Zehra Doğan, a Turkish-Kurdish painter and award-winning journalist, has been sentenced to two years, nine months, and 22 days in prison for her art depicting the ruin of the Kurdish district of Nusaybin by Turkish security forces.
The sentence was handed down earlier this month by the Mardin Second High Criminal Court after Doğan’s initial July arrest by authorities accusing her of associating with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (KWP) — a group the government has labeled a terrorist organization.
The Turkish daily, Cumhuriyet, wrote that Doğan’s sentence was based on her choice to drawing Turkish flags on buildings destroyed by Turkish forces, however, Artforum and Voice Project reported that it was Doğan’s decision to share her painting of current Turkish military operations that influenced the court's ruling.
According to Voice Project, multiple witnesses at the trial testified that Doğan was a member of the KWP, although no one knew her by name. In addition, the prosecution’s lawyers used her artwork and journalism as evidence against her.
“Art and paintings can never be used in such a way," Asli Pasinli, Doğan’s attorney, told Voice Project. "This is an attack on art and artistic expression.”
Doğan's artwork is unflinchingly political and raw in its depiction of Kurdish life beneath the harsh fist of the Turkish government. It has garnered controversial attention in the tense climate of Kurdish-Turkish relations.
Nevertheless, she is perhaps best known as editor of JINHA, a feminist, Kurdish language news agency with a staff comprised entirely of women. Before it was shut down by a government cleanse of opposition media sources, JINHA was the world's first international feminist news agency.
Doğan's prison sentence not only attacks speech and expression, but women and the Kurdish story in Turkey. The courts have made her an example of what will happen if a citizen builds organizations of dissent, speaks out against injustices, and has the courage to tell a story that falls outside government propaganda.
For those living in the United States and other countries where free speech is taken for granted, this reality of Doğan's seems distant enough to be impossible, but it would be dangerous to assume "it could never happen here." We live in a time where political power is defined by "alternative facts" and resistance is "fake news."