Turkish journalists jailed for stepping up on behalf of pro-Kurdish daily newspaper

by Daniel Leon

Today, 29. January 2019, Ayşe Düzkan starts to serve her prison sentence. She is one of 56 Turkish journalists and civil society activists who took part in a media solidarity action from May to August 2016.

Erdogan Turkey 900X600 After the "state of emergency" in Turkey, the crackdown on civil society and media freedom has not ended. Photo: ECPMF

The solidarity action involved serving as “editor for a day” of the pro-Kurdish, Turkish-language daily Özgür Gündem, which means “Free Agenda.” The need for such an action arose after the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan placed the newspaper under legal pressure for allegedly being a propaganda tool of the PKK, the Kurdish insurgent group fighting for independence in eastern Turkey.

Targeted in Turkey

Government pressure on the Istanbul-based Özgür Gündem, whose website has been shut down by the authorities, increased significantly following the attempted coup d’état against President Erdoǧan in July 2016. After this event, the government sought to jail the real editor of this daily newspaper and participants in the “editor for a day” solidarity action.

According to the Turkish journalists and civil society activists involved, the government’s claim that Özgür Gündem is some kind of propaganda newspaper is baseless. The daily reports news of the close to 16 million Kurds living in Turkey. Therefore, in an attempt to stand up for media freedom and pluralism in Turkey, the 56 individuals in the solidarity action rotated in the role of “editor for a day” of Özgür Gündem for four months in 2016.

The ECPMF contacted one of the journalists unfairly sentenced by Turkey’s crackdown on Özgür Gündem, Ayşe Düzkan.

With an electrifying calm, Düzkan, a freelance journalist, said over the telephone in late January 2019: “I will turn myself in. Going to jail for a year or a year and a half is not that dramatic. I am going because I took part in a solidarity action for a newspaper that reports on the realities of the Kurds in Turkey and always reports based on facts.”

Düzkan showed absolute determination, and her voice did not reveal even a hint of worry or fear at the prospect of going to a Turkish prison, where more than 150 journalists remain. Her attitude clearly demonstrates her convictions as a professional journalist and her willingness to pay a high price to stand up for media pluralism and press freedom.

Düzkan insists she is innocent of the charges and wants a ruling at the European level.

When asked about her legal strategy and her plans for the future, she quickly cut to the chase by explaining: “By handing myself in, I may get an early release, maybe after twelve months. However, I plan to take my case all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The Turkish Appeals Court confirmed my sentence [the tone of her voice expresses that there was no surprise in that outcome], and it then needs to go to the Constitutional Court. That takes time and I will be out of prison before submitting my case to the ECtHR.”

On the question of whether she plans to stay in Turkey after her release, she was unwavering: “I do plan to stay in Turkey after my release. This is my home and I have no plans to resettle abroad. I will continue working here.” The National Union of journalists, in the United Kingdom, has “adopted” Düzkan as a fellow member in a show of solidarity for her unjust incarceration.

Long-term persecution

The crackdown on Özgür Gündem has unfairly claimed the freedom of several journalists, and there is, of course, a real need for activists to defend the principle of press and media freedom in Turkey.

Because Özgür Gündem reports on the Kurdish community in Turkey, the Turkish government – before and after Erdoǧan came to power – has tried to strong-arm this daily since its beginnings in the early 1990s.

In a separate case, the ECtHR had ruled that Turkey violated Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), establishing freedom of the press, by unfairly prosecuting Özgür Gündem. This time around, the Turkish government sentenced Düzkan and fellow journalists Mehmet Ali Çelebi, Hüseyin Bektaş and Ragıp Duran to 18 months in prison on charges of “propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organisation.” The court argued in almost Orwellian fashion: “They haven’t shown enough remorse.”

Moreover, the Turkish court overseeing the case handed down a three year and nine month conviction to Hüseyin Aykol, Özgür Gündem’s actual editor, on the grounds of his being an ex-convict. Other journalists and human rights activists are awaiting or already undergoing trial for taking part in the same solidarity action, such as Erol Önderoğlu, representative of Reporters Without Borders in Turkey, and Şebnem Korur Fincancı.

The US-backed Freedom House has categorised the situation of press freedom in Turkey as “not free.” The ECPMF has reported on previous decisions by the ECtHR ruling that this European country has violated its international obligations regarding freedom of expression and of the press. In addition, the ECPMF has been constantly advocating for a free media in Turkey with joint efforts, statements, fact-finding missions, and legal support.

Says Nora Wehofsits, Advocacy Officer of the ECPMF:

“Turkey's journalists are too often deprived of their basic rights, such as a fair trial. We condemn the growing neglect of the rule of law in Turkey, where journalists and critical voices are arbitrarily being silenced by criminalising their work.”

The ECPMF calls on the Turkish government to release all journalists and activists imprisoned or currently under trial for exercising their right under Article 10 of the ECHR.