“There is no future for Turkey under these conditions we are in”

Turkey has in recent years set a new record in the number of journalists and writers imprisoned and brought to trial. Meanwhile, the escalation of violence inside Turkey and on its borders with Syria is being used by President Erdogan to obtain a political advantage in the run up to the November snap election to be held after his AK Party failed to gain an overall majority at elections in June 2015. But the key to solving Turkey’s crisis is freedom of speech, says two of the country’s guest writers in conversation with British human rights researcher, Sara Whyatt.

October 13 2015 Text: Sara Whyatt

As the ceasefire in Turkey collapses and conflict between the PKK and the Turkish armed forces is renewed, another freedom of expression crisis hits the independent media and once again journalists face charges of ‘terrorist propaganda’ for their coverage of the crisis. Sara Whyatt headed PEN International’s freedom of expression program at its head office in London for over 20 years during which time she has become a specialist in the challenges faced by writers in Turkey. She spoke with two veterans in the battle for freedom of expression in Turkey. Publisher Ragıp Zarakolu has, for over 40 years, faced harassment prosecution and imprisonment for publishing books on minority rights.  Writer Erol Özkoray has, since the early 1990s,       challenged the military and, most recently, President Erdoğan’s leadership. Both are now in Sweden as guests of the International Cities of Refuge (ICORN) program. They discussed their experiences of the struggle for freedom of expression in Turkey over the decades, how it has changed over that time, and the role of anti-terror legislation as a tool for restricting the free flow of ideas.

Sara Whyatt (SW): When did you first come into conflict with the authorities for your writings?

Ragıp Zarakolu (RZ): I was first arrested over 40 years ago in 1971, spending some months in prison. I spent another spell in prison in 1972, and again in 1982. When I was arrested once more in 2011 it was under the Anti-Terror Law (ATL). I was accused of terrorism for attending the opening ceremony for an academy set up by a legal political party[1]. Luckily I was released after a huge campaign, and also because I had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Other people weren’t so lucky, including my son, Deniz, who was arrested at the same time as me but spent two and a half years in prison. He is free now and working in parliament although, like me, his trial is still going on. There is such a level of ‘absurdism’ in Turkey now, where you can report on democratic rights, you can be in parliament, you can attend a conference organised by the government and yet you can still be arrested.

Erol Özkoray (EÖ): I first came up against the authorities in 2000, when I started to publish a quarterly magazine, Idea Politika, that focused on democracy and political culture and which was critical of the Turkish military. The Chief of Staff opened 16 court cases against me between 2000 and 2003, demanding a total of 50 years in prison. The last of these cases was finalized in 2010 with my acquittal. I won them all.  

SW: So what were the most dangerous issues to talk about at that time and why?

RZ: Up until 1991 we were prosecuted under Laws 141 and 142[2], legislation which could ban publications about minorities and the Kurdish question. After 1991, when this legislation was replaced with the ATL, it was possible to publish books on socialism and there was a partial lifting of bans on books on Kurdish issues, but criticising the Turkish army or the Turkish nation was still problematic. When we were put on trial in 1982, it was for a historical account of the Turkish Left in the 1920s, my wife, Ayşenur Zarakolu,[3] spent four months in prison because of this. We eventually won the case which was tried under a military court, and she was acquitted. But the generals were angry about the decision and banned the book, sending copies to be burned. We managed to get the books back, but the military came and took them away again. The generals did not even care about the decision made by their own court!

EÖ: In the 2000s, I pioneered the issue of Turkey's European Union membership and disclosed the military as opposed to it. This made EU membership a dangerous issue to defend, because it meant the military would lose its political power if Turkey joined. It also made any kind of criticism against the regime and the state dangerous and could incite persecution. At that time, it was acceptable to criticize the government, politicians, parliament and political parties, but not the military.   

SW: Can you tell me about how the ATL was applied then, and against whom?

EÖ: The ATL was always applied against the Kurds and the extreme left. Also to support the Kurds intellectually was to come under this law. Even if you are not Kurdish, you could be tried and frequently imprisoned.     

RZ: When I worked for the Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) we published many reports about the ATL and how it was misused to prevent any kind of criticism and to suppress the opposition by claiming they had links with terrorists. It was crazy because at the time I was head of the TPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee, and vice chair of PEN Turkey’s Writers in Prison Committee. We were writing reports on the use of the ATL against writers, journalists and publishers – a lot were in prison. In 1991 the new ATL allowed for publishers to be prosecuted when before it was only writers. In the mid-1990s some famous writers were tried under the ATL, including Yaşar Kemal[4] who was tried by the State Security Court for his ideas about a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.

SW: When you look at what is happening in Turkey now, how does it compare with your past experience?

EÖ: It has always been bad because this country has never been governed democratically from the day it was founded. Limits on freedom of expression have always existed. In the past, the nature of the regime was an insidious fascism. At present, the situation has become more dangerous because the regime has now become an open islamofascism. Two more cases were opened against me, which brought the total number of trials against me to 18 over a time span of 15 years, a record for one writer.     

RZ: In the past we had some impact that led to small changes to the law, but now it is very hard for writers, publishers and other civil society organisations to influence the government. Now it is easier to criticise the military and past coup d’états, but it is more problematic to touch on the police state. Many journalists are on trial for criticising the government and politicians and this is forcing writers and publishers to self-censor.

SW: Turning to today, what are the most dangerous issues to talk about? Who are the people most affected?

EÖ: Commentary on all kinds of issues are dangerous because now criticism of the system can lead to imprisonment. One example of this is criticism of the president.[5] This president, who has in effect unofficially become a dictator, is responsible for this decline in freedom of expression.

RZ: The system is totally politicised now. It was a problem before but then the judiciary applied the law in a way to protect the state and state ideology. Now it is to protect the politicians and political ideology. When the AKP came to power in 2002, many liberals supported it, but later they found that the authoritarian Turkish state had not changed; only its captain had changed.

SW: Can you comment on the new application of the ATL?

EÖ: The ATL is now used to intimidate all opposition and democratic dissidents. It is not only the Kurds but anyone who opposes authority, civilian or elected official can find themselves the target of this law by the Islamic government.

RZ: Anybody can now be defined as having terrorist connections. The recent charges against Hürriyet and the Doğan media group[6] is an interesting turn of events. In the past this media group had not reacted to the arrests of writers and journalists, in effect supporting the state police. So now they are on the receiving end, it goes to show how necessary it is not to remain silent because your turn will come. In my own case, I was recently arrested and now face charges under the ATL because of an interview I gave in 2010 to Roj TV, a Kurdish TV channel broadcasting from Europe. The accusation is that I am a correspondent for this station and as it is supposedly connected to a terror organisation, I am therefore also a member of a terror organisation. It doesn’t help the real struggle against terrorism if the ATL is used against freedom of expression.

SW: What is different about being a dissident writer now compared to when you started out?

EÖ:  In the 80s and 90s, it was very difficult to be a dissident.  The trials were arbitrary and all kinds of trouble awaited writers. After the inclusion of Turkey in the EU accession process in 1999, the system became more liberal. The trials continued mostly under the Article 159 of the Penal Code[7] which limited freedom of expression, but there was no prison sentence.  The judicial power was relatively independent from the state at the time.  Under this Islamic government, one law used to limit freedom of expression is Article 301[8]and articles stifling freedom increased to 30 including the ATL. After the 2011 elections, the regime became a single-person dictatorship and the relative independence of judiciary power was no more. The judiciary is now under Erdoğan's control and arbitrary use of power is back, therefore it is impossible to write anything in opposition.   

RZ: Turkey is in a crisis period, economically and politically. I am very anxious because this has created a Neo-Ottoman regime. The real change has been that it is politicians that prefer to use authoritarian structures. The Turkish military may have gone back to the barracks, but their methods are still ongoing. There is no need for a military government anymore because the government can now declare a curfew, or take actions that the military would have done in the past.

SW: If you were to imagine how Turkey would be in 10 years’ time, what would it look like for an independent writer?

EÖ: There is no future for Turkey under these conditions we are in. I wrote in my column in the first issue of my magazine back in 1998 that Turkey had at most 10 years to establish democracy. The Islamic party won the elections in 2002 as the result of not having established a democratic rule. They became the real power in 2011. During the next 10 years, Turkey will oscillate between Islamism and militarism. This will in no way lead to democracy.

RZ: Turkey has had an unhealthy justice system that has been in place since the Republic. Turkey needs real democratisation and we are fighting for this, but we have been unsuccessful. Successive governments have promised democratisation, have formed coalitions and shown willingness to change, but then they would return to the Kurdish question, refer to ‘terror’, and then cancel their democratisation programs. President Erdoğan has done the same.

SW: Who, or what, would be responsible for making change, positive or negative, over those ten years?

EÖ: Positive change can come from the Kurds, Alevites and the young urban generation who started the Gezi rallies. They are the main actors in Turkey’s internal dynamics. The positive external dynamic to make an impact with respect to rights and freedoms would be the EU. Nationalists, Islamists and the military are the three groups to have a negative impact on Turkey.

RZ: I am very proud of our courageous publishers and writers because they do not accept being made silent. They keep on expressing their point of view, their criticisms. It is because of this resistance that governments have had to accept some partial reforms. I believe the majority of people in Turkey who have never tolerated authoritarianism will accept democracy over the next 10 years. But I very much hope that the authoritarian system and its supporters will not gamble with the fate of the Turkish and Kurdish people.



[1] The KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union)

[2] Penalising communist and socialist propaganda

[3] Ayşenur Zarakolu headed the Belge Publishing House. She died in 2002.

[4] Yaşar Kemal (1923-2015) was one of Turkey’s leading writers and an outspoken defender of minority rights

[5]  Over 200 cases of insult have been taken by President Erdoğan against journalists and cartoonists since his inauguration in August 2014.

[6] BBC on-line 15/09/2015 – Turkey Targets Doğan media ‘terror propaganda’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34256762

[7]  Providing penalties for insult to Turkish institutions

[8] Replaced Article 159 and introduced the crime of insult to Turkishness