John Ralston Saul: “It must end”

PEN International has directed its spotlight on the situation in Turkey, which has been afflicted with serious throwbacks in the field of freedom of speech. Reforms aimed at opening up the society have been rolled back and an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship have followed. The background to the problem is the vague and badly misused “Anti-Terror Act,” according to the president of PEN International, John Ralston Saul.

January 8 2013 Text: John Ralston Saul

A number of us, writers and publishers, from PEN International and PEN Centres around the world have just returned from a week long Delegation to Ankara and Istanbul. This was one of the biggest if not the biggest Delegation PEN has ever sent to a country. What we did there was built on the model we began developing in January in Mexico. Each of the elements come out of PEN’s past experiences. What makes this new model original and important is that we have put so many of these pieces together, whether they be literary, political, freedom of expression, lobbying, diplomatic, cooperation with other NGO’s and so on.

This Delegation was successful because we worked closely with our Turkish colleagues and because we were able to catch both the attention of the public, the press and the political world. But of course, this is only one step in a long campaign, which has had its ups and downs over the last few decades.

Key to the success of such a big effort is that the Delegation’s work must be immediately followed by both a continuation of our work and by new sorts of interventions. And so this issue of the Dissident Blog focused on the situation in Turkey is enormously important.

I would like to talk about a few of the things, which I found myself focusing on while we were in Istanbul.

First, freedom of expression is never automatic. It is always about concrete actions. These actions are what make it function. Turkish writers and publishers in general, including the members of PEN Turkey, have been caught up in precisely these sorts of actions for years. PEN International and a number of our Centres have worked constantly to support them.

Over the last few years, we all became a little more optimistic. PEN witnessed a declining number of writers either in prison in Turkey or caught up in endless and personally destructive legal mazes. You cannot blame us for having been encouraged by this trend. We were not alone. This improving situation came with increased democratization, better civilian control over the military, and economic development.

Then, abruptly, more or less two years ago, the arrests began again, the pre-trial detentions, the dragged-out trials, the cases suspended in order to leave writers and publishers in limbo.

Worse still, we began to see the Anti-Terror Law increasingly used with a lack of rigour. This in turn has led to writers and publishers - who in our carefully researched and considered opinions have nothing to do with terrorism - becoming the unwitting victims of myriad legal traps.

In other words, the law is being used to limit freedom of expression.

These sorts of situations are always made more complicated when there are wars going on inside a country. And indeed, one of the standard justifications used by the authorities for the broad use of the current Anti-Terror Law is that this is one of the outcomes of a worse situation. They argue that they find themselves faced by the tragic reality of mothers who have lost their sons and widows who have lost their husbands. But nobody denies the tragedy of war. And indeed, PEN has always opposed violence. We believe that freedom of expression is the social and intellectual tool that best strengthens societies. The maximization of freedom of expression is the best weapon any society has to combat and marginalize terrorism.

In other words, there is no link between the existence of war and its tragedies on the one hand and the existence of a badly defined and inappropriately used Anti-Terror Law on the other hand. These two elements are unrelated. In fact, the best way to discourage terror is to have a precisely targeted and fairly applied legal system. The narrower and more precise an Anti-Terror Law the more likely it is that it will have an effect on terrorists without producing the counter effect of upsetting innocent citizens and limiting freedom of expression. If you want to isolate terrorists, the best way to make them marginal is precisely to separate them from the rest of society. The current Anti-Terror Law and its application do the exact opposite.

Let me put this in practical terms: the actions we propose do not require constitutional reforms or extraordinary efforts. They are neither romantic nor grandiose. What we believe is necessary at this point is a simple and clear reform of the laws, a narrowing of their intent, and the application of these laws with transparent rigour.

In our meeting with the President of the Republic, Abdullah Gül, we made these points and were encouraged by the interest he showed, and the comments he made.

In our meeting with Egemen Bağış, Minister for European Union Affairs, we noted his expressed commitment to more reform, and his expressed desire to see these problems solved.

But the point we are making is both more precise and more urgent. This process of reform cannot be allowed to drag on. The lives of those who are being unjustly accursed are being damaged, effectively destroyed. What we heard from writer after writer and publisher after publisher from a wide variety of political backgrounds was that they were trying to operate in an atmosphere of deep uncertainty, not knowing whether the words they write will produce charges or not. What they did know is that if they were charged in any way, it would mean years of their lives eaten up by the obscure legal system, the probable destruction of their careers and a financial disaster. In other words, this uncertainty leads to fear and fear leads to self-censorship. That is why we say that freedom of expression in Turkey is being limited by self-censorship.

Those members of our PEN Turkey Centre, and many other writers in Turkey, who are in prison or have been charged, deserve a rapid and fair re-examination of their cases. Writers in general need to be treated with transparency and even-handedness. This, we feel, would lead to the release of many.

Finally, let me go back to the Anti-Terror Law, because there is today around the world an obsession with the dangers of terrorism. Terror and terrorist are the words most commonly used today by those in authority to create fear in the population and to justify a misuse of laws and the limitation of citizens’ rights. There are those in government, for example in Turkey, who believe that the Anti-Terror Law, no matter how broad and unfocused, is a necessary tool to deal with violence. This is incorrect. It would be far better to re-conceive the law so that it is clearly and precisely aimed at terrorism, and so cannot be used by any branch of the authorities to sweep up innocent writers or publishers or other citizens. The current ability to misuse the law can be resolved through clear drafting and professional application. If terrorist laws are to exist at all, they must be carefully and tightly written in order to protect the primary rights of all citizens. This is precisely the position that we have taken in country after country around the world where anti-terror laws are badly drafted and misused.

Pretrial detentions, dragged-out trials, individuals who are merely accused being treated as if they are proven terrorists, suspended trials which remain as a sword of Damocles over the heads of writers for years on end - all of this can end. It must end. And we believe that the government of Turkey is able to make these things happen, and to do so rapidly. The people of Turkey believe in freedom of expression. We join with them in asking the government to act.