A bomb of a book, a Molotov cocktail of a news story

Journalist İrfan Aktan knows how to avoid time in prison: through self-censorship. More than a hundred journalists are presently being held in Turkey for either their own news reports or the political standpoints of the newspapers they work for.

January 8 2013 Text: İrfan Aktan Translation from Turkish: Erda Halisdemir

The activities of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been conducting an armed struggle against the state in Turkey for thirty years, have been the primary reason for the continued presence of the Kurdish question on the news agenda. This organisation’s strategies, demands and activities are newsworthy for every journalist as a result of this. It’s difficult to make any prediction about the Kurdish question or even write news stories about it without taking the PKK into consideration. However, Turkey sets a single condition for journalists, researchers, academics and writers investigating the PKK: “you must conduct research by demonising the PKK.” According to the state, every journalistic activity that is carried out without demonising the PKK is tantamount to making propaganda for it. As a result of this imposition by the state, journalists have both had to and continue to face the prospect of falling victim to extrajudicial killings during the 1990s, or being imprisoned under the Anti-Terror Law during the 2000s. The truth of the matter is that freedom of thought and expression in Turkey has never been able to reach the level that even an average democracy would anticipate. Hundreds of people—like director Yılmaz Güney in the 1970s, writer Mehmed Uzun in the 1980s, Ahmet Kaya in the 1990s—have been tried for their thoughts and forced to flee their country. While those who fled the country lost their lives in exile, some of those who resisted fleeing or were unable to find the opportunity to flee have either rotted in prisons or been killed. Therefore, it is necessary to start assessing the present by bearing in mind that in Turkey, state pressure aimed at freedom of thought has a history.

In a June 2012 speech, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, despite making the most libertarian pronouncements in the Turkish Republic’s history, has shown the absolute least tolerance for freedom of thought, targeted journalists working on the Kurdish problem, and who have conducted interviews with PKK militants because of this, by saying: “We called on the media; we said, ‘please take into consideration the sensitivity of the country’. Unfortunately, yet again, we couldn’t find sufficient support. There are members of the media who view meeting with terrorist leaders as a success. Can you explain what you have contributed to my country, to the resolution of terrorism by doing this? They went to the Kandil mountains and met with the leaders of the terrorist organisation, they spread sympathy around for them. They virtually gave the terrorist organisation oxygen. Forget staying neutral in the war on terror, they resorted to demoralising the Turkish security forces and breaking their resolve by all available means.”

Rescinded Invitations
According to Erdoğan, a journalist is either on the side of the state or the PKK. The journalists he targets either lose their jobs, are prosecuted or resort to self-censorship as they “fall into line”. As a result of Erdoğan’s overt or implied warnings to media bosses, Turkey’s well-known journalists—such as Yıldırım Türker, Banu Güven, Ruşen Çakır, Can Dündar, Nuray Mert and Ece Temelkuran—have lost their jobs in the last two years. Because Erdoğan publicly threatens the bosses of journalists who criticise him or discuss Kurdish rights and says, “you pay their wages, so you’ll pay the price for what they write.”

There are almost no bosses in the mainstream media who do not heed these warnings from the government. As a journalist, I generally abstain from passing on my own personal experiences, but I do not think what I am going to pass on below is all that particular to me. Before the 12 June 2011 elections, the editor of a television program telephoned me. The editor explained that—along with the program’s presenter and two journalists—they would be going from Ankara and Istanbul to Diyarbakır, that they were going to do a show with a minister from the government there, and that they wanted to take me from Ankara to Diyarbakır to ask the minister questions on the show too. To be honest, I had missed Diyarbakır. I accepted this offer from the television channel. I left work and came home; while I was packing my bag the phone rang. The program’s editor, with an embarrassed tone, explained that they had been unable to arrange a plane ticket, and so the matter was closed. And yet the following day, I saw that two non-dissident journalists were taking part in the program in question. Furthermore, they both had been taken from Ankara. A short while later, another television channel told me that they wanted to connect me to their program in Istanbul from their Ankara studio. In an interesting turn of events, a few hours after this invitation again the program’s editor called and said: “I’m very sorry but we’re not going to be able to connect you to our broadcast because of technical difficulties in the Ankara studio.” And yet an MP from the ruling party was brought in as a guest on the program from Ankara.

A meeting closed to the press with the press
It’s not that I’m interested in taking part in television programs; but it’s no coincidence that these two incidents occurred around the same time that the government changed its Kurdish policy in early 2011. On 11 October 2011, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gathered the bosses of mainstream newspapers and television programs, and conducted a meeting closed to the press with them. No, I’m not attempting satire; he conducted a meeting closed to the press with the press. The government had presented media bosses and chiefs with “an offer they couldn’t refuse” regarding appropriate coverage of the government’s “new policy” on the Kurdish problem.

Some media bosses continue to put out newspapers despite making a loss. Certain statistics show that nine in ten newspapers in Turkey continue to remain in print despite making a loss. This is because media bosses use their newspapers as vehicles for their relations with the government in other areas of business. They make headlines about the government’s good practices and ignore its bad practices; meanwhile the government continues its support for those bosses when it comes to awarding contracts. These mutual “sensitivities” impact on journalists in the form of censorship and, increasingly, self-censorship.

The few dissident journalists who are left outside this mutually agreed circle either lose their jobs or face being silenced by judicial means. It is no coincidence that the majority of those in prison are those from the Kurdish press. Still in Turkey, close to 100 journalists continue to be held in prison because of things they have written or because of the political stance of the press agencies that they work for. Among these are many of our friends who we know very well. For example, our still-imprisoned friend Kenan Kırkaya, reporter for Dicle News Agency, who has engaged in no activity other than reporting news stories about human rights abuses by the state and antidemocratic practices against the Kurds. Indeed, in police questioning Kenan was asked about his news stories. The news stories Kenan reports are virtually seen as individual Molotov cocktails. More seriously, because his case file is kept secret by the prosecutor’s office neither Kenan nor we know what exactly he is being accused of.

“Smart Journalists”
Let me pass on another remarkable anecdote: on a cold February afternoon in 2011 I had met up with my journalist friend Ahmet Şık in a bar in Ankara. We had joked while Ahmet was talking about the book he was working on. When I told him I didn’t like the Imam’s Army title he was thinking of using for his book and made fun of him, he said to me, “if you were a smart journalist you wouldn’t have ended up in jail over one paragraph”, and we roared with laughter (smart journalists in Turkey know the ways they can end up in jail, and save themselves from this fate by engaging in self-censorship.). In a news story I wrote for Express Magazine in September 2009, I was sentenced to 15 months in prison for also including views of PKK militants (I will explain what we went through during this trial and afterwards at the end of my piece). However, the joke Ahmet made with me ended up being reversed a week later. Ahmet was taken into police custody after returning to Istanbul. He was arrested on 3 March 2011 for his book which had not been published and which he was still working on. The book’s drafts were gathered and destroyed. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likened the draft of Ahmet’s book to a “bomb” in various meetings in Europe. Ahmet spent precisely a year in prison. What’s more, he was accused of being a member of a militarist, ultra-nationalist organisation called Ergenekon. Whereas Ahmet was a socialist journalist, someone who needed to have been exceedingly cunning to have been a member of an organisation like Ergenekon and to have hidden it from us. In fact, we knew Ahmet for his innocence, his honesty, his sensitivity to human rights and, most importantly, his leftism. After Ahmet left prison he came to Ankara again. Again we went to the same bar and tried to laugh, remembering our conversation from the year before. However, I could no longer see that cheerful Ahmet facing me. Because he had learned that in this country every bad joke can one day become reality.

Well, how is it that in Turkey journalists can be punished with imprisonment for their news stories, and for their books that have not yet been published? To understand this better, I need to continue by going back two years before Prime Minister Erdoğan and his ministers’ meeting with the media bosses.

“Everything can be discussed, but…”
In about mid-2009, in the two years leading up to Prime Minister’s “closed press” meeting with the press, we had witnessed a wind of change that had not blown in Turkey before. In the first months of 2009, the Interior Minister at the time, Beşir Atalay, came out to the press and explained in unambiguous language that everything that had not been talked about or written about regarding the Kurdish issue could now be discussed. Shortly after this announcement, television stations started broadcasting special programs, sessions and forums on this issue almost all day and night. Dissident names, who had previously not even been considered on television stations, were put on air: “radical views” were discussed. It looked like censorship had been shelved for a while.

According to what we learned later, when “let everything be discussed” was said, Turkish intelligence (MIT) and the PKK were having secret meetings in Oslo. When the parties were meeting, it was expressed that everything could be discussed. Within a short space of time it indeed became apparent that everything could be discussed, talked about, written about, but on the condition it wasn’t contrary to government policy. Just as the state was meeting with the PKK on the one hand, starting in April 2009, pretty much everyone (human rights advocates, writers, journalists, politicians) who had been working on the Kurdish problem—and who had already been discussing “everything” prior to the government’s directive anyway—was being arrested through the KCK investigations, regardless of whether they were lawyers, politicians, journalists or students.

When the sides can’t agree, journalists go to prison.
During precisely such a period, while conducting various interviews in Kurdish cities and villages for Express Magazine (which I work for), I observed that no-one in the area, namely PKK militants, believed that the government was sincere. The PKK militants were saying that there could be no solution without warring with the state. The public, meanwhile, were bemoaning the state oppression in their lives. In other words, the positive winds blowing through Ankara were entirely opposite to the winds blowing through Hakkâri and Diyarbakır. A short while after my article carrying these observations was published in Express Magazine, I was called with the magazine’s sub-editor to give a statement to the prosecutor’s office. We went, and explained in detail that we were engaging in journalism.

While leafing through a copy of Express that he had in his hand, the prosecutor had a look at the caricature section and said, “What’s politics to you, why don’t you draw caricatures like this, do humorous things.” Of course, we couldn’t say to him that caricaturists who criticise the government also get caught up, that they get prosecuted too. Actually, the prosecutor didn’t need to call upon us to provide statements. The verdict had long been delivered. A case was opened against us for “making terrorist propaganda”. In June 2010, we were punished with a 15-month jail sentence and a 16 thousand Turkish Lira fine. A law brought out in 2012 suspended our sentence on the condition that we don’t commit the same “crime” in the next 5 years. The government launched this legal arrangement as a reform, but in fact our journalistic activities have been mortgaged for the next 5 years. There are two options for me and journalists like me. Either we give up journalism for 5 years to avoid committing the same “crime” or we continue our profession, facing the prospect of prison. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out which option journalists prefer in this country where books are deemed as dangerous and incriminating as bombs, news stories as dangerous and incriminating as Molotov cocktails.