Turkey's War on Journalism


COLLEGE PARK, Md. (October 14, 2015)—Hatice Duman wakes up each morning at 7:30 to the sound of guards at Gebze M-Type women’s prison, 40 miles east of Istanbul. After being let out of her cell for breakfast and a morning walk, she huddles around the television screen with the 11 other women in her ward to watch the daily news at 9 a.m.

Her morning routine has changed little since she was imprisoned 11 years ago, she said in a recent written interview, but following the news became more difficult in October 2014 when her fellow Kurds along the Turkish-Syrian border in Kobane, less than 100 miles from her hometown, were attacked by the so-called Islamic State terrorist organization. All she could do was watch in despair.

The former editor-in-chief of Atilim, a socialist-leaning newspaper in Turkey, Duman is used to reporting on events from the center of the action and still can’t get used to being sidelined.

“Not being able to be involved in life that goes on outside makes one feel like you’ve been marginalized out of history,” Duman wrote in a November letter responding to questions from Capital News Service. “When Kobane was under siege and there was resistance like never before, we are like observers who have been relegated to the outside of history.”

Duman is the longest serving of Turkey’s many imprisoned journalists, and the first to have a life-sentence upheld by Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals. Turkey led the world in journalists behind bars in 2012 and 2013, with 49 and 40 respectively, but recent judicial reforms aimed at improving the country’s international reputation have allowed many prisoners awaiting trial to be released, and Duman is one of seven who remained imprisoned as of November 2014.

“We say these journalists are not in prison because of journalism,” said Ebru Aydogan, second secretary at the Turkish Embassy in Washington. “They are in prison because they are involved in terror activities, they are terrorist members.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee and several independent organizations say the Turkish government uses its anti-terrorism laws to silence opposition and convict those who speak out against it. The most common of these opponents are the Kurdish people, who make up a majority of Turkey’s imprisoned journalists, stemming from a decades-long struggle for independence.

Press freedom organizations have commended Turkey for its recent progress, but they say more needs to be done to roll back the broad anti-terror laws, which are sometimes used to arrest journalists. Many also say the United States, which considers Turkey a close ally in the fight against terrorism, should take a firmer stance against Turkey’s media oppression.

“Unfortunately, political considerations mean they need Turkey as an ally,” said Steven Ellis, senior adviser for the International Press Institute, a non-governmental advocacy organization. “The fear is in some quarters that the U.S. government is willing to let human rights violations slide in order to keep Turkey as a reliable partner in the war against terrorism.”

Duman, 40, remembers the last time she was a free woman. In Spring 2003, six years after becoming Atilim’s top editor, Duman was forced to stop working when the government took her to court and the court rendered guilty verdicts for countless articles she had published, alleging that she was producing terrorist propaganda, according to her defense attorney Keles Öztürk.

She was living in a house with Aligul Alkaya, a professional painter whom she calls her husband, though they were never legally married. On April 8, police raided a public transportation bus with Alkaya on board, taking him into custody.

They harassed Alkaya and threatened to rape Duman unless he signed testimony he says they had prepared for him, Ozturk said. The statement alleged that Duman stood guard for two armed robberies, in the Maltepe and Eyup districts, as part of the Marxist Leninist Communist Party, a 20-year-old radical-leftist party with an armed wing that has carried out high profile bombings.

After obtaining his signature, on April 9 police raided the house and arrested Duman, her attorney said. In the house, they also found various guns, which they alleged were the same used during the robbery, but evidence proving this connection was never presented in court, Öztürk said.

Police charged Duman with taking part in the two robberies as part of the underground Communist Party, the MLKP, using Atilim as a propaganda outlet for the terrorist organization, and “attempting to change the constitutional order by force,” her lawyer said.

The only evidence to support the charges against Duman was Alkaya’s signed testimony, which he refuted in court, and her position as editor-in-chief of Atilim. The prosecutor also cited Duman’s presence at MLKP rallies, which she did not dispute, but she told her lawyer she had no affiliation with the party.

Both Duman and Alkaya were given life sentences, and each remain in separate prisons today. The Committee to Protect Journalists' 2012 report concluded that Duman was held in direct connection to her work, as well as the majority of Turkey’s imprisoned journalists, whom they urged the government to release.

Turkey’s latest crackdown on journalists came Dec. 14 when authorities raided newsrooms and detained at least 24 individuals including media members, journalists and police officers on anti-state charges. Among those detained were the editor-in-chief of Zaman, one of Turkey’s largest daily newspapers.

News reports say the individuals were detained for involvement with an opposition movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a former supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with significant influence in Turkey.

Following the raid, the U.S. State Department released a statement saying they are “closely following” the reports.

“It appears that media outlets that have been openly critical of the current Turkish government are among the targets of these actions by Turkish law enforcement,” the statement read. “Media freedom, due process, and judicial independence are key elements in every healthy democracy and are enshrined in the Turkish constitution. As Turkey’s friend and ally, we urge the Turkish authorities to ensure their actions do not violate these core values and Turkey’s own democratic foundations.”

Imprisoning journalists is just one of several ways the Turkish government controls critical media, IPI’s Ellis found during an October fact-finding trip. During their four-day visit, IPI and CPJ representatives met with several government officials including Erdogan, as well as leading journalists and legal experts.

Phone calls to editors to change coverage or fire journalists have become common, said Ellis. After the 2014 Gezi Park protests, at least 59 journalists were fired for their coverage, according to a Freedom House Report. The report also accused Turkey’s intelligence agency of wiretapping journalists covering stories related to national security.

Aydogan, whose work in the Turkish embassy focuses on democracy and human rights, called the coverage of the protests “unfair,” saying newspapers only told the protesters' side. She denied accusations that the government pressured news outlets to fire journalists.

Aydogan said the government has made calls to news outlets, specifically during the corruption scandal in December 2013, when outlets published wiretapped recordings of Erdogan telling his son to dispose of large sums of money hidden in relative’s homes.

“It was a violation of privacy, that is not journalism,” Aydogan said. “The government called the newspaper saying ‘how can they do this?’”

Another way the government influences coverage is through ownership of media outlets. Eleven corporations own all Turkish media outlets, corporations that have primary interests in energy, finance, construction, mining and tourism, according to the Freedom House report.

Ellis said Erdogan’s government is believed to have forced corporations to buy critical media outlets or face losing government contracts for their other business interests.

Erdogan on several occasions has condemned those engaging in critical commentary against the government. In June 2013, he told parliament that a Turkish BBC reporter was guilty of treason for her coverage of the anti-government protests, saying she was “part of a conspiracy against her own country.”

Duman’s newspaper, Atilim, has been at the center of the government’s media crackdown. Atilim’s current general manager Sedat Senoglu, who was imprisoned from 2006 to 2012, said they have faced hundreds of lawsuits, monetary fines and numerous arrests. He described the pressure they face in a November letter in response to questions from Capital News Service:

“Our newspaper’s headquarters and bureaus in various cities were raided by the police so many times that I lost count,” he wrote.

Atilim is openly supportive of Turkey’s radical left-wing movement and some journalists refer to themselves as socialist, said Mehmet Koksal, project officer for the European Federation of Journalists.

The newspaper also openly supports a non-violent revolution for the Kurdish people. On Sept. 26, during the Islamic State’s siege on Kobani when Turkey refused to let Kurds cross the border, Atilim published an editorial with the headline “Revolution will win, we will win.” The editorial talks about the need for a change of power in Turkey.

Koksal said he has seen no evidence that Atilim was involved in any terrorist activities.

“If they just want to spread ideas or opinion, in a democracy this is how it works, you share your ideas and the people decide if they want to elect you or support your actions,” Koksal said. “In Turkey we have a lot of politically leaning newspapers, all those newspapers have a certain affiliation.”

While Duman openly has socialist leanings, she maintains she only acted as a journalist and should not be in prison.

Her lawyer appealed her 30-year minimum sentence on the basis that no physical evidence was presented at trial to link her to the robberies, Öztürk said.

“The evidence wasn’t researched, the witnesses weren’t heard from during the trial, there was no investigation into the location of where the robberies took place,” Öztürk said.

The judicial process, including the appeals, lasted nine years. Though no new evidence was presented against Duman during appeal hearings, her conviction was upheld on Oct. 16, 2012 because the court “said their decision to convict was within the guidelines of the law,” Öztürk said. He said there are no further legal avenues to apply for her release, and she must wait a minimum of 30 years before having another chance at freedom.

“The legal system in Turkey only works in the interest of the fascist system,” Duman wrote in response to questions sent by Capital News Service. “As a result the government stood behind this judgment and it became a vehicle to silence the Kurds, socialists and democrats.”

During her childhood in Gaziantep, Turkey’s sixth-largest city, which sits near the Syrian border, Duman witnessed Turkey’s U.S.-supported military coup in 1980, and the democratic transition that followed.

Duman graduated from Trayka University in Northwest Turkey in 1996, and that same year began writing about youth issues for Atilim. She soon shifted her focus to the economy and social change, and quickly ascended to the newspaper’s top editorial position a year later.

“I like being a journalist,” Duman wrote to Capital News Service. “Being a reporter opens huge vistas in terms of the movement on the path towards freedom and truth.”

Even behind bars, she writes occasional columns that Atilim publishes. Her most recent ones in 2013 were about women’s struggles for equality. Duman says writing allows her to pass the time in prison and “provides a flow to life.”

Duman’s political views and writings oppose the current government, which she says makes the ruling party view her as a threat. History has shown the government does not take such threats lightly.

The Turkish government has used a 1991 anti-terrorism law to convict critics, say human rights organizations. The laws came under intense international scrutiny following the Justice Ministry’s October 2013 announcement that 20,000 people had been imprisoned under the guise of terrorism in the preceding four years.

In November 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Turkey for using the anti-terror law to prosecute human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and even children. The committee's vice chairman said during a news briefing that these people were held, “not for terrorism, but for the free expression of their opinions and ideas, in particular in the context of non-violent discussion of the Kurdish issue,” according to a Reuters report.

Aydogan, the Turkish embassy official, defended the anti-terror law by emphasizing the amount of violence the country has faced from terrorist groups, particularly the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an insurgent group demanding an independent Kurdistan. The PKK has been battling the government since 1984 and has been responsible for 5,650 civilian deaths, according to Turkish military estimates.

“In a country facing that threat you have to put in place these kinds of laws to protect the people,” Aydogan said.

Kurdish journalists like Duman have been one target of this crackdown. CPJ’s 2012 report said Kurds made up more than 70 percent of jailed journalists. Kurds comprise 18 percent of Turkey’s population, according to a 2008 CIA estimate.

“Those Kurdish journalists have been put in jail because they were supporting the Kurdish fight for more autonomy,” Koksal said. Amid escalating international pressure, Turkey passed a judicial reform package in April 2013 aimed at aligning its judiciary process with international standards.

The reforms reduced the maximum pre-trial detention period to five years, which led to the temporary release of several journalists while they await their verdict. The amendment also allowed defendants access to view the case against them. The reform package also removed extra penalties for “promoting terrorist propaganda,” a clause the U.S. State Department determined was often used to convict members of the press.

Ellis, the senior IPI advisor, argued that the recent decline in the number of imprisoned journalists doesn’t accurately represent the scope of Turkey’s anti-press campaign, and other human rights groups say the reforms don’t go far enough.

“Many journalists have been released which is great, but those that face… a potential conviction could go back to prison,” Ellis said. “And the laws that all of them were tried under still remain on the books so you still have incredibly broad anti-terror laws that conflate reporting about terrorist movements with actually giving support to those movements.”

Following Ellis’s October trip with CPJ to speak with Erdogan and other high level government officials, the delegation penned a follow up letter to Erdogan urging him to publicly support the work of journalists in Turkey.

Erdogan had a different view of the meetings. In a Nov. 2 speech to Bezmialem University, he referred to CPJ and IPI’s visit as part of a larger western campaign to denigrate Turkey’s international reputation.

“There is a psychological war against Turkey in the western media, based on complete lies,” local newspapers quoted Erdogan as saying. “Each day, some international newspapers come up and conduct a perception operation. Turkey is not a country that will bow either to domestic treason networks or to perception operations abroad.”

The United States, Turkey’s long-time NATO ally, maintains close relations with the middle-eastern country and is increasingly dependent on Istanbul’s cooperation to wage war in Syria. The U.S. military maintains a major air base near the Syrian border in Turkey with 1,650 military personnel.

“They are enormously important, especially when we have seen the battle that’s emerging between fundamentalist Islam, which has accompanied horrific violence,” said Maria Otero, former Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human rights. “Turkey becomes a very important player in not only holding that back but being a partner in addressing it.”

United States officials have on some occasions publicly urged Turkey to take a greater role in supporting press freedom.

In July, 2011 then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Istanbul, criticized Turkey’s crackdown on journalists in a town hall event. When speaking at a news conference with Turkey’s foreign minister, she urged Turkey to serve as a role model for Democratic values in the Middle East.

Alp Esmer, a broadcaster for Voice of America’s Turkish service, said he believes the United States is more critical in private back channels than they are publicly.

“If the United States had taken a more critical stance, the Turkish government would respond to those criticisms more harshly… and the United States still needs the airbase in southern Turkey,” Esmer said.

Aydogan said the United States exemplifies the values of democracy and human rights, and Turkey takes any recommendations by the U.S. Government “really seriously.”

Press freedom advocates urge the United States to take concrete steps to encourage press freedom in Turkey.

“American engagement with Turkey could be done more effectively and on a different level to go beyond public statements and public criticism but actually put that on the agenda for bilateral meetings with Turkish officials and have Turkey connect to meeting specific benchmarks on press freedom,” said Nina Ognianova, coordinator of CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program.

Otero said the U.S. State Department does put issues on the table in bilateral discussions. But she stressed that the United States cannot force countries to change their policies unless they withhold large amounts of aid, a method she said would not work in Turkey.

The United States gave slightly more than $1 million in aid to Turkey in 2012. By comparison, each of the top 20 countries the United States gave aid to in 2012 received more than $150 million, with Afghanistan alone receiving $2.2 billion.

Meanwhile, Duman remains hopeful that a political and social revolution will result in freedom for Turkey’s imprisoned journalists.

In the meantime, she spends her days reading and writing, and discussing political issues with the other women in her ward, she wrote. They occasionally play volleyball and organize tournaments.

Duman says she is allowed four 45-minute visits per month, and frequently writes letters to family and friends.

A blood pressure patient, Duman regularly takes medication and completes doctor-recommended exercises. She also does palliative care for a neck hernia, according to Fusun Erdogan, a Bianet journalist who was in Duman’s prison ward from 2006 until 2010, and again from July 2012 to October 2013.

“Her emotional health is very well,” Duman’s former ward-mate wrote in a November e-mail, responding to questions from Capital News Service. “She does not have any psychological issues at all. Just like all the other prisoners, she is interested in and talked about the daily life and political developments going on outside.”

Duman said she has become very close with her fellow inmates, who she says share her passion for political change. She said they have established a commune system to share their necessities and that they plan their days around group discussions to stimulate their minds and “gain a larger perspective.”

“Of course I am hopeful that I will be freed in the future,” Duman wrote. “The moment I lose this hope, I would lose all ties with the outside world and I will have totally given up dreaming.”

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