Ocak Isik Yurtçu had little to celebrate last July 24, Journalists Day in Turkey. “Nobody in the world has been sentenced to so many years in prison for articles others have written,” he said from his jail cell in an interview with the daily Yeni Yuzyil.
Yurtçu, former editor in chief of the now-defunct daily Özgür Gündem, is serving a 15-year sentence for disseminating “separatist propaganda.” The case against him was based on articles about the Kurdish conflict published in Özgür Gündem in 1991 and 1992. Tried and convicted in 1993, he began serving jail time in December 1994, when an appeals court upheld his sentence.
For three years, Turkey has held more journalists in prison than any other country. Yurtçu’s case represents the types of charges the government uses to imprison reporters, editors, and columnists. Yurtçu was convicted of violating Articles 6, 7, and 8 of the Anti-Terror Law and Article 312 of the Penal Code. These articles in effect classify all reports on the Kurdish rebellion — other than the government’s — as either “incitement to racial hatred” or propaganda for the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.
During Yurtçu’s tenure, which began in 1991, Özgür Gündem was widely read and respected as an unbiased newspaper that offered readers an alternative to the inadequate coverage of the Kurdish issue by the mainstream, pro-government media. And it also broke new ground with its hard-hitting reporting on the fighting between the military and the PKK guerrillas in the country’s southeast.
Yurtçu’s case was only one of many against Özgür Gündem. The government led a concerted campaign of arrests, bans, and trials against the paper, eventually forcing it to close in April 1994. In addition to the legal harassment, journalists at the paper were frequent targets of violent reprisal by assailants. In 1992 alone, four journalists with the paper were killed. The murderers were never punished.
In an interview with the daily Millyet, Yurtçu was blunt about the impossible bind facing Turkish journalists: “They can use laws to put you in prison just for mentioning the word ‘PKK’ in your news story. They take that as ‘praising the terrorist organization.’ How can you write about the southeast without mentioning the PKK?”
Since Yurtçu’s imprisonment, several more sentences have been handed down from other cases against him, and he says he is no longer sure how many more years he will be incarcerated.
According to a colleague, Yurtçu had refused an offer of self-imposed exile before he was jailed. “He decided to stay in his country to fight against the injustice,” Huseyin Akyol wrote in a successor paper to Özgür Gündem. “He believes that being a journalist cannot be a crime.”