[OPINION] Erdoğan’s war on books and publishing houses

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Photo by Brandi Redd (Unsplash)
Abdullah Bozkurt

Abdullah Bozkurt

The untold part of the story about the unprecedented attack on freedom of the press in Turkey is the toll the crackdown, launched by the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has taken on the publishing industry. Very little has been written about the authors, publishers and copy editors whose voices were silenced when the government seized and shut down publishing houses and distribution companies on false pretenses.

This practice stands in sharp contrast to publishing houses and bookstores that sell jihadist books in promoting the narratives and ideologies al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) without much hindrance. In fact the Erdoğan government specifically targeted publishing houses that offer a perfect panacea to the poisonous narrative of these violent jihadist groups and undermined the intellectual and analytical work that would help build a much-needed counter-narrative in this predominantly Sunni nation of 81 million. The seizure and later shuttering of Kaynak Holding, the owner of Turkey’s largest publisher which also prints and distributed mainstream Islamic books that strongly rejected violence, is a perfect example that explains the motivation on the part of the Erdoğan government.

Kaynak Holding, seized by the government on Nov.18, 2015 and shut down altogether in July 2016, included a publishing giant named Işık Yayıncılık, which owned eight publishing houses under its group, namely Işık Yayınları, Define Yayınları, Nil Yayınları, Şahdamar Yayınları, Yitik Hazine Yayınları, Kaynak Yayınları, Muştu Yayınları and Kuşak Yayınları. The publisher had 2,972 books for sale in the marketplace at the time and had contracts with 714 authors. The theme of the books ranged from works of literature such as novels, poetry and biographies to travel books and books catering to the younger generation. Işık was also printing and distributing non-Turkish books, especially volumes in English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic, in Turkey and abroad. It had 893 non-Turkish books in book market circulation. It also enjoyed a healthy share of the publishing industry that focuses on the subject of religion.

The fact that Işık had published dozens of books written by Fethullah Gülen, a US-based Islamic scholar who became a vocal critic of the Erdoğan regime, made the company a prime target for Erdoğan, who did not want anybody to challenge his political Islamist ideology, which offered nothing but corruption, violence and crony capitalism in Turkey. The company also had two monthly magazines (Sızıntı and Gonca), one bi-monthly (Yağmur) and one quarterly (Yeni Ümit), with a total circulation of 662,000 at the time the government seized it in 2015. The first thing the government caretakers sent by Erdoğan to run the publishing house did was to halt the publication and distribution of magazines. The same happened to foreign-language magazines such as The Fountain, Hira, Noviya Grani, Cascada and Ebru.

The major distributer for Işık was the NT Bookstore chain, which accounted for 69 percent of Işık’s sales in many stores across Turkey. However, NT was also seized by the government. In other words, the Erdoğan government not only went after publishers but also distribution and sale networks to suffocate the entire supply chain of publishing businesses that did not toe the line of government policy. In fact, the same tactic was used in 2016 when the government seized major distribution network Cihan Dagitim, which was delivering national dailies every day to the homes of subscribers including those of the Zaman newspaper, which was selling 1.2 million copies on a daily basis at its peak.

Işık had turnover of TL 58.4 million ($21.5 million) as of November 2015. It posted TL 81.4 million ($60.6 million) in revenue in 2014, when it first came under pressure from the government. The takeover by government trustees was supposed to keep the company afloat until the investigation into the publisher was completed. In other words, the seizure was supposed to be an interim decision, and the government caretakers needed to insure that the company continued its business activities without any damage to profitability. The opposite happened because Erdoğan had no interest in sustaining a business that he saw as a threat to his transformation project for Turkey, which is apparently quite hostile to critical thinking and analytical views. As a result in the first four months under government management in 2016 revenue dropped by 80.2 percent to TL 6.2 million from the TL 31.3 million it had posted for the same period a year earlier. Even if the government had not shut it down in July 2016, its business was already in the red, and it would have been very difficult to survive without an injection of a fresh capital.

When Işık was shut down, 228 people instantly became unemployed, another sad part of the crackdown on the publishing industry. Many talented people who were involved in the publishing industry were thrown into the abyss just like trash paper. I wanted to write about Işık in detail to give a real picture of what happened to 41 other publishing houses that were summarily and arbitrarily closed by government decrees issued in July 2016 and then under a state of emergency that the government abused to destroy all critical news media, publishing houses, schools, associations and foundations.

But apparently that was not enough. The books that were printed and stored in warehouses by publishers were ordered to be burned, while the Culture Ministry issued a circular to all 1,130 public libraries across the nation to pull all the books ever printed by these shuttered publishers and destroy them immediately. In 2017, the government withdrew 169,141 books that were printed by these publishers from the shelves of libraries. The titles of the books were removed from the digital archives and websites of the libraries as if the government wanted to erase all traces that might suggest the books ever existed. At the same time, the government targeted individual authors as well. For example, a penal judge of peace in İstanbul’s Bakirköy district issued an overarching ban on 672 books and other works by Gülen and ordered the collection of all his books currently for sale in bookstores.

The Erdoğan government did not stop there, either. Seizing the assets of publishing houses, shutting them down and forcing their workers into unemployment on dubious and fabricated charges did not satisfy the rulers of Turkey. The managers and employees of Işık were also prosecuted on false terrorism charges, and many of them were arrested. For example, on March 7, 2018 the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office issued detention warrants for 60 employees of Işık, of whom 41 were detained. On March 23, 2018 fresh detention warrants were issued for 55 employees of Işık in a second wave of arrests targeting employees of the shuttered publishing house. The detentions were intended to feed the climate of fear in Turkey and send a clear message to every employee — no matter in what capacity one worked at a publishing house.

The Erdoğan government’s attacks on books were not limited to shuttered publishers. In May 2017 police raided the Belge Publishing House in Istanbul and seized a total of 2,170 books.

In September 2017 the Education Ministry recalled thousands of books that were distributed to seventh grade students because the books had a chapter on press freedom that discussed the significance of the media and briefly mentioned the situation of the media in Turkey. It was estimated that it cost taxpayers some TL 50 million ($16 million) in 2016 alone to destroy books weighing 13,000 tons.

More examples can be cited as to how the Erdoğan government is acting like Mongols of the 13th century who burned valuable and precious books in Baghdad. The hostile campaign against books has reached a new peak in Turkey. In December 2016 Turkey’s Education Ministry has destroyed 892,000 textbooks that included the word “Pennsylvania” on the basis of it promoting “terrorist propaganda.” The government’s premise was that Erdoğan’s chief critic Gülen lives in the US state of Pennsylvania and that the word recalled the Muslim scholar even though there was no reference to the critic at all. In fact, the textbook was about American author James Michener, who mentioned Pennsylvania as his place of birth.

In October 2016 an Education Ministry bureaucrat suggested that the government remove the phrase “Milky Way” from textbooks in order to avoid any resemblance to the names of schools linked to the Gülen movement. Many science-focused schools affiliated with the movement across Turkey bore the name Samanyolu, which translates into Milky Way, until they were confiscated by the government in 2016. In another case, the government banned mathematics textbooks due to questions involving the initials of Fethullah Gülen in a way that reads “… from point F to point G …”

Turkey’s paranoia over books knows no boundaries. But this is certainly no laughing matter. If you get caught with any of these books that were sold and distributed freely in Turkey for decades, you will be accused of terrorism. In fact, Turkish prosecutors cite the possession of these books as evidence of a crime and seek long jail terms for anybody found to own one. Sometimes, pro-government TV stations even broadcast footage where police put on a display of seized books that were found in the homes and offices of critics and dissidents.

History has a record of many examples of such regimes that wage war on science, critical thinking and analytical views. None of them survived, and free thought eventually overcame all the relentless pressure and crackdowns. But they inflicted significant damage to the societies under the clampdowns, hurt many innocent people and destroyed lives. They left permanent scars that will linger for years to come. The same fate awaits Turkey as well. The Erdoğan regime will fade away one day, and we will be left to deal with the consequences in the aftermath.

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