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Turkish leaders plan a curtain call for theatre funding

Recap Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, accuses theatre actors and writers of "looking down upon the nation", while taking public money via state subsidies.

A scene from
A scene from "Behzat C.Ó, a popular TV drama about a police officer in Ankara.

ISTANBUL // Secularist critics of the religiously conservative government in Turkey say Ankara is putting pressure on the arts by withdrawing state financial support for theatres and issuing warnings against a popular TV drama featuring a heavy-drinking police officer.

"Pretty soon, works of the theatre and screenplays for films and television series will be banned, and those that have not been published yet will be destroyed," Emine Ulker Tarhan, a leading member of the Republican People's Party (CHP), a secularist opposition group in Ankara's parliament, said last week.

Ms Tarhan said the government's aim was to transform artists into "court jesters".

She was reacting to an announcement by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, who said public theatres were to be privatised.

Mr Erdogan said by Twitter earlier this month the state spent more than €60m (Dh285m) on the roughly 50 public theatres in Turkey every year, but received less than €2m (Dh9.5m) revenues in return. The theatres employ about 1,500 actors, technicians and officials.

The cabinet in Ankara discussed the privatisation plan last week, and a draft law is expected in parliament soon.

In a televised speech on May 4, Mr Erdogan accused theatre actors and writers of "looking down upon the nation", while taking public money via state subsidies. "They are elitist", he said about theatre people. "They absolutely do not want anyone to break into their caste."

In recent weeks, the government also raised public concerns when it said it was closely monitoring whether a TV series depicting a fictional police officer violated rules protecting "the physical, mental or moral development of children and young people".

The main character in the TV drama Behzat C. - Police Stories from Ankara - is a hard-drinking and foul-mouthed officer in the Turkish capital who has an affair with a female state prosecutor. The popular series, which will be spun off into a film this year, has received two warnings from the High Council of Radio and Television (RTUK), a government media watchdog with the power to ban programmes.

Davut Dursun, the RTUK chairman, said in a statement issued by the deputy prime minister in charge of media, that the police drama would "continue to be monitored attentively".

The statement said there would be "absolutely no permission" to allow the TV series to spread advertisements for alcohol or cigarettes - a reference to Behzat C.'s drinking and smoking habits.

The Erdogan administration is not alone in its concern about the TV police officer.

Bulent Belen, a politician from the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), complained Behzat C. was "living in a non-married relationship that is alien to the Muslim-Turk family structure".

Turk Yesilay, a non-profit body campaigning against alcohol and cigarette consumption, said "a policeman who always has a bottle of alcohol in his hand cannot be portrayed as a hero".

Aired by private channel, Star TV, the drama eventually has Behzat C. marry his girlfriend. Emrah Serbes, a screenwriter for the series, denied reports that the TV wedding was an effort to mollify critics. Like the debate about Behzat C., the row surrounding the planned privatisation of Turkey's theatres centres on the question of what role, if any, the state should have in cultural affairs.

The theatre issue started when employees of public theatres in Istanbul, a city run by Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), rejected a plan by the city administration to give bureaucrats a say about what plays to stage. A protest march by actors and writers in Istanbul on April 24 denounced the government plan as an effort to curb artistic freedom.

Mr Erdogan responded by announcing the privatisation of theatres. "Then you can play what you like," he said. In his speech on May 4, he added theatre people were accepting money from the public without giving anything back. "They stand around in front of bars, whisky and beer in hand," Mr Erdogan said. "They just insult people, without creating anything."

Ulrike Dufner, Turkey representative of the Heinrich Boll Stiftung, a political foundation affiliated with German's Green Party, said the row was part of a deeper confrontation between AKP, an organisation with roots in political Islam, and Turkey's secular elites. They accuse the AKP of having a hidden agenda to turn the country into an Islamist state.

"There is this criticism [by the government] that intellectuals are aloof from the rest of society," Ms Dufner told The National last week. She added that the Erdogan government had not forgiven Turkey's secular intellectuals for tolerating, or even backing, the removal of an Islamist government by the military in 1997.

"It is a cultural restoration and a campaign of revenge" for the 1997 intervention, she said. "The AKP is saying the secular elites didn't stand up to the military back then."

While all Turkish governments in the past had meddled with the art scene by putting followers in key positions, the AKP was going further, Ms Dufner said. "It is a conservative turnaround to push a certain idea of culture, of the role of the family, of women."

Mr Erdogan's rejection of some works of modern art has been highly controversial. Last year, authorities in the city of Kars decided to demolish a statue honouring Armenian-Turkish friendship after the prime minister called it "monstrous".

Critics say the AKP is uncomfortable with expressions of lifestyles not in line with its own conservative values. Ms Tarhan of the CHP said the governing party aspired to be a "moral chaperone of the people".

tseibert@thenational.ae