ISTANBUL, Turkey – As punk rock goes, a song bemoaning a high school exam hardly sounds like the stuff of anarchy. But in Turkey it can land you in court, as an Istanbul rock band has discovered.
All the song does is lash out against Turkey's equivalent of the SAT, the exam that all Turkish high-schoolers must pass to have a shot at getting into college. High-schoolers the world over may sympathize, but to Turkish prosecutors it's an insult to the state and its employees.
The troubles besetting the five-man group called "Deli," or "Crazy," as they head to trial Thursday are typical of the extremes endured by a country historically torn between cultures -- Islam and secularism, Europe and Asia, democracy and military dictatorship, and a reverence for institutions of state that frequently collides with basic civil liberties.
The song is several years old and may have gone unnoticed were this not the Internet age. It came to prosecutors' notice only after a teenager lip-synched the song and posted it on youtube.com last year for the whole world to see.
Now the musicians, along with their manager and a former band member, will go on trial on July 19 in the Turkish capital, Ankara. If convicted, they face up to 18 months in jail, although they could get off with a fine or a warning.
Turkey, which seeks European Union membership, retains strict limits on expression. Several intellectuals, notably Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk and Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, were prosecuted on charges of "insulting Turkishness" for comments on mass killings of Armenians a century ago. Dink was subsequently assassinated and 14 suspects are on trial.
In March, a court order made YouTube inaccessible in Turkey for two days because of videos that allegedly insulted Ataturk, the late, revered founder of the modern republic.
The punk song is called "OSYM," the Turkish acronym for The Student Selection and Placement Center. That's the state institution that decides which students go to university, based on a three-hour multiple-choice exam held every June.
In a nation of 70 million with 10 percent unemployment, passing the test is critical to every young Turk's future prospects. Even so, in 2006 there were university spots for fewer than one-third of the 1.5 million students who took the test.
"Life should not be a prison because of an exam," go the lyrics of "OSYM." "I have gotten lost/ You have ruined my future/ I am going to tell you one thing:/ Shove that exam..."
Mild stuff by the standards of Western popular culture, but according to Turkish media it prompted Unal Yarimagan, the professor who chairs the university placement system, to seek legal advice, and the matter was referred to state prosecutors.
"We opened the case and now it is in the hands of justice," state prosecutor Kursat Kayral said.
There has been little public discussion about the wisdom of prosecuting the punk band. Turkish prosecutors routinely file defamation complaints, creating a glut of cases, some of which never come to trial.
Gathered in a cramped Istanbul recording studio, the Deli musicians don't look like stereotypical punks -- no spiked hair, lip studs or drugs. They're in their early 20s, polite, mild-mannered and irreverent. And all passed the university exam. Vocalist Cengiz Sari is studying to become an art teacher. Base guitarist Enis Coban studied textile manufacturing.
Coban says Turkey has more censorship than Europe or the United States, but less than China or Iran.
"Compared to dictatorships, Turkey is like heaven," he said. "Turkey still has a lot missing, but we believe that it is on the right track to improve itself."