BY DORIS V. CROSS
NEW YORK—At the annual Literary Gala held by PEN on May 1 at the Museum of Natural History, Istanbul publisher Ragip Zarakolu was the recipient of the annual Association of American Publishers’ Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award. Peter Balakian, whose memoir Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past was published in a Turkish edition by Zarakolu’s Belge Publishing House, presented the award to his two children, Seref and Zerrin Holle. Zarakolu, who has been repeatedly jailed for challenging free expression restrictions in his country, and was recently released pending trial, was not well enough to make the trip from Istanbul.
In addition to Ragip Zarakolu, Eskinder Nega, one of Ethiopia’s most courageous journalists, was honored with the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Nega is currently in prison and standing trial on manufactured terrorism charges. He could face the death penalty if convicted. Nega’s wife, Serkalem Fasil, has been jailed herself for her journalism, and traveled from Addis Ababa to accept the award on her husband’s behalf “at a time when freedom of expression and press freedoms are at the lowest point in Ethiopia.”
This year’s PEN Literary Service Award was conferred on Edward Albee as “a writer whose critically acclaimed work illuminates the human condition in original and powerful ways.”
In accepting the Freedom to Publish Award on behalf of Ragip Zarakolu, his children Seref and Zerrin Holle read a message from their father. Seref began, “I spoke with Ragip a couple of hours before coming over here. He wanted to personally apologize for not being able to make it tonight, and he asked my sister Zerrin and I to share this letter with you”:
I want to thank the International Freedom to Publish Committee of the Association of American Publishers for the honor of the Jeri Laber award.
When I entered the field of publishing in 1977 by establishing Belge International in Istanbul I did not expect to spend the next 35 years struggling for freedom of expression. I assumed it would be accomplished in a matter of years.
Belge began in response to the undeclared civil war of the late 1970’s that resulted in the 1980 military dictatorship in Turkey. Since that time Belge has been dedicated to the open discussion of political and historical taboos. I have always believed that such discussions were necessary for the democratisation of Turkey.
For years civilian governments have promised this democratisation but it is never realized. Unfortunately the current government has continued for nearly a decade to delay the necessary reforms. As long as the 1982 constitution and its supplemental anti-democratic laws and decrees exist the freedom to publish remains threatened.
Freedom of expression is not a favor to be granted by sultans, dictators or prime ministers; it is a universal right. If in a country the expression of independent thoughts and their publication becomes a matter of courage, that country is in a grave situation.
While I am fortunate to have been released from Kandira Prison, many other publishers, editors, writers and journalists, including my son Deniz, remain in prisons throughout Turkey. I gratefully accept this award in their honor.
I also want express my gratitude to both the American PEN Center and the American Association of Publishers for their many years of support. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Since founding Belge in 1977 with his late wife, Ayse Nur, Zarakolu has defied Turkey’s
censorship laws by translating and publishing Turkish editions of works by Armenian, Greek, Kurdish and other writers, dealing with such forbidden subjects as the Armenian genocide and the repression of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. If Zarakolu is convicted of the present charges against him he faces up to 15 years in prison.
In Balakian’s introductory remarks he recalled first meeting Zarakolu in 1998, at the Frankfort Book Fair.
Ragip was there to receive a prize from the Frankfort Book Fair on behalf of his wife, Ayse Hur, who was in prison in Turkey. We became friends and he would soon be my Turkish publisher, bringing out a beautiful edition of my memoir Black Dog of Fate, which deals with the Armenian genocide. Ragip opened up a new world for me—and as my first Turkish friend he would become a bridge to another side of Turkish society— a more complex and rich Turkey—that many of us had hoped somehow to find. For many of us, who wrote on the Armenian genocide in particular, had been objects of ridicule from the Turkish nationalists we had encountered.
When you meet Ragip, you immediately encounter his quiet strength, warmth and gentleness that lets you know that he is at home with himself and his life. His life’s work is an emanation of who he is. He is humble about his work, but he is confident about what his work is and means. He is courageous and he inspires courage.
He and his late wife Ayse—and now their son Deniz who is also in a Turkish prison at this time for his work as a publisher—have devoted their lives to bringing intellectual freedom and democracy to Turkey. And Ragip’s present wife, Katherine Holle, and children Seref and Zerrin have been sustaining forces to this project in the past decade.
Ragip’s recent arrest is set in a long context of Turkish repression of intellectuals and free expression. Turkey (along with China and Syria) has had consistently one of the worst human rights records over the past decades. And, this year, Reporters Without Borders has noted that the recent arrests of 99 journalists in Turkey is the worst “wave of arrests since the military dictatorship.” Zarakolu was part of that purge.
Imagine a publisher in Turkey bringing out books year in and year out on the following subjects: the Greek expulsion from Turkey; the tragedy of the Turkish left; torture and capital punishment in Turkey; the status of Turkish prisons; the “Kurdish question”; the Armenian Genocide; the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians; anti-Semitism; the rights of women in Turkey.
If you think of the hundreds or perhaps thousands of books that come out each year in the US on parallel or equivalent subjects you realize that Ragip Zarakolu’s publishing company is this entire sector of intellectual life for Turkey, and you get a sense of what he means to his nation.
And yet he has been rewarded by his government with endless trials, harassment, persecution, and imprisonment. His late wife Ayse was in prison or on trial more than 30 times. His publishing company was bombed, destroyed by Turkish nationalists in 1996. At the moment Ragip is out on bail but he will have to stand trial for being accused of that endless false pretext called “terrorism” for supporting and publishing works on Kurdish rights. And through all of this Ragip has proceeded with calm, with patience, with perseverance, with grace and dignity, with great courage, and with a love of what he does. Ragip has said, “I’m not an activist, I’m just a publisher.”
He is more than a publisher, he is a force for democracy, intellectual freedom, and the very foundation of human society in Turkey over the past 40 years—and he is an embodiment of these realties for all societies, because intellectual freedom is something that can never be taken for granted.
PEN American Center is the largest of the 144 centers of PEN International, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled. It defends writers and journalists from all over the world who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of carrying out their profession.