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Turkey’s crackdown on freedom of expression intensifies

Two leading Turkish artists arrested during peace march, but released days later

Turkish authorities have stepped up their crackdown on freedom of expression in 2016. The arrest and detention of two leading Turkish artists over the New Year is the latest in a long line of clampdowns and censorship in the country.

Atalay Yeni and Pınar Ogrenci were among 24 people arrested during a peace march in the predominantly Kurdish district of Diyarbakır in southeastern Turkey on 31 December. The group was accused of throwing handmade explosives at police. But after examining the evidence, a Turkish judge released all detainees on 3 January, according to Hyperallergic. Ogrenci’s work is currently on display at Rome’s MAXXI museum in a group show about political conflicts in Turkey since the Gezi Park protests in 2013.

But some say the government has not clamped down on visual artists in the same way it has journalists or other cultural figures. “Yeni and Ogrenci were taken into police custody during a peace march; it's important to note that it wasn't to do with them being artists per se,” says November Paynter, the associate director of research and programmes at SALT contemporary art space in Istanbul, which is also currently showing works by Ogrenci.

“The crackdown has been very obvious in the media. In terms of culture, it's more that there is a growing atmosphere of control,” she says, noting that the catalogue accompanying Sarkis’s installation for the Turkish national pavilion at the Venice Biennale was censored to avoid any mention of the artist's Armenian heritage.

The Turkish artist and photographer Ali Taptik says “dissidents” are feeling increasing pressure, but that no “direct action” is being taken against artists. “The ones in trouble are journalists, writers and academicians,” he says. “Because contemporary art in Turkey doesn't get much support from the state there isn't really any relationship. Artists here are very experienced in producing new spaces for free interaction and discussion.”

The European Commission published a damning report about Turkey’s track record on freedom of expression in November, the same month the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned to power in a surprise election victory. “After several years of progress on freedom of expression, serious backsliding was seen over the past two years,” the report says. “Ongoing and new criminal cases against journalists, writers or social media users, as well as the authorities' actions curtailing freedom of media are of considerable concern.”

Musicians, actors, writers and film-makers, among others, all suffered in 2015. In January an investigation was launched against the folk musician, Kutsal Evcimen, for insulting Erdogan in a song; while in May, the Izmir State Opera and Ballet cancelled a performance at the last minute, sparking fears of censorship. In August, Azize Tan, the director of the Istanbul International Film Festival, stepped down following protests over censorship. In September, the actor Levent Uzümcü was sacked from the Istanbul City Theatre over statements he made criticising the government.