Cablegate: Pushing Back On Censorship: "Ararat" and Freedom

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (U) Summary: Istanbul contacts claim the overall climate
for free expression continues to improve. While the GOT
continues to censor works dealing with the Kurdish issue and
other sensitive topics, improvements in legislation have
strengthened the underlying legal basis for freedom of
expression. The film "Ararat," which runs headfirst into one
of the most sensitive political issues in Turkey, the tragic
massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the early
twentieth century, is not expected to face obstacles to its
release in Turkey. These Istanbul contacts ascribe most
problems with censorship not to specific government policies,
but to narrow-minded bureaucrats who are stubbornly resistant
to change. End Summary.

Freedom of Thought Movement
2. (U) Author and free speech activist Sanar Yurdatapan
described the work of his Freedom of Thought movement, which
began in 1995 as a signature campaign in support of renowned
author Yasar Kemal, who was under investigation for a letter
he had published in a national daily. Using a Turkish law
that held writers and publishers equally responsible for
their publications, Yurdatapan and over 1000 supporters
"re-published" Kemal's letter, thereby forcing the
prosecutors to open cases against all of them. The cases
dragged on for years, eventually resulting in dismissals for
the defendants. In the meantime, the movement replicated
these tactics and began to publish regular compilations of
writings and transcripts that had been subject to
investigations and trials, using prominent names as
"publishers" to publicize the cases and shame the system into
acquitting the defendants. The movement continues to publish
one or more pamphlets each year and supports the original
defendants in their legal battles in the courts.

Film Review and Rating Commission
3. (U) Film directors, producers, and distributors generally
fare somewhat better than their prose counterparts. Unlike
publishers, however, film producers and distributors must
submit films to the Review and Rating Commissions (RRC) for
an age-based suitability rating and prior approval before
they can distribute them to theaters. Legislative reforms in
1991 established a Lower RRC with 3 members (2 appointed by
the industry, one by the state) and a Higher RRC with 7
members (4 appointed by the industry, 2 by the state, and one
by the National Security Council). Only particularly
controversial and sensitive cases are submitted to the Higher
RRC. According to Bedahattin Cetin, President of Belge Film
(a film distribution company specializing in foreign and
artistic films) and Vice President of the National Film
Platform (an industry coalition), only one film has been
denied marketing approval since the RRCs were established.
That film, "Big Man, Small Love," was subsequently granted
approval by the courts (and won national accolades), although
the director herself is still the subject of an ongoing court

"Ararat": No Problems Expected
4. (U) Cetin currently owns the distribution rights for
"Ararat," the film written and directed by Atom Egoyan about
the mass killing of Armenians that took place in 1915 in the
waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Cetin told poloff that he
expects a very limited demand for the film, perhaps no more
than three screens. Although there were local press reports
last year when the film first came to public attention that
the then-National Security Council described it as the
greatest threat to Turkey since "Midnight Express," Cetin
assured poloff that he has not experienced, nor does he
anticipate, any problems or obstacles in bringing the film to
Turkey. "In fact, a government minister personally
congratulated me on taking the initiative," Cetin said.
Cetin did note that he planned to edit a particularly violent
and shocking rape scene, but not for political reasons (Cetin
claims that, upon hearing his concerns, the film's director
admitted that the same scene had been edited for U.S.
distribution). Cetin's primary concerns are about the
timing of the film's release in relation to a possible war in

Narrow-Minded Bureaucrats
5. (U) Both Yurdatapan and Cetin told poloff that the primary
obstacles to freedom of expression are narrow-minded
bureaucrats who are generally inclined to ignore legislative
changes that protect the rights of writers, journalists, and
film makers. Asked whether there might be a link between the
level and type of harassment and which political parties are
in government, both said they had not detected any such
pattern. According to Yurdatapan, many, if not most, of the
cases filed against writers and journalists are eventually
dismissed in the courts. The cases and trials themselves,
however, continue to be used as a form of harassment. As for
films, despite having prior approval from the RRCs, Cetin
admitted that local governors still have the authority to
pull films from the theaters and send them to court if they
believe they are subversive. The American film "Basic
Instinct" and the Iranian-Kurdish film "A Time for Drunken
Horses," for example, were pulled from theaters in separate
provinces on the order of local governors (the former for its
explicit sexuality, the latter for its portrayal of the
Kurds). The courts overturned the bans in both cases and the
increased publicity that resulted led to long and successful
runs in the theaters.

6. (U) If the opening of "Ararat" goes as smoothly as Cetin
predicts, it would indeed be a positive sign. However, to
date, it remains unclear whether recent reforms will lead to
a broad loosening of state censorship. The Publishers'
Association of Turkey reports that, in 2002, the GOT opened
cases against 67 books and leveled charges against 35
publishers and 48 writers; in 2001, the GOT took such action
against 42 books, 23 publishers and 38 writers. The GOT
continues to level charges of separatism against writers and
publishers of works dealing with the Kurdish issue or using
the word "Kurdistan."

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