Istanbul, Turkey – Former Noble Peace Prize nominee Ragip Zarakolu says he‘s been charged with crimes against the state more than 70 times in his life. But those experiences didn’t prepare the Turkish publisher and journalist for his latest stint behind bars.
Zarakolu spent six months last year in a Turkish high-security prison on terrorism-related charges before being released pending trial in April. If convicted, he could spend up to 15 years in jail.
“There was no [physical] torture but without [a real] reason to be arrested, it was torture to be treated like a terrorist. Everyone is looking at you like you’re a monster,” Zarakolu told Al Jazeera from a café near his home in Istanbul.
Zarakolu was among hundreds of others across Turkey – including lawyers, politicians, students, activists and other journalists – accused of belonging to, or aiding, an illegal organisation: the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which the Turkish government views as the urban branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“This was the first time I went to a civilian prison and an anti-terror prison. It was a shock for me. It’s unjust and there is no reason. My arrest was state terror,” the 65-year-old said.
|The Stream – Turkey’s Kurdish question|
Zarakolu founded the Belge publishing house in 1977. Since then, he has published books by Kurdish and Armenian authors on issues that remain largely taboo in Turkey, including the Armenian genocide and the country’s treatment of its Kurdish citizens. He has also authored countless articles on these topics.
“It’s something like a mission: to give examples of the alternative history, a counter-history and the criticism of official ideology because Turkey is partly a totalitarian country in its political structures,” he said.
“They [arrested] me as another kind of threat: the intellectuals who are interested in discussing the solution to the Kurdish question. [It was] also to isolate Kurds from Turkish intellectuals. There was a fear atmosphere at that time. Many people were waiting to be arrested.”
Widespread arrests, detention condemned
Zarakolu was one of many journalists the Turkish authorities arrested in a crackdown on members of the media over the past few years. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently reported that Turkey jailed the most journalists in 2012 – ahead of Iran and China.
“Authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism or anti-state charges, launched thousands of other criminal prosecutions on charges such as denigrating Turkishness or influencing court proceedings, and used pressure tactics to sow self-censorship,” the CPJ said in a report titled “Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis”.
As of August 1, 2012, some 76 Turkish journalists were in jail, and at least 61 of those were imprisoned as a direct result of their work, CPJ stated. Many of the arrested reporters were Kurdish citizens of the state, or were affiliated with or working on contentious issues, including attempted overthrows of the government, Kurdish and Armenian rights, and more.
The Turkish government did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
Responding to CPJ’s findings, however, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, stated: “A great majority of the persons referred to as ‘journalists in prison’ have been charged with serious crimes – such as being a member of, or supporting an illegal or armed terrorist organisation – that concern the security and integrity of our country, and that are not related to their work as journalists or members of media organisations.”
Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin also responded to the CPJ allegations, calling them “exaggerated” and part of an attempt to use criticism of press freedom in Turkey as a political tool against the government.
“We, as the government, would not want any single person, whether a journalist or not, to be victimised because of their thoughts or expressions,” Ergin wrote. “Turkey is making an effort to strike the right balance between preventing the praising of violence and terrorist propaganda, and the need to expand freedom of speech.”
Laws limiting freedom of press
Despite these assurances, many point to articles in Turkey’s penal code as the primary factor allowing state authorities to arrest and detain journalists. Turkey’s anti-terrorism legislation has been criticised for being too broad and easily applied.
The Turkish government amended its anti-terror laws in 2005, at a peak in violence between state forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organisation.
Under the law’s definition, journalists writing about the PKK, or Kurdish rights in general, can be charged with making “terrorist propaganda” and imprisoned. In 2012, many of the journalists imprisoned in Turkey were either Kurdish or working for Kurdish media outlets.
Journalists in Turkey also have difficulties reporting on court cases, as the state can easily charge reporters with “attempting to influence a trial” (Article 288 of the penal code) or violating confidentiality (Article 285).
Article 301 of the Turkish penal code also makes “insulting Turkishness” a criminal offense, though what this law really means, or how it is applied, remains subjective at best.
Combined with high media concentration – most outlets are owned by large conglomerates – and the government’s willingness to publicly turn against the press, these laws have “a chilling effect and limits freedom of expression in practice, while making self-censorship a common phenomenon in the Turkish media”, according to the European Commission’s 2012 progress report on Turkey’s European Union accession.
Turkey’s blurring of the line between “the incitement to violence and the expression of non-violent ideas” leads to abuses of freedom of expression and the media, the report also found.
Social media as hopeful tool
“We are teaching journalism students to go after the truth, investigate, be brave. But they quickly see that there is too much price to pay.”
– Asli Tunc, Istanbul-Bilgi University
According to Asli Tunc, head of the media department at Istanbul-Bilgi University, repression of journalists is not a new phenomenon for Turkey. Describing Turkish media as “deceptively free”, Asli said the issue is related to a lack of democratic reforms in the country.
“Every journalist has a reflex to seek the truth and do actual reporting. Turkish media has lost that passion. We are teaching journalism students to go after the truth, investigate, be brave; but they quickly see that there is too much price to pay,” Tunc said. “There is self-censorship. Everyone is afraid of being fired. People know their limits and don’t step over the red line.”
She added, however, that the Internet may provide the last refuge for journalistic freedoms.
Upset by what he saw as the Turkish mainstream media’s silence on a widespread Kurdish hunger strike taking place in prisons across the country last year, 28-year-old Emrah Ucar took the matter into his own hands, launching a Facebook page providing news on the strike.
“The page was very dynamic. We had over 14,000 members in 28 days. The number of people talking about the page was about 80,000-90,000 people,” said Ucar, who lives in Istanbul.
Ucar opened a Facebook and Twitter account to spread information about the hunger strike. When the strike ended in November, he opened a new account, called “Ötekilerin Postasi” (‘The Other Post’), to continue disseminating marginalised voices.
Today, the group spreads information about court hearings, protests, arrests and other political events happening throughout Turkey that may not necessarily get mainstream coverage. The group’s Facebook page has almost 22,000 “Likes” and its Twitter account has more than 5,550 followers.
“Those in power have always created their own media, their own embedded media,” Ucar said. “We decided to have a page to talk about women, children, Kurds, all the people who have been made into ‘The Other’. There’s a need for alternative media here.”
An uncertain future
Earlier this week, at least seven journalists and media professionals were released from jail pending trial in cases related to supporting and being members of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan, the same reason journalist Ragip Zarakolu was imprisoned last year.
“We hope that this is the first step on the road to ending the practice of holding journalists in pretrial detention,” Committee to Protect Journalists deputy director Robert Mahoney said.
Still, major problems persist and Turkey recently ranked 154th out of 179 countries – behind Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russia – in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders. The group also called Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”.
“There have been serious improvements but then it’s like the Ottoman March: one step forward, two steps backwards,” said Gokce Tuyluoglu, executive director of the Open Society Foundation-Turkey.
“We lose hope every night,” she said. “But the next morning, we start from scratch, with the same high level of hope. We are going to continue striving for change, and I really think there is dynamism for change in Turkey.”