Journalists in Turkey: An endangered species

Sunday 11/09/2016

Carrying the journal­ist’s badge in Turkey is a curse.
It is nothing new, no surprise, that journalism has, for many years, been a daily walk in a minefield but the hostility of political power that has step-by-step damaged the profession, has now come close to totally annihilating it.
In the Quran, there is a saying: “Every creature will taste death.”
Converted to the Turkish reality, this is what can be said: “Each and every decent journalist here will taste being censored and sacked. Then, the court cases and jail comes as bonus.”
Each journalist in Turkey who has cared for integrity is scarred, either by at least once having been arbitrarily sacked or by facing prison because of disseminating news, analysis and free speech.
I have lived through this for two decades, surviving with bruises and a sense of fatigue that increased each time a new blow was delivered to me individually or to the outlet I worked for.
My memory was burdening enough. I worked as a news ombudsman, monitoring corrections and ethical breaches of a newspaper, Sabah — now a government mouthpiece — when my critical columns, which were supposed to be untouchable due to the nature of the job, were twice censored during Gezi Park protests in 2013.
While writing a column for Today’s Zaman, I also co-founded in late 2013 the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) to develop projects on media integrity and to help unemployed colleagues. From 2014 on, one media outlet after another that had offered space for free speech and analysis had to shut down. The more one reported on power abuses, erratic policies in Syria and, most dramatic of all, on top-level corruption, the riskier the minefield became.
I lost my column and income when Today’s Zaman was brutally seized and, fasten your seatbelts, its digital archive entirely deleted.
As of this summer, it was clear that there would be no room in the sector for any free-minded journalist to be hired. So, even if the number of 150-plus journalists were nullified by a miracle tomorrow, none of us, in defence of a media integrity, would be “allowed” to conduct our profession.
My arrest order, naturally, comes as a punitive “bonus”.
Every sign in the days preceding the clampdown on August 30th had actually sent signals of brutal escalation of the threats to our freedom and diversity.
After the recent closure of pro- Kurdish daily Ozgur Gundem and arrests of intellectuals such as author Asli Erdogan, police raided another Kurdish paper, Azadiya Welad, in Diyarbakir and rounded up 24 Kurdish colleagues some days ago.
In addition, 36 staff members of the state broadcaster, Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), were detained and sent to jail.
I learnt the morning of August 30th also that Murat Aksoy was among those arrested. Murat, a commentator in print and television, with social democrat leanings, who has never hidden his Alevi roots, is not only a journalist but also had recently been recruited as press adviser to Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroglu.
I heard in those morning hours that the house of Ali Yurttagul, not far from where I live by the Bosporus, was also raided.
Ali was a columnist, like me, with the English-language Today’s Zaman until it was shuttered last spring. He has been a respected adviser — as a member of Dutch Green movement — to the European Parliament on Turkish affairs for decades.
Soon I read a news story that 35 journalists were being hunted that day. By nightfall, we knew that at least nine of them had been taken into custody, which means up to 30 days under arbitrary confinement, according to emergency rule regulations.
Why was this happening?
At the time of writing this column, efforts by my lawyer and others’ lawyers have not shed any light on what was going on about us. I have no idea what I am accused of because, as my lawyer told me: “All the files in this sweep are classified”.
Aksoy was told by police that he was accused of “praising the terrorist organisation” — Gulenists — in his columns. When he was visited in prison by a CHP deputy, he told him: “I asked many newspapers for a job, such as Hurriyet or Cumhuriyet. I was turned down. Then, [news site] T24 asked me to write and I did, for free, in 2014. Now I am accused of these articles, which are, of course, critical. One of them is titled Civilian disobedience, the other talks about [the ruling Justice and Development Party] AKP building its own state.
“Everybody knows for sure that I have nothing to do with Gulen community. All I have dreamed of was two things: More freedom and democracy for my country and that my children would never become needy of the vile.”
His words sum it up.
Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) reported that 115 colleagues were in pretrial detention. This figure does not include 18 who have been sentenced to prison nor the mass arrests in recent weeks, pending court decisions. With the latest round-ups, about 150 colleagues have been stripped of their freedom, kept in custody or prison.
The AKP has chosen to place itself at the top of the league of enemies of journalism — far higher than several dictatorships combined. The irony is that many in the West are led to believe that this ordeal is part of the “democracy celebrations” in the wake of the coup attempt.
I am left speechless. Although now in relative safety in Europe, I am very bitter to be forced into self-exile, ripped from my crying, beloved country.
Our journalist badge in Turkey deserves a new mark: “Endangered species”.