Frankfurt backs Turkey decision

25 September 2008, Germany

The Frankfurt Book Fair has stood by its decision to make Turkey the guest of honour this year, despite an increase in the number of arrests under the country's censorship laws and a planned boycott by some Turkish writers.

According to independent Turkish news organisation Bianet, arrests in Turkey under censorship laws (which include Article 301 preventing the denigration of Turkey) have risen 60% from last year so far, with 380 journalists, publishers and activists reported to have been subject to investigation and prosecution. It has also emerged that 20 writers have announced a boycott of the fair, claiming it is being used by the government for its own purposes. More than 300 Turkish authors will attend the fair, however.

Thomas Minkus, Frankfurt's vice-president of marketing and sales, said he hoped the boycott would add to the discussions about free speech, but said the fair could not force a country's policy-making. "We are not in a position to tell other governments what to do," he said. "We will have frank and open discussions about all possible topics, and our guests should be prepared for that—this is what we believe in, and we expect our guests not to shy away from that," he added.

Independent Turkish publisher Muge Sokmen, who is co-chair of this year's organising committee, dismissed the boycotters' claim there was any state involvement in the programme of talks, though funding is being provided by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Sokmen said the programme had been organised and developed through authors, publishers and translators. "These funds are for us. It is incidental that they are in the hands of the government, but that doesn't interest us, because it is our right to use them for the writers and publishers of Turkey. This is an organisation of publishers, not of a government or state," she said.

Sokmen highlighted the involvement of top writers such as Orhan Pamuk, who was subject to a criminal case under Article 301, adding that it was important more Turkish writers be read by the rest of the world.

She said there would be discussions about censorship issues in Turkey, as well as other parts of the world, although there would be "no political agenda" to the talks. "We do expect more change, and do believe most of all in the power of intellectuals. They keep doing their thing, and refuse to be censored—this is why it is very apt for Turkey to be the guest of honour," she said.

China is next year's guest of honour.