Row flares up over Turkey's 'censorship' of Darwin

Government denies threat to academic freedom as editor is sacked over evolution piece, writes John Gill

March 26, 2009

The Turkish Government has been forced to adopt damage-limitation tactics after becoming embroiled in an embarrassing row over academic freedom.

It has come under sustained fire after the editor of a state-run scientific journal, Bilim ve Teknik, was apparently sacked for planning a front-page story on Charles Darwin and evolution.

According to Cigdem Atakuman, the editor of the journal, the story was pulled on the orders of the Scientific and Technical Research Council (TUBITAK), which runs Bilim ve Teknik.

She said that she was sacked by Omer Cebeci, TUBITAK's deputy director, and told German magazine Der Spiegel that the Darwin feature - which was replaced with a cover story on climate change - was considered by her employer as "a big mistake, an unforgivable error".

She said that Dr Cebeci told her that "in the current political climate in Turkey, something like that could be perceived as a provocation".

Dr Atakuman's claims have fuelled speculation that the Islamic-oriented Government in Turkey is seeking to increase the role of religion and promote the Muslim version of creationist theory.

In a statement, a group of academics at the Middle East Technical University, which is based in the Turkish capital Ankara, said the incident was "proof that a dogmatic world view that is opposed to science dominates (in the Turkish administration)".

TUBITAK has tried to duck accusations of censorship, claiming that the Darwin story was pulled because of "business" considerations.

Mehmet Aydin, Minister of State in the Turkish Council of Ministers, was forced to backtrack after he reportedly said that TUBITAK "should not study Darwinism" because many other academic journals were already occupied with it.

He told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet: "A man (Darwin) who is known by everyone and covered in school books in Turkey cannot be censored in the 21st century ... Who does such a thing? It is impossible."

TUBITAK added that Dr Atakuman had been removed from her post for "breaching her authority" by replacing the feature that was originally planned for the March edition, which it insisted was the story on climate change. "There is no question of censorship," it said in a statement released last week.

As Times Higher Education went to press, Dr Atakuman was reinstated as editor of the journal. However, she said she would "see how it goes".

"This incident has hurt the reputation of Turkish science and scientists in the international arena," she said. "It shows the imminent threat, but cannot be used as a representation of what most people in Turkey think of evolution.

"Except for the objections of a handful of creationists, the enormous outcry showed that the event is reprehensible both to Turkish academia and the Turkish public."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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