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Are Turkey’s literature watchdogs unqualified?

ISTANBUL: A 10-member board headed by an agricultural economist and including a doctor, an imam and a psychologist is the only legal body in Turkey authorized to send a piece of literature to court for obscenity.

The Board to Protect Minors from Harmful Publications is assigned to read books at the request of prosecutors and follow periodicals in Turkey to evaluate them for possible obscenity.

Recent victims whose novels the board deemed obscene and without any literary merit include Chuck Palahniuk, author of “Fight Club,” and the Beat Generation’s leading figure William Burroughs.

The trial of Burroughs’ “Soft Machine,” the first novel of his Nova trilogy, is pending, while the probe into Palahniuk’s “Snuff” goes on.

Last month the board, which comes under the prime minister’s office, forced “Harakiri,” a new comic, to be withdrawn after a fine for obscenity.

Media reports quoted the board as saying that the comic “encourages relations out-of-wedlock” and, paradoxically, both “laziness and adventurousness.”

“A comic encourages only one thing, reading. Nothing else,” said illustrator M.K. Perker, the Turkish-born founder of the magazine now based in New York, whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

The board can also order an “obscene” periodical to be sold in a black nylon bag as a precaution.

“You know, pornographic magazines are put in these bags. But this is a comic. Each work in this magazine is a piece of art,” Perker said when asked what he would feel if “Harakiri” went into the black bag. “It makes me feel like living in the Twilight Zone.”

“These are attempts to dissuade publishers,” said Irfan Sanci, the publisher of Burroughs’ “Soft Machine.” “This is an attack on our freedom of expression.”

A prosecutor has indicted Burroughs’ novel for obscenity, claiming that its “pornographic content” conflicted with the moral values of Turkish society in a finding based on the board’s report.

The board concluded that the novel “has no literary value … due to lack of integrity in its content” and “has no utility for readers’ intellectual world.”

“The board is not qualified to decide about literature,” said Sanci, the winner of the 2010 Freedom Prize of the International Publishers’ Association. “It is a board including representatives from different public institutions.”

Metin Celal Zeynioglu, the head of Turkey’s Publishers’ Union, agreed with Sanci, saying the board members “are not familiar with the world’s most important authors.”

“Of course there can be publications that might affect children adversely,” he said. “The board should follow this but … there is no pedagogue or child literature author on the board. I have never seen this board delivering one single opinion in a case related to children.”

The board was founded by law in 1927. Most of its members are from various ministries including health, justice, culture and education, alongside an imam from the Religious Affairs Directorate, an academic and a journalist.

The head of the board, Ruhi Ozbilgic, an expert on agricultural economy, refused to comment about the issue.

Sanci does not believe that the actions of the board can be explained by the rule of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), a liberal offshoot of a banned Islamist movement, in power since 2002.

“This board was founded in 1927. This is about the founding philosophy of the Republic, it is the result of social engineering,” said Sanci, who has had 10 books prosecuted during his 20 years in the publishing business.

“I was prosecuted for a novel by the French author Jeanne Cordelier before the AKP rule,” he said. Cordelier’s account of a prostitute, “La Derobade” (“The Life”), was found obscene in the 1990s and sold in a black nylon bag until it was acquitted.

For Zeynioglu, the publications targeted depend on “the spirit of the political atmosphere.”

“In the past,” he said, “people were prosecuted for making religious propaganda. Later cases were opened for insulting religious values.

“The prime minister appoints the board members … their perspective is in harmony with the government.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 06, 2011, on page 16.

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