TV series sparks free speech row in Turkey
ISTANBUL, TURKEY — The most talked about television show in Turkey these days is one that's not even on the air.
The wildly popular "Kurtlar Vadisi" ("Valley of the Wolves"), a series that chronicles life in Turkey's criminal underworld, was set to return for a triumphant second season in early February after a one-year hiatus. But, only one episode into its new run on the private Show TV network, the series was unceremoniously yanked off the airwaves, following a large number of complaints and pressure from the government body that oversees Turkish television.
"Kurtlar Vadisi" has been accused of glorifying violence and extreme nationalism. The show tells the story of Polat Alemdar, a patriotic undercover intelligence officer who infiltrates the mafia but starts operating in the murky zone where the interests of unsavory elements of the state and of organized crime meet. It's as if special agent Jack Bauer of the hit show "24" took over Tony Soprano's gang, but instead of engaging in protection rackets started bumping off enemies of the state.
A spin-off movie, which saw the show's hero going to Iraq and doing battle with the US military, is Turkey's highest-grossing movie ever but was accused of being crassly anti-American and anti-Semitic. The new season was supposed to deal with the problem of Kurdish terrorism, but many feared that the show's take on this volatile topic would only fan sectarian tensions in Turkey.
The cancellation of the hit show is raising a debate in Turkey about whether limiting free speech in the name of curbing violence and nationalism is censorship or simply good government, and whether the show is a product of surging nationalism or a contributor to it.
"It was a dilemma for people who support free speech. They were outraged by the show, but yet they couldn't say a word," says Yusuf Kanli, chief columnist for the English-language newspaper Turkish Daily News.
Turkish intellectuals have in recent years accused the government of stifling free speech by prosecuting writers under article 301, a vague law in the penal code that makes it a crime to "insult" Turkish identity, even in a work of fiction.
This time, though, many of those same intellectuals were on the other side of the divide, asking the Turkish government to step in and use its influence to cancel "Kurtlar Vadisi." It was an irony that was not lost on some of the show's supporters.
"These so-called intellectual journalists and writers who were talking so much about the incompatibility of article 301-type legislation in Turkey with the European Union, which was built on the notion of free speech, now all of a sudden have become the supporters of censure when it comes to 'Valley of the Wolves,' " wrote Yilmaz Ozdil, a former television executive who is a columnist for the Sabah newspaper.
But critics of the show say it had crossed the line from fictionalized entertainment into something that was stoking what has been a rising nationalist wave in Turkey. Cleverly mixing references to real events with dramatized scenarios, "Kurtlar Vadisi" – on television and on the big screen – consistently touched upon several political and cultural hot-button issues, among them a growing anti-Americanism and a fear that Turkey will ultimately get dragged into the war in Iraq.
In the first season, for example, Polat Alemdar, on trial for murdering several heroin smugglers who were part of a larger foreign plot to destabilize Turkey, is let go after the judge decides that he did it for the love of Turkey.
In the "Kurtlar Vadisi" film, meanwhile, Alemdar and his crew head to Iraq to avenge the honor of the Turkish military after American GI's arrest a contingent of Turkish special forces, putting hoods over their heads while in captivity. Based on a real event – American soldiers did arrest several Turkish soldiers in Northern Iraq in July 2003, putting hoods on their heads – that caused an outrage in Turkey.
The movie goes on to weave a tale of almost cartoonish blood-thirsty Americans wreaking havoc, throwing into the mix a Jewish-American doctor who is harvesting organs from the bodies of Iraqi prisoners for patients in the West.
"People look at the movie and the series as a documentary, not fiction. That is the problem," says Nilufer Narli, a sociologist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "It is not a positive nationalism that the show puts forward, but negative nationalism based on fears and polarization in Turkey. In this nationalism, there are enemies and these enemies need to be destroyed."
For the series, the recent cancellation was a distinct fall from grace. After the successful first season, the gala premiere of the "Kurtlar Vadisi" film was able to attract some of Turkey's leading figures and top celebrities.
Analysts say, though, that recent events – most notably the January murder of ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink by an extreme nationalist 17-year-old – has made many realize that the nationalist fervor whipped up by "Kurtlar Vadisi" may be pushing Turkey in a dangerous direction.
"[Canceling the series] was obviously censorship, but if an industry decides to produce dangerous junk, then society has the right to have some control over this," Irfan Erdogan, a professor of communications at Gazi University in Ankara, says. "If the industry has no social responsibility, the society has the right to step in."