Turkey has taken aim at its own press. But they are not taking it lying down
By Aysegul Sert
Right now Turkey’s global importance as a democratic power is on shaky ground. Any media that are deemed critical of the government are censored. Journalists who object the escalating erosion of civil and human rights and the crumbling of basic democratic values are being arrested and jailed. Today’s political landscape is grim, but history has shown that in moments of division and despair solutions can be found, compromises can be made, and hope for tolerance and reconciliation between dissenting factions can be renewed and embraced.
Democratic reform, however, appears unlikely under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AK) Party, which has been in power since 2002. The consensus among critics is that it’s already too late to hold out hope for negotiated compromise. Turkey is on a slippery slope, they say, and every day more ground is giving way.
Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, is one such critical voice. He, along with the paper’s Ankara editor, Erdem Gul, were arrested in November 2015 and charged with violation of state secrecy and espionage. Last May, Cumhuriyet published an article along with footage showing local authorities stopping a truck linked to the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), the country’s intelligence agency, that was allegedly carrying weapons to Muslim rebels in Syria. The report emerged close to the national elections and Erdogan regarded it as a personal attack. The president personally filed the criminal complaint against Cumhuriyet, vowing that the authors will “pay a heavy price.”
A domestic and international solidarity movement in support of Dundar and Gul followed, and, just weeks ago, on February 25, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that their rights to personal liberty and security had been violated. The journalists were released on February 26 from the Silivri state prison near Istanbul to a cheering crowd of colleagues, supporters, family and friends. Their first court hearing is set for March 25; if convicted they face life sentences. It is the first time either had been jailed. Turkey has a long history of jailing editors, publishers, and writers because of what they have written. As for the court’s decision, Erdogan said, “I don’t have to accept it, let me be clear about that. I don’t agree with the decision and I don’t respect it.”
A few days after his release from 92 days in prison, of which 40 days were spent in solitary confinement, Dundar stood in the lobby of a hotel in a crowded Istanbul neighborhood. Dressed in a tailored black suit with a white pocket-handkerchief, he was accompanied by his wife and son. He had come to speak to the foreign press, and while visibly uncomfortable to be the focus of such attention, he addressed the throng with grace and gravitas.
“Turkish democracy is trying to get up on its feet and walk; it is still a very young democracy,” he told me later that morning in an interview with Newsweek Middle East. “And on this walk to democracy it has known several military coups that have knocked it down, yet it gets up again and again,” he added.
“Compared to the hundreds of years of democratic tradition in Europe, Turkey’s efforts could be considered as an infant’s in a cradle, and that is precisely why it has to be cared for, because in a region of the world that is so dark, Turkey’s effort is precious. In the region and in the Islamic world, Turkey is a rare example of democracy and it struggles to stand up and walk towards Europe. It has tried for years and Europe needs to extend a hand to help us accomplish that,” he said.
“Erdem and I have sought to lift us from the mud swamp, to walk towards a civilized world, to be democratic and to be a peaceful country. We are trying to run to that with one foot stuck in the mud, but the swamp holds us captive, so we try to extend a hand to the people to pull us out, yet there are people inside Turkey who want to remain in the swamp. That’s why it’s so important to have international solidarity. Turkish democracy is not fully formed and all our efforts are to leave to our children a more civilized and just world.”
Dundar adjusts his glasses. There is no hesitation in his speech. At 54, he has made a name for himself as a writer, journalist and documentary maker. After being fired from the Turkish daily Milliyet for articles that were perceived as too critical of the government, he then joined Cumhuriyet as a writer, and became its editor-in-chief in 2015.
“We are currently in the middle of a battle between the good and the bad and we will see together whether the outcome will be ugly or not,” he said. “When we decided to run the story, the lawyers told us there was a risk, and in the framework of my mind I saw myself in jail. There was that risk, we knew it, because we were about to hit the underbelly of the government,” he added. “We did it to show Turkey’s policy in regard to Syria, how Erdogan is using the national intelligence agency, how this government functions and how justice functions. That is precisely what that footage [of the MIT trucks] showed us and told us.”
Journalists are in a constant state of vigilance. It’s a job requirement. Individuals like Dundar and Gul, as they exercise their civil right—freedom of expression—along with their professional right—to observe and report—can also become beacons of hope, whether they like it or not. As they will attest, they are here to report the story, not to be the story.
“Writing is a way of life for me,” Dundar told me. “I felt that even more intensely in jail. For a journalist to write means to present life. I was ok with not having bread and water if it meant to have paper and pen. My connection and my communication with the world is through writing, so when that is taken away it feels like a loss of sense,” he said.
“In that cell, there was no computer, no typewriter, so with the strength of my wrist I wrote—a pen and paper was all I had—and I wrote and wrote, and sometimes when my right wrist would get tired and start to spasm I would try to write left-handed. To me, writing means to live, it means to breathe. I could probably not live in any other manner if I didn’t write.” (His book chronicling his time in jail will be released in Turkey later this month.)
The Syrian civil war enters its sixth year in March. Iraq has become a no man’s land, more so with the insurgence of the terrorist group Daesh. Turkey hosts more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees. The week these two journalists were arrested, the European Union (EU) had a summit meeting with Turkey. Dundar sent letters to each European leader who was to attend, explaining that they were two journalists, in prison, who were supporters of Turkey’s full membership into the EU and that they were ardent defenders of European values. They wrote that they knew the humanitarian crisis that the refugee situation entailed and that they knew something had to be done to solve this dire situation. “However,” Dundar said he also wrote, “the EU should not sacrifice Europe’s long-held core values such as human rights, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, democracy and peace.”
He highlighted during our conversation what he had said earlier at the press conference. It’s important for him. “It appears Europe is willing to yield its long-term principles for short-term gains,” he said. “While we were in prison, there was bargaining going on over money for refugees. This is a dirty bargain to keep refugees off European territory. The EU has rented land in Turkey and chosen to turn a blind eye to what happened to us. That’s a negative record for the EU. I hope they will correct that.
The European press has supported our case a lot, but I cannot say the same of European politics. I think we defended Europe’s principles much better in Silivri than in Brussels,” he added.
For two consecutive years, 2012 and 2013, Turkey jailed more journalists than Russia and China. According to the 2015 freedom of the press index released by Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranked 149th out of 180 countries. Yet in February 2016, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said there were no journalists in jail in Turkey because of their journalistic activities, while Dundar and Gul were sitting in their cells along with more than 30 colleagues. Reports in 2005 counted approximately 50,000 people in prison in Turkey; by 2014 that number neared 160,000.
“The problem is that Erdogan has issues accepting any criticism. He perceives criticism as personal, as a threat,” said Dundar. There are today over 1,800 cases for insulting the president, with a penalty of up to four years in prison. Baris Ince, a writer for the leftist daily BirGun, was sentenced to 21 months in prison for such a claim and is planning an appeal. The first court hearing for Dundar and Gul is approaching. “We’re going to go to it not in a state of being the ones being judged,” said Dundar, “but as the ones who will be judging. We will present all that this government has done with documents and we will continue to protest. We will use that hearing as a judiciary pulpit.”
One of the first television interviews Dundar and Gul gave after their release was to the Turkish-language pro-Kurdish channel IMC. In the middle of the interview the broadcast was dropped from the satellite Turksat and taken off the air. Banu Guven, a highly respected journalist, was holding the microphone when the show was dropped. It wasn’t her first encounter with censorship. In 2011, on the eve of the legislative elections in Turkey, Guven was working for the news network NTV. She was at the top of her game—one of the most prominent news reporters on television. She had secured a rare interview opportunity with an important person in Kurdish politics in Turkey, Leyla Zana, who after 10 years in prison was free and back in the political arena. Then, about a week before the pending elections, word came that nothing should jeopardize the AK Party’s win, which meant controlling who got air time for opposing political views. Zana didn’t make it to Guven’s popular program, neither right before nor right after the elections. This marked the breaking point between Guven and the network. Soon after, her 14 years of employment at NTV ended.
“I became a journalist because I realized that truth had to be explained better in this country and in the region,” she said when we met for coffee. “When the 1980 military coup took place I was about 11 years old and I grew up witnessing injustices and pressures, and that impacted my wish to inform people better. I began questioning myself about democracy and freedom. The core of the journalism I do is the human story and its struggle,” she said.
“I wrote an open letter to Erdogan after the NTV incident, when he was still prime minister, which read: ‘We are being pressured by the seeds of the auto-censorship that you have installed.’ He used to criticize journalists at rallies and accuse them of serving causes [terrorism, espionage], but say that he had nothing to do with journalists becoming unemployed,” she said.
“Nowadays there is an attempt to strangle the profession of journalism in Turkey. There is an effort to create an army of journalists who think the same way and talk the same way and is in line with those in power. The quality of journalism is disintegrating as those who have given years to this profession are being pushed to the sidelines. Walls are being built around us. The government should know that just as life always finds a way, the free press will also find a way to free expression.”
Two days before our meeting, Guven attended a party on the Bosphorus, planned by Dundar’s and Gul’s friends. They named it “The Freedom Party.” They cheered, they sang, their hearts brimmed with hope. The next day, however, another high-caliber journalist, Mirgun Cabas, who was also at the party, was told that his prime-time news program on CNN Turk was being canceled. The network blamed budget cuts and low ratings; local opinion pointed to censorship. Guven knew Cabas well from their anchor stints at NTV.
“The area in which journalism is being executed today, in which freedom of the press stands, is shrinking more and more. Despite the circle around us closing down and despite the problems that surround us, we won’t allow them to prevent us from doing our journalistic job,” said Guven.
She criticized the autocratic style of the nation’s top elected official. “President Erdogan thinks that he knows everything best,” Guven said. “He wants people to respect him and he thinks that happens through fear. He has put himself in the position of a tough father, but the children of this nation have grown up and don’t listen or abide by all he has to say, and that infuriates him.”
Guven said that being a woman and a journalist made one more of a target in the eyes of the AK Party and its most ardent supporters.
“The more you resist their pressures the more they try to break you down, and the more you see them boil inside,” said Guven. “Sometimes you go to testify with 30 other people and you know that nothing will come out of all this, but they purposefully leave those cases open to keep pressure on you,” she added.
She saw the Constitutional Court’s decision regarding the release of Dundar and Gul as a sign of hope but she also knows that the court has disappointed before.
“Sometimes after the news program, it takes me a minute to be able to get up from that desk—the incessant heavy news cycle weighs on you.” She was referring to the conflict between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, (PKK). In recent months, the southeast of Turkey has once again turned into a battlefield, with curfews being imposed and cities placed under siege. The Kurds make up 20 percent of Turkey’s population. Over the past 30 years, the conflict claimed more than 40,000 lives. With the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, reforms made in early 2000, and the ceasefire in 2013, hopes ran high for an end to the conflict. Then, around last year’s June elections, which were viewed as a referendum for Erdogan, the AK Party lost its majority rule for the first time. A coalition government failed to form. On November 1, the Turks went back to the polls, following several bomb attacks on civilians throughout the country.
Muhsin Kizilkaya, a former journalist, a writer, translator, and currently a chief advisor to Davutoglu, knows this conflict all too well. Born in southeast Turkey in the predominantly Kurdish town of Hakkari, Kizilkaya wrote for many years about the plight of his fellow Kurds. One of 11 children, Kizilkaya began learning Turkish at the age of eight, when he was sent to a dormitory school 30 kilometers from his village. It took him more than three months to cross that barrier, enduring many beatings from teachers. At night, when the lights were turned off and the kids were tucked into their bunk beds, Kizilkaya would recount, in Kurdish, the tales he had memorized listening to his uncle.
When caught by a teacher, he would confess to being the noisemaker, and suffer a beating to his calves with an iron ruler. After one such beating, when he was heard speaking in Kurdish to his visiting mother, he swore to himself that one day he would have a better command of the Turkish language than his teacher. In 1983 he came to Istanbul for university studies and later became a copy editor at the newspaper Gunes. In 1991 he was laid off when the paper closed down. While his colleagues found jobs he was labeled as a PKK supporter because of his ethnic identity and the series he wrote on Kurds. All doors were shut—including those at Cumhuriyet and other dailies.
In 1992 he worked for about six months at the pro-Kurdish daily Ozgur Gundem, before it too shut down, laying off all journalists, then reopening without them. He landed at an advertising agency as a writer, and for 10 years he also contributed essays and interviews to the daily Radikal, launched in 1996. For several years he was accompanied by a bodyguard; he was black-listed by the PKK for his rapprochement with the AK Party and for supporting reforms on the Kurdish question—such as the launch in 2009 of a Kurdish-language television channel. He now writes for the moderate pro-government daily Haberturk and travels between his home in Istanbul and the prime minister’s office in Ankara.
“In 1994 the state put a bomb in the basement of the daily Ozgur Gundem and blew it up,” said Kizilkaya. “One person was burned alive and several people were wounded. I had already left the paper by then, but the next day when I heard the news, I went there; the smoke was still visible. Just a few of us were standing there in solidarity, none of the people who today claim to be defenders of freedom of the press were there. Why is that? Where were they? Can Dundar wasn’t there. Nor were the others! Nobody cared about it because it was a Kurdish daily. It wasn’t even reported properly in the press. Where were these seekers of freedom of the press then?”
He took a deep breath before continuing. “Things shifted when the AK Party came to power; the regimes before had placed their existence above the freedom of the people and had done so with severe pressures on the people. The AK Party came with the vision that the government’s existence and the people’s freedom are at an equal level.” He paused again, then said, “When you look at the period from 1923 to 2005, one thing is crystal clear: There has never been as much freedom of the press in Turkey as in the past 10 years—from 2005 to today.”
That evening we sat in the living room of his flat while his beautiful wife Gulistan readied their two children for bed. The next day Kizilkaya was to accompany Davutoglu on an official visit to Iran, an important move for Turkey following the lifting of international sanctions against Iran.
“I don’t think that Erdogan sees journalists as targets,” said Kizilkaya. “Today no journalist is in prison because of an article they wrote. They are in jail either because they supported illegal activity to overthrow this government or they have attempted to stand on such ground,” he added. “When it comes to the case of Dundar and Gul, this story of the MIT trucks was published in other media outlets months prior. The government had banned that story. It shows their intention to show this government as a terrorist government and one that makes deals with jihadists.” He pauses. “If only journalists here today reacted to their bosses as vehemently as they do to this government, but they don’t because they might have a need for that media patron in the future, and they can always go running to Europe and tell that they have been fired because of the lack of freedom,” he said.
“The parameter that shows where a country stands in terms of democracy and freedom is how many journalists are in jail and how many books are banned. Turkey used to be the cemetery of banned books and incarcerated journalists. What we see today is the West and some groups in Turkey being uncomfortable with the fact that Muslims are in the ruling seat,” he added. “In the 1990s the prime minister of this country was [Tansu Ciller] a white woman, who dressed nicely, and spoke English, and was secular, and the West and these people in Turkey recognized something familiar in her so they didn’t speak out. But the truth is that massive human rights violations were being committed at the time towards Turks, Kurds, journalists, and many others.
The Middle East today is a ring of fire, fire has encircled it, and Turkey in all this is an island of democracy, where there are free elections and high participation at the polls.”
Kizilkaya has been an advisor to Davutoglu since the start of this year. With the arrival of a new, single-party government in 2002, the AK Party, and the subsequent rise of the economy, hopes were high for a new path. After a disastrous earthquake in 1999, followed by corruption allegations and a financial crisis in 2000, and talks about a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the coalition government of that time was worn out, and the population was looking for a breath of fresh air. In the name of reforms and improvements, the AK Party said that Turkey was facing its past mistakes, that it was becoming more democratic, that it was rebuilding its ties with the Kurds, that it was reducing the military’s power. The West approved and praised this new party that was Islamist but also moderate and modern.
The party’s cooperation with Fethullah Gulen, a powerful cleric in self-imposed exile in the U.S., was to ensure its rule by minimizing the influence of other parties in the country. The Gulen movement, which had established influence in several bureaucratic areas, solidified its presence in the police, the judiciary, and the media. Nevertheless, cracks in various partnerships appeared in 2011. The allegations of corruption waged against Erdogan and his entourage in December 2013 proved to be the breaking point of these two former tight ties. The government has tried to purge Gulen’s influence from all institutions, including the media. In March 2016, Turkish authorities seized control of Zaman, Turkey’s largest circulation newspaper, Today’s Zaman, and Cihan news agency, all part of the same Gulen-affiliated media company. Images circulated around the world, taken outside the news outlet’s headquarters in Istanbul, showed police using tear gas and water cannons against journalists and protesters. The government accuses Gulen of conspiring to overthrow the government, a charge he denies. Koza Ipek Holding, another media conglomerate linked to Gulen, has also been subjected to government takeover.
“Accusations toward journalists, television channels and media outlets for supposedly belonging to a ‘criminal organization’ comes more and more into the area of the state’s intervention,” said Fikret Ilkiz, a prominent media lawyer. “The judicial process, instead of giving decisions restraining liberties, should give decisions that protect rights and liberties. In Turkey, to prevent freedom of the press is perceived as a duty of the state. This apprehension has to be left behind. To create an atmosphere of worry and fear for journalists, academicians, intellectuals and individuals in the country is not in sync with creating a democratic order of justice.”
At the age of 66, Ilkiz has a full head of white hair, a polite and soft-spoken demeanor and an elegant style. He is an expert on media law and has long struggled with the issues facing journalism and the legal community. He worked at Cumhuriyet as a legal advisor from 1982 to 2004. He is a professor, lecturer, and a legal advisor to the Turkish Journalists Association, from which he received the Freedom Award in 1998.
“For years Turkey has been discussing democracy and freedom of the press from the basis of criminal suits,” Ilkiz said. “Today, the term ‘freedom of the press’ should be left behind; we should be referring to ‘the right of access and freedom to get information’ and to ‘the population’s right to learn the truth.’ Turkey is rapidly being dragged into a setting where such political and legal considerations do not exist. The state should protect the rights and liberties of all. Efforts to protect the government by obstructing citizens’ rights to information is not in sync with the concept of democracy,” he added.
Another important problem is the arrest of journalists because of their writings, Ilkiz said. “Even before trial, a kind of public court occurs on television and in other media, where declarations damage justice and shake the authority of the rule of law, and exemplify another type of interventionist attitude.” He was referring to Dundar and Gul’s case and Erdogan’s declarations, but in today’s Turkey that could well include many others. Another such case is that of Ismail Saymaz. Ilkiz wrote an article in the journalist’s defense a few years back when a policy of intimidation was launched against him.
Saymaz is a 35-year-old, sharp-penned Turkish journalist with a kindly gaze, whose hair has turned gray too soon. He has worked tirelessly to become the respected reporter he is today. Born into a poor family in the Black Sea region of Turkey, he reached the height of journalistic respectability on his own merits. The author of eight books, he embraces hard work, exhibits an insatiable curiosity, and possesses two rare qualities: accessibility and humility. A chain smoker, who never seems to be able to find his lighter, his energy is fueled by his dedication to his craft. He has worked in the newsroom of Radikal since the early 2000s (the daily dropped its print edition to digital in 2014) and files several stories a day, all while regularly posting on Twitter, chasing the details of stories on the ground, digging information sources, traveling for book signings and conferences throughout the nation, and appearing on televised debates. He keeps a close tab on the pulse of the nation.
Regarded as one of the few investigative reporters in the country, he is following in the footsteps of the great pioneers of Turkish journalism: Abdi Ipekci and Ugur Mumcu, both martyrs to freedom of the press. An avid reader of Turkish literature as well as thousands of court cases, Saymaz has an eye for deciphering details and connecting the dots. “I report on ordinary people with extraordinary stories, instead of ordinary stories of extraordinary people,” he is often heard saying. On the night Dundar and Gul were released from prison, Saymaz was standing in the front row of the crowd waiting to greet them. The next day he was paying a visit to the Istanbul bureau of Cumhuriyet, and was present in the room when Guven’s interview on IMC was cut off the air.
“When we look at economic parameters since 2000 life standards in Turkey [have]improved,” said Saymaz. “Matters related to human rights improved as well. But we are way behind in the dream we had back in 2000 that we projected for 2023: that we would have a more democratic and free society and would integrate with the European Union. It is true that there have been improvements in the Kurdish question, but those have been implemented more with the purpose of ensuring the hold of power of the AK Party rather than truly a desire to solve the problems,” he added. “After near three years of the peace process we are almost back to the rift of the bloody 1990s. Although there is a somewhat more diverse structure inside the parliament today, we are entering a period where tension on identity politics will increase. There is a lessening of syndical reunification—it is a nightmare to be a worker in Turkey today: There were 1,700 work accidents in 2015, compared with half that number in the 2000s. And there are still not enough women represented in the parliament.”
In early 2000 Turks spoke of the monopoly of media moguls in Turkey. “Today the biggest media patron is Erdogan,” said Saymaz. “Either the media outlets are linked to him and function as his mouthpiece, or dissident media outlets are being wiped out, while others are under the government’s control. That is the signal that what we have today is an increasingly single-voiced media stripped of any pluralism, from any views critical of the government,” he said. “Anyone at any moment can be seen as a target, and when that happens their wealth can be taken away, their influence cut, and therefore we have the remains of a media that is rickety. Journalists are being presented two options: either go work for a media outlet that has restricted reach and hence, minimal or no influence on the public, or if you are going to stay in the mainstream media, use a language and a perspective that will be minimally critical of the government. Today Turkish media is under severe threat.”
While there have been many court cases filed against Saymaz, thus far he has won most. He doesn’t see his role as one that requires courage and he refuses to be fearful.
“I don’t see myself as a symbol,” he said. “Journalism is my profession. This is what I studied. This is how I earn my living. As a worldview I don’t agree with this government, but I would have done the journalism I am doing now under any government. The kind of journalism I do is regarded as a threat by this government, and maybe the next one will think so as well, but that is none of my concern, that is not my fault if they get offended by my writings. I do my job. Whether with this government, or the next, be it less or more democratic, it doesn’t change the fact that I will continue to be focused on issues related to human rights. And from this, one cannot draw a story of heroism, from this, one cannot draw a story of personal sacrifice. If you insist on drawing anything from all of this it is the story of a journalist.”
Everything in Turkey today revolves around Erdogan: civil liberties, the executive, the judiciary, and increasingly, the media. “The one-man authoritarianism is currently in place, de facto, and what remains is for them to build the legal foundation for that in order to transition to the executive presidency they seek,” warned Saymaz. “From then on all powers will no longer be in the hands of the parliament, they will be in the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That is the direction we are headed towards.”
The road ahead may well include a referendum to rewrite the Turkish Constitution. The conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK may likely continue, which would result in heightened tensions and a widening of the rift among Turks and Kurds and other groups. The government will continue its efforts to silence any dissent; and as a result, a colossal battle for democracy will be waged in Turkey.
In closing, it is Dundar’s words that ring in my ears: “Today in Turkey what I see is a ‘pull-the-rope’ game: on one end of the rope is a swamp and on the other end is a bright light. The question is, what end will prevail? Each of us has to decide which end of the rope we want to stand at and pull for. We must choose for a free Turkey. If we lose, we will have lost all together, and the swamp will have won. If we win we will have brought the whole country into the light.”