Columns by Terry Anderson

Journalists Release Is Good News For Turkey

By Terry Anderson

Our man is going home! The message from Turkey last week — that journalist Ocak Isik Yurtçu was being released from prison, along with at least six other newspaper editors — was among the most gratifying I’ve heard in quite a while. Personally, because I admire him and worked hard with other international and Turkish journalists to gain his release; professionally, because it marks another triumph for the Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am vice chairman; and philosophically, because it is the first important step toward a more open, free, and democratic society in Turkey.

Yurtçu served three years of a 16-year prison sentence, officially for violating various &quotanti-terrorist” laws but actually for publishing stories about the war between the army and Kurdish separatists in southeastern Turkey. He was one of 78 Turkish reporters and editors that CPJ listed as imprisoned, jailed primarily for doing their jobs as journalists — far more than in any country in the world.

Because of Yurtçu’s integrity and courage, his case became an international symbol for the widespread violation of human rights in Turkey, excused by that country’s leaders because of the Kurdish war, the fight against &quotterrorism.” A year ago, I presented Yurtçu in absentia with the CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. Last month, as head of a delegation that included representatives of CPJ, the International Press Institute, and Reporters Sans Frontieres, I went to Turkey to help the Turkish Press Council persuade the newly installed government to release him and his colleagues, and to allow more press freedom. We were permitted to visit with Yurtçu in prison, where he had just again refused a presidential pardon. &quotThis is not just about me,” he said. &quotThis is about freedom for all Turkish people.”

During that visit, Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, who had received his vote of confidence from Parliament just two days before, promised the delegation that he would see that Yurtçu and the others were released as soon as possible; that he would order Turkish security forces and police to immediately cease harassing and attacking journalists; and that his government would begin immediately working on changes to the law and the Constitution to provide for greater press freedom and freedom of expression. As you can imagine, we were pleased but somewhat suspicious about the promises. After all, Yilmaz had been prime minister twice before, and neither time did he treat freedom of the press as an important issue. Even the two practicing journalists in his new cabinet, one of whom served time in prison for expressing his opinions, had both been cabinet members in governments that actively persecuted the press. There was room for skepticism.

Even with the fulfillment of this promise, welcome as it is, there still is room. About 70 journalists remain in jail, and their freedom will be harder to win. Before they can be released, a number of provisions in the security, press, and anti-terrorism laws will have to be changed, and possibly even a clause or two of the Constitution.

Yilmaz’s government is weak, a minority coalition with substantial critics, including the powerful Turkish Army. Yilmaz told the international press delegation that he was willing to see his government fall over the issue of press freedom. That may well happen. Or Yilmaz may simply find it politically too costly to keep the rest of his promises. That would be unfortunate indeed. This is not just a matter of tossing a few journalists, mostly liberals and leftists, into jail. Assaults on press freedom are directly linked to other widespread violations of human rights in Turkey. They are both a result of the simmering, unwinnable, and horribly expensive war in the southeast, and a method for keeping that war going without allowing the Turkish public to understand its cost, economically or in human lives.

The attacks on press freedom hurt Turkey internationally and are a major reason why the country will never fulfill its ambition to become a member of the European Union as long as they continue. Prime Minister Yilmaz knows these things, and he has made many public promises of change. He is to be applauded for keeping the first of those promises, and encouraged to fulfill the rest as soon as possible — and not just because the international community demands it, though it does.

But because the people of Turkey deserve it.

Terry Anderson is an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a syndicated columnist for King Features Syndicate. Comments will reach him via email at [email protected].

Copyright © King Features Syndicate 1997.

Press Freedom Is Essential In Turkey

By Terry Anderson

Moments after Isik Yurtçu received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists last week, he walked over to the barred window of the waiting room in a rural Turkish prison. Holding the plaque to the window, he waved at the 100 or so Turkish journalists cheering and applauding on the lawn below.

It was an emotional moment, and one full of optimism. Yurtçu has served more than two years of a 16-year prison sentence he was given for carrying reports in his small newspaper about the terribly violent and destructive war between Turkish government forces and Kurdish rebels in the southeastern part of the country. He is one of at least 78 journalists imprisoned in Turkey -far more jailed news people than in any other country — under draconian press control laws. This should be his last couple of weeks in jail.

A 10-person international press delegation, which I led, had just completed five days of talks with Turkish government officials, trying to persuade them that the long-running war did not justify the drastic curtailment of freedom of expression and freedom of the press that is taking place in Turkey. Nor, we said, can it be used as an excuse for the regular vicious assaults on journalists by police and security agents that occur there. Finally, we asked for the immediate release of as many jailed journalists as possible.

To our surprise, each of the newly installed officials we met with (the government had just received its first vote of confidence from Parliament two days before — the “stamp of approval” that allowed it to begin functioning) immediately agreed with us.

Yilmaz vowed that his government would make the issue of greater freedom its first priority. He promised immediate passage of a law that would free Yurtçu and five other editors. He also promised orders to police to stop harassing and assaulting journalists, and an effort to change both current laws and portions of the current Constitution that have been used to justify such things.

The good news for Yurtçu and his colleagues, of course, is that the law that will free them has already made it through the relevant parliamentary committee and will go before the full body in a few days. With backing from both the government and major opposition parties, it is virtually certain to pass. He will go home, Yilmaz said, probably before the end of the month. The rest of the promises, though, are not going to be as easy to fulfill. The new prime minister heads a weak, minority coalition government. There remainsmuch opposition to any radical lifting of restrictions on speech and the press, especially from the army.

And the army plays a very strong role in Turkish political life. Some say it is in virtually complete control. The war against the Kurds has distorted a lot of things in Turkey. It has devastated the southeast, where thousands of villages have been destroyed and left empty. It has made and kept the army stronger than any other political force, despite the failure of the military to win the war or even lower the level of violence. It has allowed ultra-conservatives to maintain human rights restrictions that do not fit this basically democratic country.

Yet there has been absolutely no attempt to settle the war politically, through negotiation. Even this new coalition government, perhaps the most liberal in decades, rejects the very idea of talks with Kurdish leaders. And whatever move they make toward freedom of expression, some restrictions are sure to remain concerning reporting on the war.

That is terribly unfortunate. With open and uncensored reporting on the conflict, perhaps the people of Turkey would come to see their enemies as human beings, instead of the monsters they are painted to be by the army. Perhaps they would even come to understand the full cost to them of this war. And perhaps they would force their leaders to take some real steps toward ending it.

Copyright © King Features Syndicate 1997.

Turkey Must Allow Freedom of Press

By Terry Anderson

Turkey’s new secular Prime Minister, Mesut Yilmaz, will have a chance this week to demonstrate how committed he is to democracy and human rights. His country has imprisoned at least 78 journalists — more than any other nation in the world. On Friday, an international press delegation, of which I will be a member, will fly to Istanbul to ask Yilmaz to release all of them.

The delegation was organized by the Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am vice chairman. It will include Peter Arnett of CNN, also a member of CPJ’s board, and members of the International Press Institute, the World Press Freedom Committee and the Turkish Press Council. My personal plea to Yilmaz, President Suleyman Demirel and other Turkish leaders will be on behalf of Ocak Isik Yurtçu, former editor of the newspaper Ozgur Gundemn, who has served two years of a 15-year sentence for publishing articles about the conflict between the government and Kurdish rebels. Last fall, I presented Yurtçu in absentia with the CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, recognizing his courage and sacrifice. His acceptance letter, from Sakarya prison, was eloquent:

&quotI’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,” he wrote. &quotWhat 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.” Another light of hope for Yurtçcu and his colleagues came when the Turkish government gave permission for me to travel to Sakarya prison to personally present him with his award. The indulgence must have cost officials there some thought — in recognizing the award, the government is in effect recognizing that much of the world believes Yurtçcu and the others are in jail not for alleged violations of security laws, but for reporting the truth.

Journalists in Turkey, as in much of the world, do their job — searching for and reporting the truth — under great threat from a government that refuses to acknowledge any fault in the war against the Kurdish rebels, as well as from Islamic militants and plain old organized crime rings. Journalists not only have been jailed at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world, they also have been shot, killed and beaten savagely, most often by Turkish police. Censorship and harassment by the government has been constant.

We at the CPJ do not claim any more rights or consideration for journalists than for any other victim of oppression. We monitor attacks on the pressaround the world and work on behalf of jailed journalists because we believe that any government’s attitude toward the press is the best indication of the true state of human rights in that country. When a group or government wishes to oppress its people, to deprive them of their rights and their dignity, it always starts with the press.

The new Turkish government, like its predecessors, would very much like to be considered a part of the West, not the Middle East. It claims to be &quotdemocratic and freedom-loving, ” as Yilmaz said on his installation. Its claim has so far been unconvincing, to the point where Turkey’s many requests to join the European Community have been dismissed out of hand. Not least among EC members’ reasons for refusing has been the lack of freedom of the press, among the most basic of freedoms, and without which, as Yurtçcu said, &quotit is impossible to have other freedoms.”

It will give me great pleasure to meet Yurtçu, even in his cell, to tell him how much I admire him and to give him his award. It would be an enormously greater pleasure to walk with him out of that cell, and out of that prison.

Copyright © King Features Syndicate 1997.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that documents and responds to violations of press freedom worldwide. CPJ’s Web site is