and translator were told that they will be brought to trial, also on charges of obscenity under Article 266 , this time for the Turkish translation of a contemporary work, Snuff, by American writer Chuck Palahniuk. The book had been brought before the Board for the Protection of Children from Obscene Publications in May 2011 which judged that there were grounds for indictment. The publisher was also accused of releasing the book, without warning and with no precautions to ensure that children did not read it. Like Sanci and Sertabiboglu, if found guilty, the owner of the Ayrinti Publishing House, Hasan Basri Çiplak and the book’s translator, Funda Uncu, could be imprisoned for between six months to three years. PEN Turkey has protested the decision to press charges against the publishers of the book, and nominated Snuff as the Centre’s Book of the Month in reaction to the accusation.

The book, published in 2008 to mixed reviews, is a satire on the American pornography industry. The Board has deemed the book as immoral. In her defence, translator Uncu pointed out that Pahlaniuk is a world-renowned author and argued that rather than being pornography, the book is a critique of the “commoditisation of women”. She told of how, when the book was first seized in May 2011, police officers had come to where she was staying in Bodrum, southern Turkey, and had been threatened that if she did not agree to come to the police station she would be taken by force. During her interrogation she was asked whether she was ashamed of her work, and whether she saw herself as a model for the central character in the book, an actor in pornographic films. The trial date is yet to be set.

The publishers of these books are optimistic that they will not be convicted, and imprisonment is unlikely. Past patterns support the view that it is unlikely that these trials will end with imprisonment. However, typically, these cases take months, sometimes years to traverse through the courts and there is concern that books freely available to readers in other countries, are being denied in Turkey. It is interesting to note that while the Board for Protection of Minors from Obscene Publications, that works under the remit of the Prime Minister’s office, has been in existence since 1927, it has in effect been dormant until the past two years when there has been a notable rise in obscenity charges being brought against publishers. This raises concerns that there will be an increase in cases taken against books that have previously been published without problem.