Özgür Gündem and Press Freedom in Turkey

After the July 15 military coup attempt, Turkey’s AKP government declared a state of emergency and fired or suspended tens thousands of civil servants, academics, military, and others for alleged association with the plot. In the process, it has closed down dozens of media outlets.

The story of each must be told, but one may stand in for many. Özgür Gündem is an Istanbul-based daily newspaper launched in May 1992, as the armed conflict between Turkish forces and the Kurdish freedom movement raged. At that time a State of Emergency was in effect, which allowed Turkish forces to destroy Kurdish villages and at the same time banned unofficial reporting about those appalling atrocities. Ozgur Gundem defied the ban and began reporting not only on the conflict but on the Turkish state’s gross human rights violations.

The state accused the daily of propagandizing for the “terrorist” PKK. It seized most of the paper’s issues in the first two years and plagued editors and journalists with lawsuits, arrests, detentions, and office raids. Twenty-seven staff members were murdered, mostly in extrajudicial executions.

In April 1994 a Turkish court shut Özgür Gündem down, but its staff resumed publishing under a different name. Thereafter the cycle of shutdown and relaunch was repeated. On 14 April 2011, Özgür Gündem resumed publishing under its original name. Starting in 2013, as the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement engaged in talks about a resolution, the daily became a forum where people of different political views could express themselves. But in 2015 President Erdoğan unilaterally ended the process, forbade Kurdish dissent, and instituted a military campaign against Kurdish cities. The newspaper, continuing to report on state abuses, faced dozens of investigations, fines, and arrests of correspondents on allegations of “producing terror propaganda” for the PKK.

On August 16 a Turkish court ordered a “temporary shutdown” of Özgür Gündem on the same charge. But before court could even issue the order, special operations police raided the newspaper’s Istanbul office, ransacked it, destroyed archives, and seized hard drives. Around 40 people were detained in the illegal raid, including more than 20 staff, outside reporters trying to cover the raid, and people who were at the office for solidarity.

Police then raided the homes of prominent editors and columnists including Eren Keskin, former editor-in-chief and a human rights advocate; Ragip Zarakolu, editor-in-chief of the Belge Pubishing House; and Aslı Erdoğan, a columnist and advisory board member who is also a human rights activist and an award-winning novelist whose books have been translated into 15 languages.

While others have since been released, Aslı Erdoğan remains imprisoned, as do editor in-chief Zana Kaya and newsroom editor İnan Kızılkaya, on charges of “membership of a terrorist organization.” Board member and linguist Necmiye Alpay has also been jailed on the same charge.

Özgür Gündem issued a statement saying that in the past “we have seen our offices bombed and our workers murdered. We have moved on from these with great consequences. … We answer the autocratic political power once more today, …. Your predecessors the torturers couldn’t silence us, and you can’t either … you cannot silence us.” And it called supporters to show solidarity and defend press freedom. On August 23, the newspaper staff followed in their own tradition and launched Özgürlükçü Demokrasi (“Libertarian Democracy”), which features a daily column called “Aslı’s Friends.”

Many other domestic journalists in Turkey now face threats, as do foreign correspondents—the BBC and the Economist have both voiced concerns that Turkish authorities are intimidating their reporters. But the right to freedom of expression is internationally recognized and is enshrined in the 1982 Turkish Constitution. The world must solidarize with the brave and indomitable staff of Özgür Gündem and demand that the rights of all of Turkey’s journalists and media, including dissident voices, be upheld.

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Published in Turkish inÖzgür Gündem at http://ozgurlukcudemokrasi.com/2016/09/15/aslinin-arkadaslari-janet-biehl/

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