Top Rights Defenders, Journalists Jailed in Turkey

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The latest arrests in Turkey of three of the country’s top human rights defenders follows a long history of assassins, jailing and intimidation of those who speak out against governmental abuses.

The latest arrests last week include two journalists and an academic:

  • Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders and a journalist with the independent news website Bianet,
  • Ahmet Nesin, a writer and journalist, and
  • Professor Sebnem Korur Fincanci, president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV).

All three were jailed after participating in a solidarity campaign launched on May 3 by the Diyarbakir-based Association of Free Journalists in support of the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem.

The newspaper has been reporting the recent death and destruction wrought by the Turkish military on the predominantly Kurdish districts in Turkey. For more information on those attacks, see the fact sheet published by TIHV, headed by Sebnem Korur Fincanci, an academic at Istanbul University’s forensic medicine department, who was recently in the region.

“The three are among 44 journalists and activists who have served as co-editor of the pro-Kurdish daily newspaper for a day to protest authorities’ repeated judicial harassment of the newspaper and its staff,” reported the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Prosecutors are demanding two to 14 year imprisonment for the trio for “praising the offense or the offender; provoking commission of offense; and making propaganda for a terrorist organization.”

The Association of Free Journalists has called the arrests “another black stain on the history of press in Turkey.”

“Jailing a world-renowned journalist and human rights defender such as Erol sends a very powerful signal of intimidation to the entire profession in Turkey. It’s a new, unbelievable low for press freedom in Turkey,” said Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, to CPJ.

Some of the threats that journalists in Turkey are exposed to include arrests and judicial prosecution, smear campaigns, closure of media outlets, deportation of foreign journalists, bans and gag orders, internet censorship,physical attacks and assassinations.

In 103 years in Turkey, 112 journalists and writers have been murdered, according to the Platform of Solidarity with Arrested Journalists (TGDP). Most of them were Armenians and Kurds.

Reporters without Borders called Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists” in 2012. According to the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS), there are currently 37 journalists in Turkish prisons. Most of them are Kurdish, including 13 jailed reporters with the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency (DIHA) alone.

The websites of many Kurdish news outlets are also repeatedly blocked by Turkey’s Presidency of Telecommunication (TIB). For example, access to the website of DIHA from July 2015 to May 2016 was banned 39 times.

The newspaper Ozgur Gundem (Free Agenda) has always been a “special target’ of the Turkish regime. Since the newspaper was founded on May 30, 1992, “authorities led a concerted campaign of arrests, bans and trials against Ozgur Gundem, eventually forcing the paper to close in April 1994,” according to the CPJ.

“In addition to the legal harassment, journalists at the paper were frequent targets of violent reprisal by unidentified assailants,” the organization added.

The 1990s, when the war between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish military intensified, were the darkest period in Turkey in terms of freedom of the press. In 1992 alone, 14 journalists were killed.

“During ‘the time of emergency’ (‘OHAL,’ which was declared by the Turkish state in southeastern Turkey between 1987 and 2002), doing journalism was like walking into fire,” said Bayram Balci, one of the founders of Ozgur Gundem.

Out of his colleagues with whom he established Ozgur Gundem, Balci is the only journalist that has remained alive.

“The murders,” said Balci, “started when we covered how the Turkish Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization (JITEM) were using Hezbolcontra militants [Turkish Hezbollah] as hitmen and trained them at the gendarmerie intelligence units. We informed official institutions about the fact that we were receiving threats. But no one did anything to provide us with security.

“We thought that the most they could do was to censor us or close down our paper. But when Hafiz Akdemir was killed, we understood how the state would deal with us. The paper was closed down in April, 1994. I stayed alive by accident.”

The life of Balci inspired the 2010 movie, “Press,” which tells the story of how the journalists of Ozgur Gundem became the targets of ruthless government-instigated murders, pressures and intimidation after exposing grave human rights abuses in Diyarbakir.

Balci told Bianet news agency that he was the target of an armed assault in the city of Mardin in 1994 after covering the murder of an Assyrian priest by a Turkish lieutenant. He left the region in 1996.

“The state has changed policy,” according to Balci. “In the past, it exterminated journalists physically. Today, it jails and silences them.”

Watch  trailer below for “Press:”




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