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Şanar Yurdatapan's Museum of Crimes of Thought Takes Aim at Growing Oppression in Turkey

Sanar Yurdatapan introducing the Museum of Crimes of Thought in Turkey. Screenshot from an introductory YouTube video produced by Antenna the organisation hosting this online project.

Back in the turbulent 1970s, all Şanar Yurdatapan had was his music and his words to fight oppression and censorship in Turkey. His activism cost him his Turkish nationality and forced him to leave the country for more than a decade. Today the composer and songwriter is still spearheading the fight for freedom of expression in Turkey, which is ever more threatened by the domestic political dominance of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Now Yurdatapan has upgraded his ammunition — still pacifistic in essence — and shifted his battle to the virtual world, where he coordinates the newly-created Museum of Crimes of Thought (Twitter handle @dusuncesucumuze), an online resource available in both Turkish and English.

Global Voices spoke to Şanar to find out more about the two-year-old initiative, which aims to document all violations committed by the authorities against pro-democracy activists in Turkey.

GV: Şanar you yourself have been exiled and stripped of your nationality for quite some time. Doesn't your latest project put you at risk once again? 

SN: Maybe, but why not? I am 73 and only risk being imprisoned. I have got 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. This is a privilege, isn’t it? Such a privilege brings a responsibility too. If I cannot face [risk], who can?

Global Voices (GV): Have you received any threats or warnings so far? If yes, how are you dealing with them?

Şanar Yurdatapan (SN): 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 after April 1, 2015 –the starting date for museuming (to be placed in the museum) prominent people because of their silly statements — and placing their busts in the main corridor — we are ready for all sorts of oppression.

GV: Is the website hosted in Turkey? Can it be accessed from there?

SN: It is not hosted in Turkey. We cannot guarantee that any Turkish [hosting] company would resist if Turkish police wanted them to provide information or even cut the servers. The site can be accessed in Turkey freely at the moment. But after April 1, 2015, when political leaders’ busts start emerging in the main corridor, I am sure [the website] will be banned and prohibited. No problem. Many social groups [in Turkey] have experiences in accessing the 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’.

A promotion of the online museum on the Youtube Channel of the Initiative for Freedom of Expression.  Antenna, which is overseeing the museum, is a member of IFEX, an umbrella for many Turkish artists, journalists, activists and Human Rights organisations.

GV: You say in one of the interviews that your aim is to create a network of similar projects like in France, Greece, Chile … have you started yet? Have you heard of similar projects outside Turkey ? (There is one project in Lebanon called the “Online Museum of Censorship)

SN: In the last general meeting of IFEX (International Freedom of Expression Exchange, the international umbrella organization covering similar organizations all over the world, Mahabat Foundation in Lebanon) which took place in Phnom Penh – Cambodia; I had the chance to tell other participants about [the project] and had very positive responses. Keeping our promise, we have declared that this museum is ‘open coded’ which means we are ready to submit the program codes of the museum to any organization that wishes to establish their own museum. At the moment we have received only one response from The Media Foundation of West Africa — based in Ghana. We know that the most important thing is not to open similar museums, but how to keep [the idea] alive: sustainability.

A section of the Online Turkish Museum dedicated to those who lost their lives, murdered or under torture or in any other way, trying to make Turkey a democratic country. A print screen from the website of the Virtual Museum

SN: The Initiative for Freedom of Expression (established on January 23, 1995) is almost 20 years old now. Since 2000, we publish yearbooks, and so we have a good archive which helps us in the museum project.

GV: Is the project open to crowd-sourcing? 

SN: It is open to public contribution. Anybody who has some documents/evidence/witnesses about freedom of expression violations may submit them to be placed in the museum. In order to avoid probable conflicts, we have an ‘editorial board’ consisting of seven respected people from diverse social groups, to decide which new contributions might be placed in the museum

GV: You also say that “all opinions can be freely expressed unless they incite discrimination” : can you give an example, have you yourself ever censored a piece?

SN: No, I can proudly say that we haven’t had a similar experience yet. But even if such a problem appears (the line between freedom of expression and insult is very thin) we have another committee, consisting of prominent lawyers (The Legal Committee) to decide if we should or not take this document into the museum.

GV: The website is interactive but is there a way to get a full listing with categories for those seeking quick access to information, or do visitors have to go through each section?

SN: We have MAPs of the museum, which you can have one  — no cost — at the desk of the Guide, right at the entrance hall.

GV: Did the events in Syria have an impact on the state of censorship in your country?

SN: Yes, to some extent. There we some bans declared to prohibit the traffic of information regarding the secret support of the Turkish state to opposition forces in Syria. But they were not successful.

GV: Has the direction of the project changed since it began? How are people reciting to the project and what are your plans for the future?

SN: We are not able to draw great attention to the museum yet, because we were not able to solve the technical and administrative problems of the museum completely, but the main steps have been taken. To celebrate the 20th anniversary [of the The Initiative for Freedom of Expression] we are arranging a day-long forum to discuss the last 20 years in Turkey, at the Bilgi University in Istanbul. At the end of this event (which will take place on the second weekend of February) we will make a short presentation to introduce the museum to the public. 

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