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Facing Government Pressure to Remove Gay Character, Netflix Cancels Turkish Show

Netflix has previously complied with government censorship, but anti-LGBTQ sentiment appears to be where the streamer draws the line.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the family members of coup victims before a dinner at his presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Turkey is marking the fourth anniversary of the July 15 failed coup attempt against the government, with prayers and other events remembering its victims. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been advancing policies on behalf of Turkey’s religious conservatives that some feel undermine the nation’s tradition of secularism in government.

AP

Netflix has pulled the plug on its upcoming Turkish drama series “If Only” after the government there refused to permit filming because the show features a gay character. The streamer opted to cancel the entire production rather than heed the complaints of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is increasingly cracking down on freedom of expression, IndieWire has confirmed.

Ece Yorenc, a screenwriter who had penned a script for the upcoming series, said the show was canceled last week on the eve of filming because of the government’s stance

“Due to a gay character, permission to film the series was not granted and this is very frightening for the future,” she told the Turkish film news website Altyazi Fasikul, as translated by the Financial Times.

Reached for comment, a Netflix spokesperson offered the following statement:

“Netflix remains deeply committed to our Turkish members and the creative community in Turkey. We are proud of the incredible talent we work with. We currently have several Turkish originals in production — with more to come — and look forward to sharing these stories with our members all around the world.”

This is just the latest instance of Netflix facing pressure from world governments to censor its shows and movies. Easily the most notable instance happened last year when Saudi Arabia demanded the streamer remove an an episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” from its service in that country because the episode included a segment that was critical of the regime.

Shortly after that, Netflix released a report that revealed the Saudi demand was the ninth such one, from any country, since it began streaming in 2007. Other titles include five in Singapore and one in Germany: “Night of the Living Dead,” which is banned in the European Union’s largest country.

While Netflix has in the past complied with the demands of these countries, the Turkish incident appears to have made good on a stance articulated by Netflix Co-CEO Reed Hastings late last year.

Defending the “Patriot Act” episode removal, Hastings said this in November, according to Variety: “We’re not in the news business … We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to entertain … We don’t feel bad about [pulling the ‘Patriot Act’ episode in Saudi Arabia] at all.”

He continued: That said, if the Saudi government came to Netflix “and said, ‘you can’t do gay content,’ we wouldn’t do that, we would not comply with that,” the CEO said. He noted that the Saudi regime allows Netflix to stream shows like “Sex Education,” which portrays “a very liberal lifestyle and very provocative and important topics.”

It remains unclear just how far Netflix would be willing to take this stance — what would the company do if Turkey refuses to permit any content with LGBTQ characters? Would it be willing to pull out of the country, where it has 1.5 million subscribers?

It’s worth nothing that Turkey has not censored any non-Turkish LGBTQ content on Netflix that is available in that country, such as “Orange is the New Black,” IndieWire has learned.

Netflix’s first Turkish original series, “The Protector” premiered in 2018.

According to Amnesty International, freedom of expression has been under attack in Turkey since a failed coup in 2016. Under the leadership of Erdogan, “academics, journalists and writers who criticise the government risk criminal investigation and prosecution, intimidation, harassment and censorship.”

This all intersects with the growing trend of American media giants being faced with the quandaries that arise when producing content for countries with illiberal or authoritarian governments — where the draw of doing business there can conflict with values at home.

For example, in the “Top Gun: Maverick” trailer, Tom Cruise appears in the same iconic leather jacket as the original film, but the patches on the back of the bomber are slightly tweaked: Japanese and Taiwanese flags have been replaced by two symbols with similar color schemes.

It was a move that many speculated was meant to appease Chinese authorities, given the tense relationships the country has with Taiwan and Japan.

Tencent Pictures, a division of the Chinese tech conglomerate, was a financial backer of the Paramount film. The company is co-marketing the new “Top Gun” in China — a crucial market for US studios that’s on track to become the top moviegoing country in the world.

Attorney General William Barr last week characterized this type of creative decision as self-censorship to appease China meant to ensure entry into its marketplace.

“Hollywood’s actors, producers, and directors pride themselves on celebrating freedom and the human spirit, and every year at the Academy Awards Americans are lectured about how this country falls short of Hollywood’s ideals of social justice,” Barr said, according to Deadline. “But Hollywood now regularly censors its own movies to appease the Chinese Communist Party, the world’s most powerful violator of human rights. This censorship infects, not only the versions of movies that are released in China, but also many that are shown in the United States theaters to American audiences.”

While Barr makes points that many civil libertarians — including those opposed to the Trump administration’s own civil rights violations  — would agree with, his comments come as the White House is ramping up rhetoric against China amid the coronavirus crisis.

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