Turkey Uncensored: A History of Censorship and Bans

Uzay Bulut | September 20, 2017

On April 29, the Turkish government announced that it completely blocked Wikipedia over the online encyclopedia’s refusal to delete articles and comments that suggest that Ankara is co-operating with terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

Despite multiple requests by Turkish officials, Wikipedia refused to take down the content the Turkish government objected to. In response, Turkish authorities blocked online access to Wikipedia in all languages across the country.

Wikipedia continues to be blocked in Turkey. But it is not the only restricted website in the country. An estimated 127,000-plus websites have been blocked in Turkey, along with another 95,000 individual Web pages.

These bans were apparently inspired by the “glorious” history of the Ottoman Empire, which in 1515 imposed the death penalty on anyone using a printing press to print books in Turkish or Arabic. The ban remained enforced for the next 270 years.

That prohibition is widely cited by historians as one of the major reasons for the intellectual and scientific collapse of Islam at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Ironically, because of that ban, the first books to be published in the Ottoman Empire were in Hebrew in the city of Safad (now located in northern Israel).

Scholar Theo Pavlidis wrote,

The printing press had been invented by Gutenberg around the time of the fall of Constantinople. It did not go unnoticed in Ottoman lands, but this invention of the devil (as religious leaders claimed) was banned by a decree issued by Bayazid II in 1485. However, a Jewish press was approved about 20 years later on the condition it prints only texts in the Hebrew alphabet. An Armenian press was approved in 1567 and a Greek one in 1627, each limited to the respective alphabets. Printing of Arabic characters was considered sacrilegious and it was not permitted. It was only in 1727, almost 300 years after the invention of the printing press, that printing in Turkish with Arabic characters was allowed.

The culture of censorship or prohibitions continued even after the new Turkish regime was established in the 20th century. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) founded the Turkish republic in 1923 and ruled it until 1950 without free elections. It enacted the Law on the Maintenance of Order (Takrir-i Sükûn Kanunu) in 1925 and the press law (Matbuat Kanunu) in 1931.

Based on these laws, the first Turkish government closed down or censored several newspapers, magazines and journals with different political inclinations across Turkey. It also banned many foreign newspapers and magazines from entering the country.

During the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president, at least 130 newspapers, magazines and books were banned, according to Mustafa Yılmaz and Yasemin Doğaner’s book Censor During the Republican Era (1923–1973), which was published in 2007.

During the rule of Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s second prime minister (1950–1960, from the Democrat Party), 161 were banned.

So it would not be wrong to say that ever since its founding, Turkey has never had freedom of the press. But according to historian and professor Mete Tuncay, the situation is even grimmer than that: “It is not enough to say that there was no freedom of the press in that [one-party] era,” Tuncay wrote in his 2005 book Critical Writings on History.

“In the Ottoman autocracy, too, the press was not able to write what the government did not want. In the one-party era [during the CHP administration of republican Turkey between 1923 and 1950], however, the press could write only what the government wanted it to write.”

But it is not only the works of others that the Turkish government has been trying to ban or censor. The archives and many documents of several state institutions have also been disposed of by authorities. Historian Rıfat Bali explained the history of disposed or destroyed state archives in his 2014 book The Story of Destruction and Plundering: Printed or Written Works, Dead Letters, Archives Thrown Out (or Sold) for Scrap.

In an interview with the newspaper Hürriyet, Bali said, “It is impossible to write the entire history of Turkey because the archives that would make us understand this history have been plundered.”

The archives of many political parties, the Senate, and several other governmental or non-governmental institutions in Turkey are either closed to public use or no longer exist.

Bali added,

The archives of the political parties closed down during the September 12, 1980 coup d’état were sent to SEKA (Selüloz ve Kâğit Fabrikalari, or Cellulose and Paper Factories) as scrap paper. The military authorities must have said, “We have closed down the political parties; let us destroy their everything so that they will erased be from memories.” But even if you have such a mentality, you need to have some mercy. You are at the top of a nation and a state and you try to destroy a part of the history of that state. You play God. This is like genocide.

The most important archive is the archive of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) because it is the archive of the founding years and consolidation years of the republic. Everyone wants to see it. Some say, “It was burnt.” Some say, “It was thrown away on September 12.” Some say, “No, it hasn’t been thrown away. It is here.” So it is a mystery today. A large part of the archive is nonexistent. And the first time the archives of the CHP were discussed was in 1986. Before that, no one had asked where it was.

Bali additionally noted that some of the most important state archives are also closed to public in Turkey: “The archives of the Turkish presidency are closed. And there is no such case in anywhere else in the world. Even the archives of the CIA and the FBI are open. Of course, objectionable documents are not made public. But they are not fully closed. In Turkey, the archives of the presidency, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and the Ministry of the Interior are closed.”

Bali has also told the strange story of how some documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ended up with a scrap dealer in Ankara:

“Confidential documents of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were found at a scrap dealer in Ankara in 1998. For the ministry had sold 15 steel safes to a scrap dealer. It was then understood that the ministry sold the safes because of a lack of space at the ministry without even looking what was inside them.”

Some other examples that Bali detailed in his book include:

  • Many of the Turkish Institute of History’s documents – including a letter by Ataturk – have been thrown away.
  • “All minutes of the proceedings of the Senate that was established with the 1961 constitution and remained active until the September 12, 1980 coup d’état were sent to the Cellulose and Paper Factories (SEKA).”
  • “When the state-funded Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) moved to a new building in 1965, its authorities said that “Old documents do not fit a new building” and sent some of the documents in the archives to SEKA.
  • “When a shortage of paper emerged at SEKA in 1980s, state institutions were called on to send their old papers to the factory. Many archives at institutional level were thus gone.”

Sadly, important works are still not sufficiently preserved in Turkey, as Bali pointed out: “At the end of [2013], very old books in Turkish, Greek, Hebrew and Syriac at Turkey’s National Library in Ankara were sold by the ton, as there were no librarians who could read in those languages.”

Bali said that Turkey has not preserved its archives because archives equal information. According to him, the disposal of archives and historic documents “are natural outcomes in a country that does not value information. When information does not bring money, archives are thrown into trash bins.”

In countries where knowledge is not valued, cultural and intellectual advancement becomes difficult, if not impossible. Instead, authoritarianism, bigotry and fanaticism so easily take root. In the Ottoman Empire, it was the printing press that was banned and condemned Muslims to darkness for centuries. In republican Turkey, it was critical books, newspapers, archives and all other “dangerous” sources of information.

As author George Orwell famously wrote:

I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is, for the most part, inaccurate and biased – but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.

And this is what has largely happened in Turkey. With so much information withheld from the Turkish public, state propaganda has created masses who blindly follow whatever state authorities − who have lost their moral compass and never object or speak out even when they see brutal violations of human rights, who do not respect differing opinions or the right to dissent, and who promote an extremely inaccurate version of history – have to say.

Political developments in Turkey, which has been ruled under a nationwide state of emergency enforced since the failed coup attempt of last year, seem to shock much of the world and many Turkish citizens. But in terms of censorship, banned books and ideas, as well as a lack of free speech and free press, Turkey has always been under a state of emergency. And millions of Turkish citizens are not even aware of it.