Turkish journalists and judges are in Erdogan’s cross-hairs, says journalist

Exiled: Abdullah Bozkurt has temporary refuge in Sweden, but hasn’t decided yet where he will go. It depends on his prospects for journalistic employment. (Ozan Kose, AFP)

Exiled: Abdullah Bozkurt has temporary refuge in Sweden, but hasn’t decided yet where he will go. It depends on his prospects for journalistic employment. (Ozan Kose, AFP)

Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt left his homeland after the increased crackdown on the free media following the coup attempt of July this year, in which more than 200 people died. He felt himself under threat, and is deeply concerned about the implications for media freedom in Turkey — as well as for an independent judiciary. About 2 500 judges and prosecutors were dismissed after the coup attempt.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in Turkey has accused preacher and philanthropist Fethullah Gülen and his Hizmet movement of being behind the coup. Gülen, once in alliance with Erdogan’s AKP party, now heads a modernising, pacifist Muslim interfaith group that runs schools and has media interests. Erdogan has claimed they are terrorists seeking to violently overthrow the Turkish government. Bozkurt was in South Africa: the guest of the Gülenist Turquoise Harmony Institute.

The issue of media freedom, Bozkurt told the Mail & Guardian, is not directly related to the coup attempt — but the repression of journalists intensified after July.

“It has been getting worse for the last three or four years already,” says Bozkurt. “But after the coup attempt, it sped up. Now there are nearly 150 journalists in jail or facing arrest. Today [Tuesday], the Turkish government issued arrest warrants for a further 35 journalists!

“As far as the coup attempt is concerned, the government seized the opportunity to silence all the critical voices in Turkey. The day after the attempt, they shut down more than a dozen news portals.”

The media groups and individuals targeted, Bozkurt says, are those who have long been critical of Erdogan and the AKP government, especially on the issues of corruption and the arming of Islamist groups in Syria.

The largest national English-language daily, Zaman, where Bozkurt used to work, was seized in March, before the coup.

“When they seized Zaman,” he said, “I was fired immediately. So I set up my own news service in Ankara with several investigative journalists. The day I decided to leave Turkey was the day the government issued arrest warrants for 42 journalists on a single day. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sustain my business. I thought: ‘On the next list, I will see my name.’

“The day after I left, my offices in Ankara were raided by 11 police officers.”

Looking at the names of the journalists detained Bozkurt says it is clear that they fall into two groups: “People who have written extensively on the huge investigation in 2013 launched by the judiciary and the police into corruption that implicated Erdogan and his family, especially his son Bilal, involving billions in graft money; and those who exposed the Turkish government’s clandestine activity in Syria, where it has armed radical anti-Assad groups, including Al-Nusra and [the] Islamic State.”

The reporters used leaks from the government, Bozkurt says, That “puts the government in a very bad light with the international community. So they are trying to remove that narrative from the public sphere.”

The period of pretrial detention in Turkey used to be limited to four days only, but the state has now extended permissible police custody to 30 days.

“What they are doing is to punish reporters, to send a message that if you write about corruption or arming radical groups you will be punished. It has a very chilling effect.”

To do this, in a state that claims to be a free democracy, Bozkurt says the Turkish state has made use of antiterrorism and espionage laws that were not previously used against journalists. Moreover, he says: “In the last three years, they have come up with different legislation in Parliament to empower government further. Our Parliament is a rubber-stamp Parliament. The ruling party can push any legislation through. The checks and balances aren’t there and the executive is in the hands of Erdogan.”

The government also changed the law to do with the council that appoints judges and sanctions them if they do something wrong.

“So now they can dismiss judges, and they can even be charged. Some face arrest warrants or get jailed. They also seize their assets, their property and you can do nothing. You can’t sell your property, you can’t feed your family. This is unprecedented.

“Also unprecedented is that, right after the coup, they obtained arrest warrants for two judges of the Constitutional Court, and these judges were jailed. The judiciary is being turned into a partisan tool in the hands of Erdogan and his associates. We don’t trust the judiciary any more.”

Bozkurt has temporary refuge in Sweden, but hasn’t decided yet where he will go in his exile. It depends on his prospects for journalistic employment: “This is the job I love most, so if I can find a job in journalism, wherever it is, I will move to that place.”

As for his testimony about the attacks on media freedom and judicial independence, he says: “If I don’t speak up, I feel I will be betraying my colleagues in Turkey. I want to be a voice for them. Any pressure on the Turkish government hopefully helps, puts a limit on their activity. Maybe they’ll detain fewer journalists.”

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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