September 7, 2016

Publisher, librarian, writer, and bookseller organizations urge Obama: tell Erdoğan to leave Turkish media alone


Obama and Erdoğan.

Obama and Erdoğan.

The Turkish government shows no sign of relenting in the media crackdown it initiated this summer after an attempted coup failed to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but American publishers, librarians, writers, and booksellers are making their voices heard on the matter. Erdoğan’s government—no friend to media freedom before the uprising—responded to the coup attempt by arresting more than 18,000 people, and shutting down twenty-nine publishing houses, three news agencies, sixteen TV stations, twenty-three radio stations, thirty-six local newspapers, nine national newspapers, and fifteen magazines. In the weeks that followed, international publishers expressed deep concern over the situation in Turkey, and at least one arrestee, novelist Aslı Erdoğan (no relation), said she is being treated with a brutality that will do her “permanent [bodily] damage.”

Late last week, a group acting on behalf of US-based publishers, librarians, booksellers, and writers wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama urging him to take up the issue with his Turkish counterpart when the two spoke this past weekend at the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China.

The letter, after a full accounting of the media outlets that have been shuttered since the coup, notes:

The crackdown has hit book publishers hard.  Twenty-nine publishing houses have been closed under a “State of Emergency Decree” that requires them to surrender to the government “all goods, assets, rights, documents and papers.”  There is no appeal from the order.

The wholesale suppression of media outlets is having a devastating effect on public debate in Turkey, already weakened by government attacks on the media. The State of Emergency Decree makes it impossible for the closed publishing houses to request compensation for the debts they have incurred in the course of business, a situation that threatens the economic viability of the entire Turkish publishing community, further weakening the diversity of voices within Turkish society and deepening the chill on the expression of opinion in Turkey.

The United States opposed the July 15 coup attempt as a threat to a democratically elected government.  We cannot allow the Turkish government to use that threat as a  pretext for suppressing free speech and depriving Turkish citizens of other essential civil liberties.

Signatories to the letter were Oren J. Teicher (CEO of the American Booksellers Association), Suzanne Nossel (Executive Director of PEN America), Tom Allen (President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers), James LaRue (Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom), and Mary Rasenberger (Executive Director of the Authors Guild).

Now that the meeting between Obama and Erdoğan has taken place, it is unclear whether Obama raised any of the concerns addressed in the letter. In reference to the attempted coup, Obama did express the US’s commitment to “investigating and bringing the perpetrators of these illegal actions to justice,” adding that Erdoğan began his political career as a reformer, and should remember “the values that [he] came in with.” The New York Times’ Mark Landler characterized Obama’s remarks as an attempt to “smooth things over” with Turkey, adding that Erdoğan “said it was important for the United States and Turkey to fight against all terrorist groups, not just the Islamic State. He mentioned the acronyms of two Syrian Kurdish groups.” The omission of the acronyms is peculiar, but it seems safe to assume that one of the two groups in question is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a well-known target of suppression and violence by the Turkish government.

We reached out to the letter’s signatories. James LaRue commented:

I was eager to join my name to the AAP’s letter. While I have not heard any news of a response at this time, I understand that it is believed to have been brought to president Obama’s attention.

The news of President Erdoğan’s crackdown on publishing and journalism is troubling to many of us. We also have grave concerns for the health of Aslı Erdoğan. It is my fervent hope that Turkey will turn again toward the light, toward a celebration of literature and civic engagement, and quickly bring to an end this dark chapter in its history.

At the American Booksellers Association, Oren Teicher put us in touch with Chris Finan, director of American Booksellers for Free Expression, who commented:

When we learned that the president was meeting with Erdoğan at the G20 summit, we saw an opportunity to raise our concerns with him.  Of course, we knew it was a long shot that he would do what we asked. Our relations with Turkey have been strained for some time, and they deteriorated further after the failed coup, which many Turks believe was inspired by the US.

We also undertook a social media campaign to support our efforts. Unfortunately, most of it occurred over the holiday weekend. We are currently assessing its effectiveness.

Of course, no single letter is going to change much, but we will continue to work with our partners in the book community in the United States and Europe in an effort to end the suppression of free speech in Turkey.

At the Association of American Publishers, we were able to speak with Vice President Tina Jordan, who clarified what is known about the fate of the letter:

AAP President and CEO Tom Allen contacted the National Security Council on Friday directly to alert them of the letter on behalf of the associations represented.

Ambassador Susan Rice and her office have confirmed receiving the letter of concern. The acknowledgment assured us it was indeed on the NSC radar.

We will continue to beat the freedom of expression drum on behalf of US publishers and in concert with our domestic and international partners.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.