Emel Gülcan: “Elimination through detention”

In the late 90s, several Turkish media outlets decided to build a common network, “Bianet,” to help each other meet the numerous threats facing the freedom of speech at the time. The 1990s were a dark period, with the murders of many journalists. After a period of relative calm, Turkish journalism is threatened once again—but now, writes Bianet reporter Emel Gülcan, freedom of the press is being restricted through partly new methods.

January 8 2013 Text: Emel Gülcan Translation from Turkish: Merve Pehlivan

Cengiz Altun, correspondent for the newspaper Yeni Ülke, was the victim of an armed attack on 24 February 1992 in Batman. He died. He was 24 years old.

Namık Tarancı, correspondent for the magazine Gerçek, was the victim of an armed attack on 20 November 1992 in Diyarbakır. He died. He was 37 years old.

Halit Güngen, correspondent for 2000’e Doğru (Towards 2000) magazine, was the victim of an armed attack in Diyarbakır on 18 February 1992. He died. He was 21 years old.

Hatip Kapçak, correspondent for the Hürriyet News Agency, was the victim of an armed attack on 18 November 1992. He died. He was 32 years old.

I can make many similar sentences by simply changing the names, locations and dates.

In the 1990s, journalists were worried when they hit the road looking for news. They could be kidnapped, disappear or be killed. They were threatened and told to “Quit that job” while in detention. They didn’t quit. They were killed.

Then their families, their funerals, sometimes even their tombstones, were not left in peace. Most of their cases remained “unresolved murders”: evidence was spoiled on the rare occasions that the hit men were put on trial, and the instigators were not found.

We remain ill at ease
It’s 2012, journalists are not being killed one after another. But we are still not at ease.

“It’s alleged that I’m a member of an armed organization, my biggest weapons are my camera and my film camera, if they are going to take this as a crime, so be it.” (Aydın Yıldız)*

“If you are not subjugating yourself to the system by reporting the commissioned news, those who want to bring you down through pressure and intimidation step in: if that doesn’t have an impact, you will be put in jail.” (Hamdiye Çiftçi)**

“We are journalists, we are not going to complain during these hearings. We are going to push forward with courage. This is the attitude befitting to us journalists: to turn the courtroom into a newsroom.” (Soner Yalçın)***

I haven’t met Yıldız, Çiftçi or Yalçın in person. I know them from media monitoring reports and reports on violations of freedom of expression published on bianet. I got most of the information about them from the series “Imprisoned Journalists are Talking about their ‘Crimes’” series which started on January 10 this year. I picked the statements above from the letters they sent for this series.

They talk about how journalists in Turkey are being punished and silenced with various methods even 30 years later. In the words of Yurdusev Özsökmenler, a journalist of the Özgür Gündem tradition, “annihilation by means of naked violence has been replaced by annihilation by means of arrest.”

The Agenda did not change
I aspired to the job of preparing the September 2011 issue of the media monitoring report and report on violations of freedom of expression for bianet, which has been publishing these reports since 2001, and also to report on several enjoyable news items in the remaining time. ****

14 months passed, I prepared 5 reports, each of which was around 40 pages long. I pursued the fates of imprisoned journalists, tracked down lawyers, got furious as new lawsuits were filed. 

In the meantime, dozens of books I would have loved to review were being published, new movies were hitting the cinemas. Most of them were interesting to me, but I could write about very few of them. Because the tide was not going to turn on the agenda of violations of freedom of expression.

Being Obliged to Count
When you discuss freedom of expression in Turkey, it is unpleasant to list the names of journalists in prison one after the other. It is equally unpleasant to count up the number of withdrawn newspapers, magazines and books. Somebody always comes up and denies those numbers anyway.

Nonetheless, let’s borrow some information and numbers from the latest reports from bianet to give us some idea. For instance, 72 journalists and 35 distributers were jailed in October this year. 51 of the 72 journalists and all of the 34 distributers were from the Kurdish media.

Accusations of creating “a media environment for an illegal organization” leveled against ordinary journalistic work, including “News follow-up”, “book writing”, “journalism critical of the government” and “working in the Kurdish media”, have not stopped.

It is possible to apply such “media environment” accusations to any journalist. This then makes you a “PKK” member or an “Ergenekon” member. It is even possible to create such a “media environment” in a company from what is written on refrigerators and washing machines produced by that company. This is hidden advertising, a crime in journalism. Isn’t it?

Journalists are now more cautious!
The mentality that is sending journalists to jail is working hard. News is censored, newspapers and magazines are seized, some books are found “harmful”, presses are charged.

Journalists are now more cautious! Everybody reads and rereads their articles meticulously before submitting them for publication. This is because the threat of unemployment for dissenting journalists is spread through the grapevine. Sometimes, journalists who are in disagreement with their editors gracefully bid farewell to their readers with a final article.

We have thus learned not to commit to any correspondent or columnist. We might be separated at any time. The logos may be different, but the content and the way in which the news is presented and even the space that news items occupy in the papers become the same. 

Amid this quagmire, there is never any time to discuss how essential it is to have editorial independence in order to ensure freedom of expression. The militarist and sexist tones in the media have been even further down the priority list for a long time.

Well, what does the government do in the meantime?

“What was I supposed to do? Stroke them?”
The media shows a certain irresponsibility. In what other country, for God’s sake, does the media inveigh to this extent against security forces who put their lives at risk for their people and country in the face of terrorism? No offence. They’re saying: ‘The prime minister attacks the media too much.’ What was I supposed to do? Stroke them?”

This is an excerpt from the speech of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Haliç Congress Center on 22nd September. He is telling us how irresponsible we are and how this infuriates him.

It’s all because of this “national stance”
We are no longer surprised at this attitude of our prime minister. Because when he gathered the media bosses and editors in 2011, he told them what type of media he wanted and we learned about this.

Now everybody has a duty to adopt a “national stance” against terrorism. Journalists and columnists who fail to adopt this “national stance” are reprimanded every second day. Even a Washington Post correspondent got his share of this language.

People are seeking their rights in the streets
Even if we cannot talk about an organized opposition to ease our hearts in this gloomy landscape, we are not without hope. People in Turkey hit the streets almost every second day, seeking their rights, objecting to the imprisonment of journalists. Rights advocates and trade associations run from one courthouse to the next, trying to make it to the hearings of journalists, and frequently visit them in jail.

We have perhaps achieved some small progress thanks to these voices. For instance, journalists who were released under the enforcement of the 3rd Judicial Reform, which took effect in July, helped me feel relatively less traumatized compared to the previous reporting period. And I believe it did people good to mull over these issues.

However, there are still journalists in jail in Turkey today and it is still possible, under the existing laws, for new charges to be pressed against them and they may be put in jail, despite the fact that everybody, including the government, knows what’s necessary for arriving at a time when there will be no need to prepare reports on freedom of expression violations!

*DİHA Mersin correspondent Aydın Yıldız was arrested on 1 October 2011 on charges of “being a member of the KCK” and was released on 13 July 2012.
**DİHA correspondent Hamdiye Çiftçi was arrested during the KCK operations on 9 June 2010 in Hakkâri and was released on 13 July 2012.
*** Soner Yalçın, owner of the website OdaTV, was arrested on 18 February 2011 as part of the OdaTV Case. He is still in Silivri Prison No.1.
**** Please check out the following links for bianet media monitoring reports and reports on violations of freedom of expression: http://www.bianet.org/english/diger/117328-bia-media-monitoring-reports