A prison of silence: the death of journalism in Turkey

“Now I know they jailed me to teach me a lesson – and that lesson, I learnt it.”

Celebrated novelist Aslı Erdoğan

Turkey has earned an accolade which holds no glory: according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, it is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.

Globally, one third of all imprisoned journalists, media workers and executives are in Turkey’s prisons, with the vast majority among them waiting to be brought to trial.

Some have been languishing in prison for months. An ongoing state of emergency was declared in July, following a violent coup attempt, blamed by the President and the government on those loyal to the cleric Fethullah Gülen. Journalists have been targeted in an unprecedented crackdown on all strands of opposition media.

Coupled with the closure of more than 160 media outlets, the message – and the resulting effect on press freedom – is clear and disturbing: the space for dissent is ever-shrinking and speaking out comes at an immeasurable cost.

Ahmet Şık: in detention since 29 Dec 2016

“Ahmet’s imprisonment os a message to others, those who are still outside: question us if you dare, speak out if you dare.”

Ahmet Şık: in detention since 29 Dec 2016

Ahmet Şık is a seasoned investigative journalist and is no stranger to politically motivated prosecution and imprisonment. He was held in prison for more than a year in 2011 for writing a book outlining the alleged infiltration of state structures by those loyal to the cleric Fethullah Gülen, at the time an ally of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), before they fell out.

Then last December, Ahmet was imprisoned again pending a trial, accused this time of making propaganda for the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and what the government calls FETÖ (Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation), which it alleges is led by Fethullah Gülen.

At first, Ahmet was held in Istanbul’s Metris prison in a dirty cell with no clean water for two days. He wasn’t allowed to see his lawyers, nor was he told they had tried to see him. Now Ahmet is back in Silivri prison, six years after he was first held there, sharing a cell with two other detainees. He can only speak to his closest relatives through a screen and by telephone once a week. Their conversations are recorded. He is not allowed to receive letters or books. 


Aslı Erdoğan: detained 16 Aug – 29 Dec 2016

Celebrated novelist Aslı Erdoğan spent almost five months in prison because of her role as a voluntary advisor to and writer for the now-closed Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem.

Armed and masked officers arrived at her home at 3pm and spent eight hours searching, pouring over her 3,500 books and notes from the last two decades. Despite finding no evidence during the search, she was detained and charged with terrorism offences.

“At the police station they put me in a 2m x 4m cell with three other women. There were no windows and the lights were on all the time… We were only allowed to use the toilet when they felt like taking us, not when we needed it. The first night I didn’t sleep.”

When Aslı went to court, she expected to be released: after all, she had never been prosecuted for any of her writings, she had done nothing wrong and as a member of the advisory board, she was not legally responsible for a newspaper’s content. But the judge sent her to prison pending trial. Aslı Erdoğan suffers from chronic illnesses that her time in prison made even worse.

“In prison, the biggest torture was the cold from September onwards. Once I was taken into a large ward with another 20 women; the presence of others kept me alive.”

Aslı Erdoğan has since been conditionally released but still faces terrorism charges.

‘Since my release, I am not writing and I don’t think I will go back to writing a column any time soon. I am trying to get better. While in prison I kept going, once I came out I really felt the physical impact it had on me.’

Fear is Chilling

The erosion of media freedom is not new in Turkey. In 2013 when huge Gezi Park protests erupted in Istanbul, a prominent news channel was broadcasting a nature documentary about penguins rather than covering the protests. Journalists lost their jobs for displeasing the authorities. Critical media outlets were taken over and their editorial line changed to a more compliant one.

With more than 120 journalists and other media workers imprisoned, and thousands more unemployed following the closure of over 160 media outlets, the effect of the latest wave of erosion of media freedom is clear: independent journalism in Turkey is at the edge of the precipice. The fear of imprisonment for criticising the authorities is palpable: newspaper columns and current affairs discussion programmes, very popular in Turkey, contain little vocal dissent nor strongly diverse views. 


#1: Turkey jails more journalists than any other country

1/3 of the world’s jailed journalists are in Turkey

120+ journalists remain in prison following the post-coup crackdown

160+ media outlets have been closed down since the coup attempt

Kadri Gürsel: in detention since 31 Oct 2016

Veteran journalist Kadri Gürsel is one of nine media workers from the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet who were imprisoned last November. He has had a 30 year career focusing mainly on international relations. In 1995 he was abducted by the PKK and held for 26 days, and later published a book about his experience called ‘Those on the mountains’.

Now, he is accused of terrorism offences over a column he wrote in July, shortly before the attempted coup, entitled ‘Erdoğan wants to be our father’. 

“Had there been evidence to support the accusations levelled against us, the trial process would have already started […] Time is passing, our imprisonment is turning into punishment.”

– Kadri Gürsel, in a letter to the Association of Journalists of Turkey, 25 January 2017

In the piece Gürsel wrote that Erdoğan wants to impose himself forcefully on the population, suggesting that the way to deal with this was to reject him and rebel, rather like Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia who set himself on fire, sparking a revolution which led to the toppling of Ben Ali, the former president. Gürsel told the court it was written in dark humour.

“My husband is paying a heavy price for speaking out. Our 10 year old son only saw his father once since Kadri has been imprisoned… He doesn’t understand why this is happening to us.”

– Nazire Gürsel, Kadri’s wife

Ahmet Altan: in pre-trial detention since 23 Sept 2016

Ahmet Altan is a novelist and former editor-in-chief of now-closed Taraf newspaper. In September 2016, he was detained with his brother Mehmet Altan, an academic and commentator, accused of ‘sending subliminal messages’ to the coup plotters during a TV panel discussion on the eve of the coup attempt.

Ahmet was released 12 days later, only to be detained again the next day on allegations of ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ and ‘attempting to overthrow the government’. In prison, Ahmet faces a total ban on written communications with the outside world and limited, monitored access to his lawyers.

“As far as I know, the law is interested in acts…I am facing a horrifying accusation, for which there isn’t a shred of evidence.”

Ahmet’s lawyer, Veysel Ok, told Amnesty International: “The Altan brothers were detained – I think deliberately – a day before Eid holidays. Then the prosecutor was on holiday for 12 days, meaning nothing could be done to challenge this decision, I couldn’t see my clients for the first five days.”

Media blackout

Imagine, for a moment, a world with no free media. What would it be like? Limited information about the world around us. Limited exposure to diverse analysis. Limited ability to hold institutions and governments to account in an open and transparent way.

How would it affect your sense of self – how you see yourself in the world – if you didn’t know what was happening around you? How would you formulate your opinions about events and issues without hearing the expertise, opinions and analysis of others?

A free media is an essential component of any functioning, pluralist society. It is a crucial vehicle for exercising the right to freedom of expression which includes the right to seek and receive information and ideas of all kinds. A free media is essential to hold the powerful to account for their actions.

Turkey’s independent media is not dead yet, but it has been gravely wounded. This crackdown must end. Journalists and other media workers must be freed from extensive and punitive pre-trial detention. They must be allowed to do their job because journalism is not a crime.