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Turkey's Press Freedom Crisis

Sidebar: The Dignity of Speaking Out

By Nuray Mert

I am among those who have had the misfortune of becoming a dissident in Turkey. I do not claim that my misfortune is of the greatest kind—in Turkey, many have suffered for years on end, under various governments and policies with a shared trait of authoritarianism. In the 1990s, people were jailed, tortured, and murdered with impunity.

That is not the case now. Times have changed and, hopefully, there is no turning back to those dark days. But one can hardly call our current predicament a major improvement. Today, after the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) removed the hegemony of the military, we are being told that we are living in an “advanced democracy.” Under the latter term, the AKP generates authoritarian policies in milder forms and under different brands. I am one of the recent victims of such politics.

My TV program was abruptly taken off the air after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan targeted me in his election campaign speech in the city of Konya in May 2011. The next day, all the papers wrote that the prime minister had attacked me.

He played on words, using my last name, “Mert,” which is an adjective in Turkish meaning “brave, trustworthy, and honest.” He called me by another adjective, “Namert,” which in Turkish means the opposite of honest and implies treason. Since then, these adjectives have become a popular part of political discourse in Turkey. Since then, I receive hate mail and all sorts of accusations not only from AKP supporters but from all sorts of nationalists who view the prime minister’s accusations against me as a matter of national concern.

It all started when I gave a speech in May before the European Parliament on the Kurdish issue and the Dersim massacre, the killings of thousands of Alawite Kurds during the 1937-38 confrontation with the military over forced resettlement. I criticized the government policies toward the Kurds as not being much different from the old security-centered policies. I said that even construction in Kurdish territory is carried out by coercion. I cited news coverage that referred to “constructing dams on the borders to protect from terrorists.” I reminded the EU Parliament that, even if there can be no absolute parallels with the past, the state built roads and bridges before the Dersim massacre to be used for military operations. I said that even though things have changed, the state’s security-centered politics have not.

Later, some pro-AKP columnists called my statements “black propaganda against the government” and the prime minister did not hesitate to attack me in his speech before millions of Turks who attended the Konya event or watched it on TV.

 

Turkey is a very nationalistic country, and I have not felt safe since then. The prime minister’s personalized attack against me in Konya constituted a defining point in my standing as a dissident in Turkey, but it was not anything new. I had long been a critic of the government and had been regarded as an enemy, especially after stating in an interview in late 2009 that I was “concerned at the rise of authoritarian politics under the label of civil government.” Back then, I was accused of “preparing the grounds for a military coup,” among other things, despite the fact that I had been a keen supporter of the Muslims’ demands for rights and freedoms for more than 15 years. I suffered from all sorts of pressure because of my position and was accused of supporting Islamization at the time.

Now I am being accused of supporting “Kurdish terrorists” by the same people I did not hesitate giving my full support in the past. Most recently, I was told to “take a break” from my job at the newspaper Milliyet where I had been writing a column three times a week. It was nothing unexpected—I know that media owners are concerned about their business, and Prime Minister Erdoğan openly urges them to “discipline” their writers.

Since the verbal attack by the prime minister, I have become a media outcast: TV hosts are scared to invite me as a guest on their programs. To be honest, this has given me a chance to relax after years of constant media presence. But even though I feel relieved at being excluded from the game of discussing politics—which is becoming more and more ridiculous these days—I am gravely concerned about the future of my country.

On a personal level, I feel intimidated in many ways: I receive hateful, sexist mail; my luggage is mysteriously rummaged when I travel; my private phone calls are tapped and the contents sometimes published on websites and newspapers as “evidence” of my alleged connection to the outlawed Kurdish organization KCK. Even though there is only a minor investigation opened against me, I fear I could be arrested at any moment, and I feel helpless before such violations of my privacy and political rights.

If there is a positive side to what has happened to me, it is that I have strengthened my resolve to overcome the pressures of the rising authoritarian policies. I am no masochist and no hero, but this experience has helped me rediscover my values and ideals. Coming from a rigid secularist family and social circle—and supporting Muslim rights—I was a dissident in the 1990s. Back then, the price I paid for my views was social exclusion. Now I had the chance to rediscover how much political and ethical values are dear to me when I had to sacrifice a very good career, among other things. The process has not only boosted my self-respect but has also convinced me that I am much happier, knowing I support a rightful cause. Believe me, this is not a matter of adventurism or political romanticism—neither would pass the test of authoritarian periods. It is a matter of dignity.

Nuray Mert is an associate professor at Istanbul University. She has resumed some work as a commentator, writing a weekly column for the English-language Hürriyet Daily News and appearing on the weekly political show, “Gündem Müzakere,” on IMC TV.

(Photo by Reuters)


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