Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis

Sidebar: Letters From Prison

Here are excerpts from letters written by four journalists who have been imprisoned in Turkey. They were first published by the independent online news portal Bianet in January and February 2012.

As in dozens of other cases, prosecutors have charged these individuals with grave anti-state crimes. These first-person accounts provide a different kind of insight. In their own words, these journalists describe their backgrounds, explain their perspectives, and detail their treatment by the Turkish judicial system.

A bed of nails: Hamdiye Çiftçi, reporter for Dicle News Agency

If you work as a journalist in my region, you lie in a bed of nails. Your loved ones bid you farewell each day as if you will not return. Because, actually, you never know what will happen. You may be targeted by unknown assailants, or something worse. Working for the Kurdish press and being a female journalist is harder still, almost a torment.

Having started at age 18, my journey from local to national journalism went very well until I started working for the Kurdish press. If you don’t work for the system covering orderly pieces of news, they try to bend you to their will with pressure and intimidation. And if this does not work, you will end up in prison.

… But I learned not to mind the threats, and I worked despite everything. Then came the moment when I recorded images of police breaking the arm of 14-year-old Cüneyt Ertuş during the banned Newroz gathering in Hakkâri in 2008.

Police ripped from the boy’s mouth the pinkish piece of cloth he had used to protect himself against pepper spray. Then they shot pepper spray down his throat, torturing him before our eyes. I wanted to shoot images of this moment, but police did not allow me.

I could not stand to watch. Before my eyes, next to the statue of Atatürk in the middle of the street, they called the kid bastard. The boy could do nothing but cry, the tears staining his pink cheeks. As he was held by police, he stared into my eyes with the message: “Save me.” His stare was so innocent and desperate, I felt as if my heart was on fire.

As the boy struggled, an undercover officer grabbed the youth’s coat. “Shoot this!” the officer said to me. “Take a photo. Let them see how they use children.” And then he twisted the arm of the young boy.

I wanted to record sounds along with the images, but I could not. I succeeded, though, in bearing witness to this torture in the middle of the street. The images I shot appeared on international television within days. The boy had come to the market to buy bread but was caught within the demonstrations, taken into custody, and tortured.

After the images appeared on the news, they raided my house. My tapes, personal belongings, computer and books were seized.

I was wanted.

(Originally published on February 22, 2012. Çiftçi spent nearly two years in prison before being released in April 2012 pending trial. She continued to face charges of aiding a banned organization, the Union of Communities in Kurdistan.)


I would grab my camera again: Ozan Kılınç, editor-in-chief of Azadiya Welat

Arriving in Diyarbakır at a young age, I started distributing newspapers. In those years, journalists were victims of murders by unknown assailants, but I was not aware of that. Every day at the crack of dawn I had already finished distributing newspapers and was heading out to school, carrying my bag.

Only in high school, when I started visiting Güneş Cultural and Art Center (GKM) and reading the headlines of the newspapers I had been distributing, did I see that I was one of many trying to spread enlightenment during a time of war. Reading about the killed Kurdish journalists impressed me deeply in those days, and I started harboring the idea of becoming a journalist.

… I was detained on July 22, 2010. By then, I was publisher and chief editor of the Kurdish-language newspaper Azadiya Welat. Once again, as in my childhood, my home was broken into. Once again, I noticed the boots and guns of the police officers who raided my house. Only they did not look as big or as strong as they did in my childhood.

After being detained, I was transferred to the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutors asked me how I received orders from the [terrorist] organization. I told them I did not receive any messages from any organization but received news from news agencies and published it.

I was, in fact, relieved when I heard the charges pressed against me, explained in detail by the judge. I understood that my crime was my journalism. The judge asked me about the news my newspaper published. He showed me copies of translated issues of my newspaper. The issues were translated by so-called experts, who were actually police officers.

The news was different from the translated texts, and I tried to explain that to the judge. I told him that I received reports from the news agency to which I subscribed, and that the translated texts were biased and mistranslated. Long before my defense lawyer had finished speaking in my support, the judge gave orders to arrest me.

When I asked to deliver my defense in my native Kurdish tongue before the Diyarbakır criminal courts, I was refused. Not that that would have changed anything. The entire thing worked like a theatrical play. The news we had gathered from news agencies and published was mistranslated from Kurdish into Turkish by police. The translations were totally incorrect and biased. The so-called court held the law in disregard. The prosecutors and the judges played their parts very well.

The critical press is being forced into silence. The situation of our country is not a pretty sight, and journalists must be the bearers of light. If I were out now, I would grab my camera and start chasing news again just to expose this scandalous order.

(Originally published on January 13, 2012. Kılınç was charged with spreading propaganda for the banned Kurdistan Workers Party.)


Transform the court into a newsroom: Soner Yalçın, publisher of Odatv

I would have liked to write using a PC or a typewriter, but they are not allowed in prison. I am sending you the statement I would have made at my initial court hearing had I been allowed.

I was born in 1966 and became a professional journalist in 1987. I have worked at 2000’e Doğru magazine, Aydınlık, Siyah Beyaz newspaper, Show TV, and Star TV. I am the publisher of Odatv, and the father of an 11-year-old boy. I was detained on February 14, 2011, and kept at Silivri Prison No. 1.

I will protect my ideas, my work, my professionalism, and my humanity at all costs, despite this catastrophe—the smear campaigns, the threats, the privacy violations in this barbarian environment blinded by hatred. Spiritual captivity is the actual challenge; physical captivity is temporary.

I have been a journalist for 25 years. I covered thousands of news stories. I have written 11 books and shot several documentaries. The criminal evidence against me amounts to news reports, from Odatv and other news outlets. Interviews and contacts that we have made through the switchboard of our newsroom have somehow been turned into criminal evidence.

Freedom of the press is on trial. We are journalists, and we will not complain at these hearings. We will advance on this dark scheme with courage. That is the suitable thing for journalists. We will transform the courtroom into a newsroom.

(Originally published on January 18, 2012. Authorities accuse Yalçın of participating in the anti-government Ergenekon plot, inciting hatred, and disclosing state secrets, among other counts. His case was pending in mid-2012.)


Strength in the written word: Barış Açıkel, editor-in-chief of İşçi Köylü

I took my first step toward journalism when I started visiting the small shops in Çorum where the local newspapers could always be found. They used to slip the daily papers into the shutters of the local coppersmith’s shop where I went to work during summer holidays. Being the only apprentice in the shop, I used to sweep the floors and make tea—and read the papers through the corner of my eye.

I always carried books (by Aziz Nesin, Yaşar Kemal, Halikarnas Balıkçısı) in my jacket pockets to read wherever possible. My father, who introduced me to the joyous habit of reading, and my elder brother had major roles in my career choice. How could someone not be a journalist once he or she has become intimate with sentences and words?

… Reading, researching, walking up and down, exercising, I serve my time at Kandıra. My hope has never vanished. I learned how to serve time from the masters who did it before me, from Ahmet Arif and Rıfat Ilgaz.

My parents have never abandoned me; they’ve stood by me since the beginning of my imprisonment. I don’t know how I will ever be able to repay their commitment. No amount of money can pay for their coming to the gates of prison, bringing me sweaters and trousers.

And I was very happy to receive the warm, supportive postcards from colleagues such as the president of the Turkish Journalists Union, Ercan İpekçi, along with Reporters Without Borders, Ece Temelkuran, and Musa Ağacık. It gives me hope and strength to hear the cries of my colleagues on the evening news and in newspaper pages, shouting: “Imprisoned journalists should be released.” Freedom and democracy, I know, are not possible without cost.

(Originally published on January 10, 2012. Açıkel was released soon after he wrote this account. He served seven years and nine months in prison on a variety of anti-state charges related to his work.)

(Photo by Reuters)

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