Crowdsourcing for freedom of speech: Digital platforms honour journalists and activists who have been silenced by the authorities. Read More
Our thoughts are free. But some places in the world people cannot think anything they want, much less say anything without the threat of at times very serious repercussions. Two international projects from Turkey and Lebanon decry this fact and are trying to educate their citizens: The Turkish Museum of Crimes of Thought and the Lebanese Virtual Museum of Censorship. We spoke to the initiators about their projects.
Turkey: The Museum of Crimes of Thought
To an autocratic state that prefers to have everything under complete control, Sanar Yurdatapan is more than just an average citizen. Over the years, the changing governments of Turkey have found Yurdatapan to be annoying, often irritating, and one thing without fail: a real pain in the ass. In the 70s he became known as a composer and song writer and quickly made a name for himself as a political activist who fought oppression and censorship. The military coup in 1980 drove him into exile in German where he lived for him 12 years, during which time he was denationalised by the military government. He has since regained his citizenship and is again living in Turkey – though he has lost none of his militancy.
His newest goal is unlikely to win him any favour with current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at any rate: What if there were an online platform to honour journalists, activists and human rights defenders who have been censored, arrested and worse for expressing their thoughts? For people who have been silenced because of their oppositional point of view and may even have been forgotten by the public over the years?
Now there is just such a platform, realized this past autumn in the freshly launched Museum of Crimes of Thought. The site contains information on writers, artists, journalists and actors who have committed so-called "thought crimes" and have, as a result of their professional activities, received prison sentences, been tortured, or gone into exile. It aims to document all the violations committed by the authorities against pro-democracy activists in Turkey. The portal changes constantly, is still expanding, and available not just in Turkish but also in English on the web. What make the site so special and surprising: It is very colourful and employs a cartoon style, so it seems very unlike the classic activist page.
Sanar, you yourself were exiled and stripped of your nationality for quite some time. Doesn't your latest project put you at risk once again?
Maybe, but why not? I am 73 and only risk being imprisoned. I have gotten used to it. And the state knows very well that they will have to face an international scandal if they put me into prison again. That is a privilege, isn’t it? Such a privilege brings a responsibility too. If I cannot face this risk, who can?
Your new project is not likely to make everyone happy. Have you received any threats or warnings so far?
Not yet. The museum looks like something childish, probably because of its cartoon-based structure, and does not seem to pose a threat to the establishment. But on April 1, 2015 we will start a new exhibition: We will present the busts of political leaders who have made silly statements.
This is a direct attack on the political elite.
Yes, and we will be ready for all sorts of oppression then.
Is the website hosted in Turkey? Can it be accessed from there?
It is not hosted in Turkey, as we cannot guarantee that any Turkish hosting company would resist if the Turkish police wanted them to provide information or even cut the servers. At the moment, the site can be accessed freely in Turkey. But I am sure that the website will be banned and prohibited after April 1. I don’t see a problem in this: Many social groups in Turkey are experienced in accessing banned websites via proxies. Youngsters learned when YouTube and Facebook were banned. Businessmen learned when Google was banned and they were not able to access their business documents in the ‘cloud’.
The museum is open to public contributions. Anybody who has some documents, evidence, or knows witnesses to freedom of expression violations may submit them for inclusion in the museum. In order to avoid possible conflicts, the museum has an ‘editorial board’ consisting of seven respected people from diverse social groups who decide which new contributions might be placed in the museum.
Lebanon: The Virtual Museum of Censorship
Lebanon is considered one of the most liberal places in the Middle East, though it remains burdened by deep sectarian political troubles and censorship. Two years ago in protest, the civil rights organization March Lebanon launched The Virtual Museum of Censorship. This initiative doesn’t just document censorship; it also supports artists who have been subject to censorship, raises awareness about Lebanon’s censorship practices, advocates for changes in the law and holds authorities accountable. According to March itself: “the site has become a major resource for people seeking to learn about censorship in Lebanon, including artists, writers, journalists, human rights NGOs, international embassies, and of course, Lebanese themselves.” We talked to one of March’s activists who preferred to remain anonymous.
Two years after the launch, what is the state of the project?
Our project has grown exponentially in the last two years, and we're proud of the work we've done. Nevertheless, the Museum is only part of the work that March does. We continue to fight the battle against censorship by supporting artists who have been subject to censorship, hosting activities on university campuses, working with other NGOs on changing the law, and raising awareness in the media about Lebanon's censorship practices.
Has censorship been lifted on any banned works recently? Like Anne Frank or Persepolis?
Yes, many times… a book, DVD, music CD, or other form of art can be banned at one point and allowed the next. It’s important to remember that different forms of art or expression are subject to different kinds of censorship. For example, important books, movies, and CDs are subject to censorship every time they cross through customs with no clear criteria in mind.
Why does it sometimes take a while for a work to be banned (for example, the book After Zionism: One state for Israel and one state for Palestine by Ahmed Moor, which was banned about 10 months after its release in Lebanon)?
This goes back to the inconsistencies in Lebanon's censorship practices. Laws are outdated and the bureaucracy is complicated. Books and other works have often been censored years after their release. This is by no means an efficient process. Censoring authorities often just glance at the front cover of a book to decide whether or not it will be banned. The censorship process can be very arbitrary – a book gets banned for including a certain topic, and another book on the same topic doesn't get banned.
"Censoring authorities often just glance at the front cover of a book to decide whether or not it will be banned."
If the general public does get hold of these banned books, movies or articles from outside Lebanon, are they putting themselves at risk?
It depends on what you mean by “at risk.” If you're looking at it from a legal perspective, according to the current laws in Lebanon, then yes — you would be at risk of legal repercussions for bringing banned works into Lebanon. To be clear, this is not an endorsement of those laws by any means. If you individually purchase an item outside of Lebanon and bring it in your suitcase, General Security usually turns a blind eye on this.
Like its Turkish counterpart, the Virtual Museum of Censorship also collects its information through crowdsourcing in part. Here too any information submitted is subject to careful assessment to ensure its veracity.
Both projects are also planning spin-offs in other countries. So we can look forward to seeing what is next for these exciting sites.