Eight months after he was attacked outside his Ankara home with baseball bats, Yavuz Selim Demirağ still has trouble sleeping. “The worry of suffering another attack at any minute messed with my psychology. Sometimes I feel like I am being followed,” the Turkish journalist said. “In the end, the threat continues. Because the attackers are out there.”
The attack on Demirağ, a columnist for the nationalist daily Yeni Çağ and a television host for Türkiyem TV, was not an isolated case. CPJ is aware of at least nine cases of journalists being attacked in unconnected cases across Turkey last year, often outside their news outlet or while they were headed to or from their homes. In most cases, assailants beat the journalists but sometimes the violence was more severe: Hakan Denizli, publisher for the daily Egemen in the province of Adana, was shot in the leg on May 24, and on June 14, men armed with bats and knives attacked Murat Alan, a news editor and board member for the pro-government Islamist daily Akit.
The violence comes after years of authorities harassing and jailing journalists who are critical of the ruling party or its political allies. While no clear motive has been established in the attacks last year, local journalist associations have speculated that the general climate of hostility has made journalism riskier. In May, local journalist unions told the Turkish service of the BBC the violence was in part due to a climate of impunity, with authorities not effectively investigating violence and the government targeting journalists and not publicly condemning attacks.
When CPJ spoke last month with Demirağ and Ahmet Takan, a columnist for the daily Korkusuz who was attacked outside his house in Ankara in November, both said they did not believe authorities took their attacks seriously.
Demirağ was hospitalized for six days after being attacked. Police detained six suspects the following day, who said they had been in a traffic dispute with Demirağ. The journalist said the attackers struck after his colleague drove away after giving him a ride from the studio.
“The assailants were taken into police custody one day after the incident at 23.00 and released at 01.01 with written proceedings,” Demirağ said. He added that it did not seem possible to finish the legal proceedings, including standard health examinations of the suspects, for that many people in such a short time.
“The prosecutor on duty defined the incident as ‘simple bodily harm’ and ordered the police to release them. Meaning, [the prosecutor] did not even take their testimonies. They did not even bother to call me to testify, although seven months have passed,” Demirağ said, adding that he was unsure if the investigation was still open.
“Journalists who write about the government and its small ally are targets,” Demirağ said, adding that whenever he criticizes the government or MHP in his column or TV show, he receives anonymous threats. Demirağ added that in June 2018, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) took out a full-page advertisement in a national newspaper that named around 70 people including Demirağ and several other journalists. In the advert, Bahçeli wrote “I thank them for their countless slanders. I thank them for their shocking claims.”
In Takan’s case, the journalist said a legal process is ongoing but he thinks it is “only for show.” Takan said the police did not inform him for a long time as to whether the assailant was in custody. He said it was only after persistent queries to authorities that he learned the attacker had been caught and a case filed at a court. “The police displayed great discretion in the process of capturing the assailant even though I am the victim. I was constantly kept out of the loop,” Takan said.
Turkey’s Justice Ministry did not respond to CPJ’s queries about Demirağ and Takan’s comments or the status of the cases of the other journalists attacked in 2019.
Demirağ said that since his attack he has needed therapy, suffered from a sleep disorder, was unable to write as frequently as he used to and is constantly anticipating a follow up attack.
“I take precautions in my own way by frequently changing the hours of leaving or arriving at the house. When I return home with a taxi, I ask the driver to get out of the car with me and to not leave until I enter the house. I alter the routes for coming and going. When it is too late, I do not go home and stay with relatives,” he said, adding, “Shortly, I am having a hard time.”
He added that he continues to receive threats. Some, sent via social media, mention his children, and in late January a 9mm bullet was left in an envelope in his mail box, Demirağ said.
“Those who practice true journalism in Turkey face threats all the time. The threat doesn’t end. The goal of the threat is to make us stop writing about the truths,” Demirağ said. “We are risking any kind of danger if we are writing.”
Demirağ added that his family were nervous and wanted to move.
Takan said he also receives anonymous threats over email and phone, and is harassed via social media, but that he refuses to be intimidated. “[The threats] are still ongoing. I do not care if there can be a danger towards me at all,” he said. “I am living exactly the same way I was before the attack.”
[Reporting from Istanbul]
[Hakkı Özdal, a journalist who assists with CPJ research on Turkey, contributed reporting and research to this blog.]