“The most powerful thing one can do for a journalist or author in prison is to make their story international. To show solidarity,” said Can Dündar during a panel discussion of Turkish authors at the Frankfurt Book Fair. “It gives imprisoned writers hope to know that their story is out there, although they are in prison.”
Can Dündar, Asli Erdogan, and Burhan Sünmez are three Turkish authors who are or have been working in exile. At the Frankfurt Book Fair they shared their histories, projects and views on the freedom of speech. Mr. Dündar and Mrs. Erdogan have both been in prison in Turkey, partially in solitary confinement.
“I found my own books in the prison library”
“Solidarity is crucial in prison. It is the last tie to life for the 180 authors and journalists who are still in jail,” said Asli Erdogan who was released from prison after four months in January. Authorities didn’t issue her passport until early September. Although she is free now, the process against her continues and the prosecution filed for a lifelong sentence. The irony of a once relatively healthy state that is now falling apart: Mrs. Erdogan found her own books in the prison library during her confinement – the books she was imprisoned for.
Asli Erdogan’s aim is to reach the younger audience with her books. A trained physicist and journalist she writes novels about the atrocities against Kurds in Turkey. “My role as a writer is not to shout at people. But to whisper into their ears,” she explains.
“My magazine website was blocked before anything was published”
Can Dündar, on the contrary, wants to scream and shout: “The government controls the media. We want to give a voice to the voiceless”. He was once the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest secular newspapers. For one year he has been in exile in Berlin. That’s where he started the website and magazine özgürüz which means “we are free”. The website is available in German and English. However, before any articles were published, the website was already blocked in Turkey. “Luckily people in Turkey know how to circumvent censorship,” said Mr. Dündar. For the German national newspaper Die Zeit he writes the column Meine Türkei (my Turkey).
Burhan Sönmez is an author and human rights lawyer. After being injured by the Turkish police in 1996, he received medical treatment in Great Britain and lived there for ten years. He returned to Turkey when he thought the situation had improved just to find out he was wrong. Mr. Sönmez teaches creative writing and is a member of the PEN club for writers in exile in both, Great Britain and Turkey.
Freedom of speech is fragile anywhere in the world
The Turkish authors stressed that in Turkey many people were not aware of the value of the freedom of speech – until it was gone. They warned that we should not take freedom of speech and democracy for granted. Mr. Sönmez warned: “Any country can turn into a dictatorship: T
rump, Moodi… Democracy is not by default but it is something we have to protect and work for.”
The host of the panel discussion, Juergen Boos, Director of the Frankfurt Book Fair saw some hope in the fact that Turkey still has a good funding
for translations of foreign books into Turkish.
The irony of the entire situation: Turkish Airlines is one of the major sponsors of the exclusive Business Club in which the panel took place.
The authors pleaded that isolating Turkey would support president Erdogan. “Turkey doesn’t belong to Erdogan. It belongs to us. Don’t boycott Turkey. Come visit us,” said Sönmez.
More about the book fair: