The Corruption of the Victim: Şafak and Koestler on Censorship

When rights are abused, we are all corrupted

Writing in the New Yorker about Turkey, the novelist Elif Şafak begins thus:

The Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest at the turn of the last century, became, over the course of his life, intimately familiar with the dangers of authoritarianism. It was the corroding effects of such rule on the human soul that preoccupied him as much as the unbridled concentration of power. “If power corrupts,” he wrote, “the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”

This is, I think, an under-explored aspect of human rights… or rather, human rights violations.

When one is in the business of defending human rights and free speech in other parts of the world, it’s easy to slip into a simple dichotomy:  The censorious government is bad and corrupt; the dissidents are noble and good.

In reality, things are far more complicated.  Not all activists, journalists and writers have the courage or even the means to fight back. Those outliers who continue to write what they think—and damn the consequences—are few and far between. This makes it easy for the Government to identify them and pick them off.

Most people aren’t that brave and instead find themselves corrupted in some way: As Şafak explains later in her essay, this might be through direct complicity with the regime; silence (a sort of sin of omission); or else a corruption of their literary output as it flees into metaphor and ambiguity.

My interview with Anjan Sundaram about what he saw happen to journalists in Rwanda is relevant to Elif’s analysis: he saw the full spectrum of reactions to authoritarianism, from cringing complicity to outright defiance.

More generally, the corruption of the person and the state that comes when human rights are denied is a crucial argument against any weakening of rights protections.  As we prepare for a battle against a British Prime Minister intent on destroying our hard-won protections against state power, this is one of the arguments we must marshal: when the rights of some are abused, we are all diminished.

How to say this in a way that persuades?

No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’

Any political party that did not have a mechanism for a sitting leader to be ousted would be pretty much the definition of anti-democratic

The worrying news from Turkey has made me think about the way in which the recent political machinations within the British Labour Party have been described (usually by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn) as a ‘coup’.

I’m sure the people who use that word do not mean to suggest that the 171 Labour MPs who want Mr Corbyn to resign are equivalent to soldiers with guns.  But use of the word does imply that the manoeuvrings are anti-democratic.

But they are not.  They are profoundly democratic. Continue reading “No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’”

Attack on my colleagues at Kurdish PEN

To see an office so clearly labelled ‘PEN’ with its door kicked in is personally chilling, and I feel the intimidatory censorship of my Kurdish colleagues quite acutely.

Ordinarily, I am a couple of degrees removed from the people who are persecuted for standing up for free speech.  But an e-mail that was sent to me over the weekend brought the perils a little close to home.

On 2nd February 2016, the offices of the Kurdish PEN Centre in Sur Amed (Diyarbakir) were attacked.  Photos provided by my colleagues at Kurdish PEN show the door to their office was bashed in, and the abstract statues in the courtyard were decapitated. Continue reading “Attack on my colleagues at Kurdish PEN”

Some good reads on the Turkey protests

At English PEN, we’ve been following the health of free expression in Turkey very closely all year. Here’s a round-up of excellent Turkey analysis from some of the people we have been working with.

At English PEN, we’ve been following the health of free expression in Turkey very closely all year.  Here’s a round-up of excellent Turkey analysis from some of the people we have been working with.

Ece Temelkuran writing in the New Statesman – ‘People have killed their fear of authority – and the protests are growing‘.

It was never just about trees, but the accumulation of many incidents. With the world’s highest number of imprisoned journalists, thousands of political prisoners (trade unionists, politicians, activists, students, lawyers) Turkey has been turned into an open-air prison already. Institutional checks and balances have been removed by the current AKP government’s political manoeuvres and their actions go uncontrolled. On top of this growing authoritarianism, the most important reason for people to hit the streets in support of the Gezi resistance was the arrogant tone of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

English PEN Turkey specialist Alev Yaman expands on this theme of arrogance:

Erdoğan unabashedly wields that most dangerous of rhetorical weapons – the Will of the People – when he speaks, and his casting of the protesters as ‘extremists’, ‘alcoholics’ or ‘opportunistic provocateurs’ gives a clear insight into his psychology. His opponents are marginal, irrelevant and contemptible; while he represents Turkey. And perhaps it’s this dismissive attitude towards the rest that is the biggest factor in the unrest. For many in Turkey, there is a growing sense that their views don’t deserve to be heard or listened to. It is Erdoğan’s contempt for those outside his electoral base that is the biggest cause for concern of all.

Meanwhile, the Free Word Centre’s translator-in-residence Canan Marasligil has written a series of posts on the current crisis: An overview of the protests; some of the issues around translating the protestors statements for foreign consumption; and the role that satircial cartoons have played in the week of protests.

Leman cover

Discussing Free Speech in Turkey in The Guardian

PEN Turkey at the Istanbul Prosecutor's Office
PEN Turkey at the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office

I’m quoted in The Guardian today, discussing censorship in Turkey.

“This and other cases highlight the fact that Turkey has a free expression problem,” said English PEN spokesperson Robert Sharp. “When ill-advised laws are put in place, then those with an ideological agenda will seek to use them to censor words or writing they do not like. This is why we campaign against ‘insult laws’ all over the world – including the UK. Censorship does not begin with the state instantly imprisoning authors and burning books. It begins with individuals using bad laws as weapons against each other.”

I was commenting on the ridiculous news that the board members of PEN Turkey were hauled into the Istanbul Prosecutors Office, to be questioned as to whether they had “insulted Turkishness” by they called Turkey’s censorship laws ‘fascist’.  Thought-crime, essentially.  It is a huge irony that a complaint at ‘fascist developments’ should be met by the sinster act of summoning all the board members for questioning… an irony apparently lost on the authorities.