Monday, April 23, 2007

ISTANBUL — Five Turkish punk rockers and their agent face up to 18 months in jail after a bureaucrat took umbrage at their song criticizing the country’s unpopular university entrance exam.

Unal Yarimagan, head of Turkey’s Student Selection and Placement Center, (OSYM) reportedly smiled when he first saw a clip of the hit song, “OSYM, kiss my [expletive],” by Deli, a group from the western city of Bursa.

“I’m a tolerant person, but that didn’t stop me doing my duty and checking it wasn’t breaking any laws,” Mr. Yarimagan said. Last month, an Ankara prosecutor said it broke the law because it was insulting.

The court case starts on May 2.

“It’s ridiculous,” said lead singer and lyricist Cengiz Sari, 24. “I was 17 when I wrote that song. I was just your typical rebellious teenager. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Sensitivity to criticism is a common trait of Turkey’s, where it is against the law to “insult Turkishness.”

Since March 2005, when he sued a cartoonist who portrayed him as a cat tangled in wool, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is believed to have earned at least $215,000 in damages from insult cases.

Turkey’s quirky understanding of freedom of expression surfaced again last month when a judge ordered the popular Web site YouTube to be blocked after a Greek nationalist posted a video describing Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, as a homosexual.

YouTube has a central role to play in Deli’s story, too. Until last June, few had heard of the band. It was then that a 16-year old fan uploaded a clip of himself lip-synching his way through the OSYM ditty.

“I worked day and night / to pass the exam / What’s changed now / My future is unclear,” a fan named Hako mouthed over a sound track.

“So let me tell you something / [expletive] your exam system.”

Posted days before 1.5 million Turkish teenagers took the university entrance exam, Hako’s clip became an overnight sensation. Within a week, 300,000 people had gone on line to watch it.

“I had the tune in my head throughout the test,” one teenager commented on YouTube.

Others said that Deli should represent Turkey at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

The three-hour long, multiple-choice test has long been criticized. It’s too competitive, critics say, pointing to the fact that only 20 percent of those who take it pass.

With youth unemployment high in Turkey, students are so desperate to succeed that they routinely skip school to attend expensive cram courses in preparation for the exam.

“We’ve already had half a dozen lawyers offering to represent us for free,” said Mustafa Kirgul, the band’s manager. “Which is just as well, because we don’t have any money.”

That might just change after the release this week of Deli’s first album — minus “OSYM” — by Kadikoy Muzik Yapim, an Istanbul-based alternative label.

“It may not be EMI,” Mr. Kirgul said, “but you can’t get better publicity than this, can you?”

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