After Failed Coup, Journalism in Turkey Often Means Jail
Since a failed coup three years ago this month, Turkey has become the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists.
In 2014, Turkish journalist Arzu Yildiz broke news on how the country’s intelligence agency was funnelling arms to rebels in Syria, a sensitive subject for authorities under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The next night, police came knocking at Yildiz’s home, but she was not there. Yildiz spent the following five months in hiding in a windowless room before fleeing to Canada. She left her two daughters behind.
“This affected three generations,” Yildiz said. “My mother lost her daughter and I lost my daughters.”
“I will never go back to Turkey again. My heart is broken.”
Yet Yildiz may count herself among the lucky ones.
Two years after Yildiz’s brush with the law, Erdogan crushed a coup, and in the three years since, Turkey has become the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, according to figures collated by the International Press Institute, IPI, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ.
An anti-government protest in Istanbul in October 2017 over the mass arrests of journalists. Demonstrators hold placards reading 'free media, free country' and 'journalism is not a crime.' Photo: EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU
An estimated 137 are currently behind bars, a tally that shot up as authorities pursued a devastating crackdown in the wake of the abortive putsch in July 2016, blamed by Erdogan on a US-based cleric but exploited by his government to target dissenters across Turkish society.
By the government’s own count, more than 130 media outlets have been shut down.
“As long as even one journalist remains in jail or is afraid of reporting the truth or gets fired because they reported the truth, then there is a big problem for any democracy,” said Emre Kizilkaya, a journalist and vice president of the National Committee at IPI.
In Turkey, said Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator at CPJ, there is a “fine comb that combs through the entire space and whoever appears slightly more independent than Erdogan wants them to be, they are targeted, persecuted and prosecuted.”
The July 15 coup attempt left 250 people dead, thousands injured and the Turkish parliament bombed.
Erdogan, now more than 15 years in power as prime minister and then president, was quick to blame it on Fethullah Gulen, a cleric, businessman and leader of a religious movement with a network of schools and followers around the world. Once allies, the two men have become bitter enemies. Gulen, from his compound in Pennsylvania, has denied any involvement.
People turn on the torches on their smartphones during a rally for the second anniversary of the failed coup attempt on Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul on July 15, 2018. Photo: EPA/ERDEM SAHIN
Operating under cover of a State of Emergency that he extended five times until July 2018, Erdogan went after military and police officers, civil servants, academics and journalists. More than 160,000 people were detained.
For years, Turkey faced criticism from human rights organisations and media watchdogs, but the level of rights violations reached new heights after the coup bid, they say. The country currently ranks 157th out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
“We see what we are describing as a collapse of the rule of law and due process for journalists,” said Scott Griffen, Director of Press Freedom Programmes at IPI.
“You see leftist journalists being targeted, secular journalists being targeted and Kurdish journalists especially being targeted,” said Griffen. “It is very important that people understand that they in many ways bore the brunt of the attacks on media freedom.”
A similar assault on the freedom of the judiciary means those judges spared the purge frequently rule against journalists, who invariably face terrorism-related charges that carry potential sentences of more than 20 years in prison.
“The vague formulation of the criminal provisions on the security of the state and terrorism and their overly broad interpretation by Turkish judges and prosecutors make all critics, particularly lawyers, human rights defenders, journalists and rival politicians a potential victim of judicial harassment,” said a Turkish lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ahmet Donmez, who used to work for the newspaper Zaman Daily, told BIRN: “Some journalists have been kept in solitary confinement for years. Most were subjected to ill-treatment, sexual harassment and psychological torture.”
People hold pictures of victims of the attempted coup during a ceremony to mark its first anniversary in front of the Turkish Parliament in Ankara on July 16, 2017. Photo: EPA/TUMAY BERKIN
Living in fear
Bulent Kenes, the former editor in chief of the popular English-language newspaper Today’s Zaman, spent time in and out of prison before fleeing for Stockholm in 2015.
“When I compare my situation with that of my colleagues, I feel lucky. They are still in jail,” he said. “Even my art director got a life sentence.”
“It is entirely impossible in Turkey to do journalism after the coup, for journalists like me.”
Those who stayed behind live in fear.
Nurcan Baysal, a Kurd, was detained by police at her house in 2018 after she tweeted criticism of Turkish military operations in neighbouring Syria. She was briefly arrested again last month but released hours later amid international outcry.
“It is really hard when you are a Kurd and a woman because they are trying to attack you for what you wear and how you live,” said Baysal, a columnist for the online news site Ahval.
“They are doing this from every side because, in our society, they don’t want to see a courageous woman writing about human rights violations and war crimes.”
Despite the uncertainty, some journalists refuse to leave.
“I will stay in Turkey. I will continue to practice journalism. It’s my character. I don’t give up. I won’t give up,” said Kadri Gursel, who was among 18 journalists of the Cumhuriyet newspaper who were arrested on October 31, 2017.
People protest against arrested soldiers who participated in an attempted coup d'etat in Turkey in 2016 as they arrive at court before trial in Ankara on August 1, 2017. Some 330 soldiers were put on trial. Photo: EPA/TUMAY BERKIN
Gursel spent 11 months in prison, five of them in pre-trial detention unaware of the charges against him. “Our communication with the outside world was extremely restricted because we’ve been banned from receiving letters,” he said. “We had the right to a 10-minute phone call every two weeks, whereas the normal inmates have rights to a 10-minute phone call per week.”
Gursel was finally released but must report every week to the nearest police station until 2020.
“Erdogan and the AKP (Justice and Development Party) don’t want to see journalism and they don’t want to be the subject of a news story if it does not praise them,” said Pelin Unker, who narrowly escaped serving a year in prison after a court overturned her conviction on defamation charges stemming from her reporting on offshore companies linked to Turkish politicians and their families.
Nevertheless, Erdogan’s grip on power was dealt a blow at the ballot box this year when Turkey’s opposition People’s Republication Party, CHP, won control of the capital Ankara and the biggest city, Istanbul.
“Erdogan has seriously been thinking of his own political future,” said Erol Onderoglu, the Turkish Representative of Reporters Without Borders.
Onderoglu, another journalist and the head of a human rights organisation, was acquitted this month of engaging in terrorist propaganda and supporting criminal activity. He faces trial again in November on terrorist propaganda charges after he signed a petition in solidarity with hundreds of persecuted Turkish academics.
Onderoglu said Erdogan’s recent electoral losses may force him to compromise. But the future is uncertain.
“This is Turkey,” said Yildiz from her self-imposed Canadian exile. “It’s really hard to know tomorrow.”