A few months ago, a university student from Florida interviewed me about my career in journalism. Right at the end, he wanted to know which news story that I had reported on that affected me the most.
I did not have to think long about my answer.
I was on a solo night shift in the early hours of the July 3, 1993, when horrific details of writers, poets and musicians set alight by an Islamist mob in the Anatolian city of Sivas had emerged. After I finished my own broadcast, I was quizzed about it by the Today Programme’s John Humphreys.
“What do you mean your politicians blame the victims?” he asked.
35 people died on that day in Hotel Madimak. Out of countless disasters and tragedies that I had to report over the years, the shock and grief of the Sivas Massacre would be imprinted on my mind forever.
The news of an arson attack on an Istanbul theatre academy and arts centre on Monday brought back those memories of utter fear and horror; like Sivas, the victim was an outspoken, secular intellectual, his academy set on fire after being targeted by a virulent, Islamist daily. Happily, this time nobody died.
Mujdat Gezen, a well-known actor and founder of the arts centre, had received threats in the past. Recently, he has been on the receiving end of a hate campaign by the Yeni Akit newspaper.
Yeni Akit first reported the Monday’s attack with a headline “A great shock to ‘pimp’ Mujdat”, later changing it to a more neutral Fire in Mujdat Gezen’s art centre”.
The list of physical attacks on art and artists is far too long in Turkey.
A 2016 a study conducted by Freemuse, a Copenhagen-based independent advocacy organisation defending freedom of expression for musicians, found that Turkey has become one of the worst offenders for attacks on artistic expression.
Demeaning comments by politicians are well documented, but violation of the right to creative and artistic expression is not limited to artists, writers and musicians being insulted. They are also prosecuted and their works seized. More worryingly, they become targets for violence.
Last year alone, several contemporary works of art were physically attacked.
A concert by Fazil Say, a world-renown pianist, came under attack in Izmir last year.
Again in Izmir, a sculpture by Almacino Gonzales Andres, was broken , soon after it was condemned for being “obscene”.
In both incidents, the perpetrators were set free.
Art galleries in Istanbul’s Tophane district have been attacked numerous times.
After a violent protest in November, a sculpture featuring a portrait of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamit painted on a swimsuit, was withdrawn from a major exhibition at the Contemporary Istanbul.
Religious extremism and total impunity are the common threads linking all of them.
The cases against those responsible for the Sivas Massacre, were finally dropped due to the statute of limitations.
No wonder today’s mobs and their cheerleaders in the media are becoming even more emboldened.
It is high time to realise that the ugliness faced by Turkey’s scholars, writers, journalists and artists, is no longer growing at a creeping pace.
It is now surging forward – so much so that it is once again reviving this journalist’s 24-year-old nightmare.
This post is also available in: Turkish