CPJ's Campaign for the Release of Ocak Isik Yurtçu

On Nov. 26, CPJ honored imprisoned Turkish editor Ocak Isik Yurtçu with one of its 1996 International Press Freedom Awards during ceremonies at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The event marked the beginning of a long-term campaign to free Yurtçu, who in December 1994 was sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison for articles his newspaper, Özgür Gündem, had published on the Turkish government's ongoing conflict with Kurdish insurgents.

Writing from his cell in Turkey's Sakarya Prison, Yurtçu sent the following letter, which Terry Anderson read at the awards dinner:

Dear Colleagues at the Committee to Protect Journalists,

I've been in jail for two years just because I tried to learn the truth and relay this truth to inform the public-in other words, to do my job with the belief that it is impossible to have other freedoms in a country where there is no freedom of the press.

When I learned about CPJ's award from newspapers that are allowed in my prison ward daily and the details of it from my lawyer who came to visit, I felt joy but also sadness. I was happy because you had honored me with such an award, but sad because I could not be there with you to share my joy.

This award has special meaning for me because of the message it will carry for my colleagues in Turkey. We're living through tough times when the powers that be have increased their terrorizing pressure around the nation, especially in the region where Kurdish people live, when journalists are killed, lost, put in prison, beaten up, when newspaper offices are burned and bombed, when publications with unorthodox views or news are censored or confiscated. As my colleagues struggle against all this pressure justified by the excuse of "defending the state" and continue in a relentless effort to carry out their journalistic duties, this award has special meaning because it shows that they are not alone, will not be alone as they strive to report the truth, that the global support, in contrast to the lack of national support, is great and sincere.

What a pleasure to be able to dream about the day when peace, democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression and of the press will become a reality in my country. What a pleasure to see a light of hope despite the surrounding prison walls and the deep darkness here. I especially thank CPJ for giving me an opportunity to feel this pleasure. I also congratulate my other colleagues honored with the award: Mr. Jesús Blancornelas, Mr. Yusuf Jameel, and Mr. Daoud Kuttab. And I send my hearty greetings, filled with love and respect, from Sakarya Prison, to you and all your guests who will be there at the award ceremony.

Ocak Isik Yurtçu
November 10, 1996
Sakarya Prison, Turkey

More than 300 journalists, media executives, and human rights activists who attended the awards ceremonies in New York signed individual appeals to Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, urging his government to grant Yurtçu's freedom. On Jan. 23, 1997, CPJ Chair Kati Marton, Executive Director William A. Orme, Jr., and Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna hand-delivered the appeals to Ambassador Nuzhet Kandemir in Washington, D.C., during a one-hour meeting devoted to the plight of Yurtçu and the 77 other journalists currently imprisoned in Turkey.

CPJ intends to keep the issue of Yurtçu's imprisonment at the forefront of its advocacy efforts on Turkey and looks to sustain international attention to his plight, which is emblematic of the obstacles facing independent journalists in many parts of the world. Already, members of the Turkish press have responded by publicizing Yurtçu's case in the Turkish press and calling on the government to release him.

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