PEN America celebrates the release of Turkish Journalist and Artist, Zehra Doğan

“Art should never be a crime. [Zehra] Doğan is a model of courage for all journalists and artists for standing up against injustice and silence, especially because of her determination to work and create while incarcerated.” Julie Trébault, Director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America



Last week PEN America celebrated the release of Turkish painter, journalist and feminist activist, incarcerated Zehra Doğan (Free Zehra Doğan • Zehra Doğan’a özgürlük). Doğan was released on February 24 after spending 600 days in a Turkish jail after courts deemed her journalistic and artistic work to be “terrorist propaganda.”

Doğan was the editor of Jin News Agency (JINHA), a feminist Kurdish news agency. She was arrested on July 21, 2016, and detained until December 2016 when she was released pending trial. On March 7, 2017, Doğan was sentenced to prison for 2 years, 10 months and 22 days on charges of “terrorist propaganda” as a result of her reporting, social media posts, and her paintings about the Turkish military’s operations in the largely Kurdish town of Nusaybin. The indictment stated that one of her paintings, which depicted a real-life scene of Turkish flags on war-torn buildings and was based on a photo circulated by the Turkish military on social media, went ‘beyond the limits of criticism.’ JINHA was also shut down as part of the government crackdown following an attempted coup in 2016.

“We are delighted that Zehra has been released and reunited with family and friends after her unjust imprisonment, which was an appalling affront to free expression,” said Julie Trébault, Director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “Art should never be a crime. Doğan is a model of courage for all journalists and artists for standing up against injustice and silence, especially because of her determination to work and create while incarcerated. Many other journalists in Turkey remain behind bars. As we celebrate Zehra’s release, we call for the release of all other Turkish journalists, artists, and activists who are in prison for their journalism or their expression.”

While imprisoned, Doğan rigorously continued to work on her paintings using diverse media including pomegranate shells, tincture of iodine, and bedsheets, despite restricted access to painting materials. Following her release, she told BBC Turkish that she had never painted as much as she did in prison. Also while in prison, she founded the 8-page handmade newspaper Özgür Gündem Zindan (Free Agenda Dungeon) with the help of several of her fellow inmates. As an inmate, Doğan received public support from numerous human rights organizations and renowned artists, including the graffiti artist Banksy and prominent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. During her imprisonment, Doğan became the second woman in Turkey to receive the International Women’s Media Foundation’s “Courage in Journalism” award. She also received the Freethinker Prize from the Swiss Freethinker Association. Most recently, Doğan was shortlisted in the Arts category for the Index on Censorship Awards 2019.

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Post and photograph courtesy of PEN America.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.


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