Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis

4. The Kurdish Cases

The indictments of staffers of the Dicle News Agency are filled with the workaday details of a wire-service journalist: An editor fields tips about pro-Kurdish demonstrations; a reporter covers the story of a youth who set himself on fire as a political protest; another tries to track down a possible police crackdown against a Kurdish political party. But as conveyed in the government’s charge sheet, each detail is fraught with impropriety: The tips should have been passed along to the authorities; covering the youth’s protest was an act of propaganda; pursuing the crackdown story was intended to humiliate the government.

Twenty-two journalists for the pro-Kurdish news agency, also known as DİHA, were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 1, 2012, all but one on charges of aiding the banned Union of Communities in Kurdistan or its affiliate, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Among the accused was Sinan Aygül, the agency’s Bitlis reporter, who faced up to 15 years in prison. Defense lawyer Murat Timur said the authorities portrayed Aygül’s coverage of a press announcement as evidence of participation in a terrorist group’s activities. “The documents in the dossier are the news stories that he wrote,” Timur told CPJ. “What are on trial are acts of journalism.”

Kurdish journalists constituted more than 70 percent of the 76 journalists imprisoned in Turkey when CPJ conducted an extensive survey in August 2012. The Kurdish issue provides a particularly tense context to the question of press freedom in Turkey. The Kurdish journalists’ fate does not simply test the democratic character of the Turkish state, it challenges Turkey’s sense of identity and is intimately linked to the Kurdish struggle for empowerment.

Turkish Kurds make up 12 million to 20 million of the country’s total population of 75 million, with about half living in the southeast and half in western cities, particularly Istanbul, according to Human Rights Watch estimates. Due to a large diaspora, mainly in Western Europe, the Kurdish conflict has reverberated abroad. The Turkish government has repeatedly sought to shut down Roj TV, a pro-PKK satellite station based in Denmark and Belgium, CPJ research shows. In early 2012, suspected PKK sympathizers ransacked and firebombed offices in Paris, Cologne, and other European cities of Zaman, a leading Turkish newspaper close to the Fethullah Gülen movement and generally supportive of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

SIDEBAR: Letters
From Prison

Deep cultural, religious, ethnic, and political factors determine the discussion of the Kurdish issue. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, the victory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the war of independence, and the birth of a “new country” premised on Turkishness, Ankara’s military and political elites have focused on the perils of ethnic division, linguistic diversity, religious differences, and national disintegration. “Many Turks have been brought up to believe that allowing Kurds to speak and study in their mother tongue would be the first step to partition,” the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit crisis-resolution organization, said in a September 2011 report on the PKK insurgency.

The Kurdish minority has firmly resisted Ankara’s efforts toward assimilation, and it has paid the price. “Kurds have been treated as second-class citizens,” the renowned Turkish journalist and author Ece Temelkuran said in a January 2012 interview with the Beirut daily Al-Akhbar. The PKK armed insurgency that started in 1984 draws part of its support from economic underdevelopment and poverty, but it also taps Kurds’ deep sense of discrimination and humiliation at the hands of the Turkish state.

The PKK’s violent tactics and frontal rebellion, coupled with the Turkish army’s fierce reaction, compound the problem. Between 1984 and the early 2000s, the southeastern region was engulfed in a scorched earth policy carried out by Turkish security forces and their local paramilitary groups that included the destruction of thousands of villages, internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of rural Kurds, and systematic extrajudicial killings. The government estimates 44,000 soldiers, PKK fighters, and civilians were killed in the violent maelstrom of guerrilla and counterguerrilla operations.


After its electoral victory in 2002, the AKP government appeared much more open to the Kurdish question than previous administrations. Partly responding to the European Union’s insistence on the respect of minority rights, partly basing its appeal on a shared Muslim faith, the ruling party tried to play down the Turkish ethnic nationalism that has long denied the existence of a Kurdish community. It introduced a series of reforms that eased restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, in particular in the media. In January 2009, it started a state-run Kurdish-language TV channel, TRT6.

As late as July 2009, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed eager to continue normalization efforts, initiating the so-called Democratic or Kurdish Opening with a view of encouraging Kurdish moderates while isolating hardliners. “This is the first time the Turkish government approaches the Kurdish problem so seriously,” Milliyet columnist Hasan Cemal wrote.

The détente was short-lived. For a complex set of reasons—among them strong resistance in Turkish ultranationalist military and judiciary circles, along with the PKK’s own intransigence—the government returned to a conventional policy of winning the war against insurgents. A December 2011 Turkish air force strike in Uludere that killed 34 civilians who were mistaken for PKK fighters, along with a string of deadly PKK attacks, epitomized the resumption of all-out armed confrontation.

In this violent context, a discussion of the Kurdish issue inevitably turns into a minefield. “Kurds who publicly or politically asserted their Kurdish identity or promoted using Kurdish in the public domain risked censure, harassment or prosecution,” the U.S. State Department said in its 2011 country report. That year, Turkish authorities resorted to the mass arrest of Kurdish politicians, journalists, academics, and community and trade union activists, labeling them members of the banned Union of Communities in Kurdistan, or KCK, an umbrella organization of Kurdish groups that includes the PKK.

In fact, the state has regularly denounced the expression of opinions deemed too close to the Kurdish cause as an apology for terrorism. Even the use of words became monitored: In May 2012, for instance, the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, banned the use on television of the word “guerrilla” in relation to the PKK. Ruling in a 2009 case that involved a CNN Türk program, the council found that “the word ‘guerrilla’ is used to refer to insurgents who are fighting for a legitimate purpose. The use of this word for PKK members would legitimize the terrorists and terrorism.”

In late October 2011, the prosecutors went as far as ordering the imprisonment of the famous independent publisher Ragıp Zarakolu, a partisan of nonviolence, human rights, and freedom of expression. He was accused of having links to the outlawed KCK and was indicted in March 2012, accused of “aiding and abetting an illegal organization,” a charge that could carry a 15-year sentence. The indictment referred to Zarakolu’s participation in the Istanbul Political Academy, an institute close to the legal pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, which holds 36 seats in Turkey’s parliament. He was released in April pending trial.


All journalists who cover the Kurdish issue critically are vulnerable to suspicions and accusations of aiding terrorism. How serious are these charges? Many sympathetic observers are reluctant to judge the Kurdish press’ relationship with the PKK, fearing that any implication that Kurdish journalists endorse the armed group’s positions would aggravate the situation.

A CPJ review of Kurdish media found diversity and gradations in coverage. The Fırat News Agency and Roj TV, which are based outside Turkey, offer an overtly pro-PKK viewpoint. The leading domestic Kurdish outlets, including the Dicle News Agency and the daily Özgür Gündem, reflect a broader, pro-Kurdish approach. Their coverage is one-sided in portraying Kurds in a highly favorable light and the AKP and the Turkish military in a darkly negative one, but these outlets do not openly or directly advocate the use of armed violence. Their publication of opinion pieces by pro-Kurdish and PKK leaders draws particular ire from the authorities.

For many observers, the Kurdish press simply reflects a political reality—“the PKK’s position as the dominant political voice of Turkey’s Kurds,” as Aliza Marcus put it in her 2007 book, Blood and Belief. Although the nationalist parties close to the PKK draw only half of the Kurdish vote in national elections, the armed group sees itself as the only legitimate Kurdish organization. Thus, in the tense and often intolerant world of Kurdish nationalism, any criticism of the PKK’s ideas, policies, or tactics is seen as a betrayal of the cause. “Some Kurdish intellectuals and journalists have distanced themselves from the PKK while remaining attached to the Kurdish cause,” said Pierre Vanrie, who covers Turkey for the Paris-based weekly Courrier international. “However, they often must face hostility from the PKK and its supporters.”

Kurdish journalists are caught on the other side as well, as Turkish authorities constantly blur the line between the expression of radical political ideas and direct support for the PKK’s violent actions. “Voicing criticism is a right in a free society. Regardless of the harshness of the criticism, it is wrong to interpret it as terrorism,” Thomas Hammarberg, then the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said in an April 2012 interview with the Istanbul-based independent news portal Bianet.

The Turkish state’s attitude toward coverage of the Kurdish issue is not simply an expression of political authoritarianism. It also reflects Turkey’s difficulty in reconsidering, as Human Rights Watch put it in a 2010 report on terrorism laws, “a Turkish citizenship and identity that has been equated with membership in the Turkish and Sunni Muslim majority. Citizens (except Armenians, Jews and Greeks recognized as minorities by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne) have been expected to bury other ethnic or religious affiliations and associations. Even today, people are prosecuted for nonviolently expressing opinions on the Kurdish issue, discussing Kurdish history, and criticizing the state policy on minority rights and more generally discussing the recent history of minority groups.”

The cases against Kurdish journalists underscore the excesses of Turkey’s legal order, including a penal code that takes little heed of freedom of expression. Article 216, for instance, punishes “anyone who openly incites sections of the population to enmity or hatred toward another group on the basis of social class, race, religion, or sectarian difference, in a manner which may present a clear and imminent danger in terms of public safety.” The authorities have often over-reached in using this statute. “That article is being used to silence dissident voices,” wrote Frédérike Geerdink, an Istanbul-based Dutch freelance correspondent. “Kurdish politicians and journalists in particular are being convicted under this law, for example, when they demand more rights for Kurds or if they file reports about PKK fighters.”


Turkish authorities also make prolific use of very tough anti-terror legislation. “In the last three years, the biggest problem has been the misuse of anti-terrorism laws to bring criminal charges against many ordinary people who engage in legitimate and nonviolent pro-Kurdish or leftist political activity,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. A 2011 study by The Associated Press found that one-third, or 12,897, of all terrorism-related convictions worldwide since the 9/11 attacks were handed down by Turkish courts.

Turkey’s anti-terror law, known as Terörle Mücadele Kanunu, or TMK, contains a definition of terrorism that most experts agree is too broad and too vague. “In most cases there is no evidence of any activity that should or could be described as terrorism,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Yet the widely drawn and vague nature of Turkey’s terrorism laws gives zealous prosecutors and judges the ability to imprison and try them as if they were members of the PKK.”

Turkish prosecutors have resorted to “special authority courts” in pursuing these cases. Enshrined in Articles 250 and 251 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the special courts have covered terrorist groups and crimes against the constitutional order. Created in 2005 to replace the state security courts established by the military, the courts initially focused on alleged anti-government plots within the secular Kemalist establishment, including the army. But human rights defenders came to severely criticize the courts’ practices as many defendants were forced to spend years in custody with no verdict in sight. The courts also went beyond alleged military plotters to indict writers and journalists who critically covered the government’s actions. In July 2012, parliament bent to the growing dissatisfaction, adopting legislation to end use of the special courts and shift duties to regional criminal courts. Still, pending cases against journalists and other people accused of links to coup plots or the PKK are not affected by the measure.

While the fate of Kurdish journalists is set against the wider issues of political violence and of ethnic, cultural, and national identities, these factors do not excuse Turkey’s systemic infringements on freedom of expression. “By prosecuting and convicting media and journalists reporting on the Kurdish issue, Turkey at numerous occasions has breached Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” said Dirk Voorhoof, a professor of media law at Belgium’s Ghent University. “Support or even reference to the Kurdish independence movement, the criticism of military action by the state in southeastern Turkey, references to the role and actions of the PKK, or interviewing PKK members are considered by Turkey as support for terrorism, incitement to hatred, or separatist propaganda. However, the European Court of Human Rights considers these interferences acceptable under Article 10 only if there is incitement to violence and if there is a real risk that such incitement can lead to the use of violence, armed resistance, or an uprising.”

A democratic society cannot thrive without a critical press examining even the most sensitive of topics. “Every story is a mirror. Whenever an entity, whether it be a government, a bureaucracy, an army, a religious sect … is afraid of its own image in the mirror, afraid of the truth about what it is and what it does, it wants us, the journalists, to forgo the story, to look away from the mirror,” Yasemin Çongar, deputy editor-in-chief of the crusading liberal daily Taraf, said on World Press Freedom Day 2012. In the context of the Kurdish issue, press freedom ultimately depends on how Turkey sees itself as a democracy and a nation.

(Photo by Reuters)

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