Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
“We cannot put down the pen” – Nedim Türfent on Kurdish journalism in Turkey

ECPMF

03 May 2024

No Comments

Journalist for 12 years, Nedim Türfent was imprisoned for nearly 7 years for his work. After being released from prison, Türfent picked up his pen again and now says: “If there is cruelty or oppression in our country, we journalists do not have the luxury of burying our heads in the sand.” That’s why he continues reporting. Kurdish journalist Nedim Türfent is currently taking part in the ECPMF Journalists-in-Residence Programme.

On March 31, local elections took place in Turkey and the ruling AK Party suffered a big loss. The opposition CHP and the pro-Kurdish DEM party won in a few local areas. How did different media outlets report on the elections beforehand? And what effect did you think the reporting had on the outcome of the elections?

This year’s local elections yielded striking results. A decline in the ruling AK Party’s vote share had been expected, but the results of the polls showed a decline beyond expectations. For the first time in 22 years, the ruling party fell to second place in the polls. This must have been a shock for Erdoğan, who boasted of his first place after every election. While the main opposition CHP won municipalities in many AKP strongholds, the DEM Party also achieved visible success. For years, the AKP had been ignoring the will of the Kurdish people and appointing trustees to the municipalities won by the HDP. The outcome of the polls in Kurdistan was also a response of the people to the AKP’s oppressive policies. The Kurdish people once again said “êdî bes e” to the AKP and its oppressions: Enough is Enough. Prior to the elections, the AKP moved thousands of soldiers from Turkey’s Western provinces to Kurdish towns and cities with relatively small voter populations. With this strategic intervention in the elections, the AKP usurped more than 15 municipalities. However, despite this, it could not avoid a major electoral defeat.

In Turkey, more than 90 percent of media outlets are under the control of the government. We call this ‘the partisan media’. The partisan media has been one of the main factors that have helped the AKP survive for years. These media organs have been distracting the public with lies and fake content. They even pretend that the economic crisis does not exist. However, the crisis has deepened to such an extent that it is now very difficult to hide and the results of the polls have clearly shown this. The majority of the people of Turkey said ‘Stop’ to both the economic crisis and to oppressive policies and injustices.

Of course, alternative and independent media influenced the election results with their reporting. The role of journalists should not be denied. The AKP once again tried to turn the truth inside out and distract the public with religious, chauvinistic and patriotic-nationalistic arguments which were repeated in the partisan media. For example, whenever the AKP government experiences a political or economic crisis, it uses religion and nationalism. With such rhetoric, it manipulates people’s priorities. However, in the pre-election phase, both the independent media and the opposition focused on the economic crisis, oppressions and violation of rights. They set the agenda themselves and did not fall into the trap of the government this time. To give a striking example, AKP, which considers itself as the protector of Palestine, tried to gain votes by creating a religious and nationalist rhetoric over the Israeli-Palestinian war. However, journalist Metin Cihan revealed that the AKP government continued trade with Israel even during the period of Israel-Palestine war. Metin Cihan’s reports affected the voting preferences of religious and nationalist groups and AKP lost votes.

 

What implications do you expect the election results to have on the media landscape and the state of press freedom in Turkey, especially for Kurdish journalists? 

The government has been waving the judicial baton over journalists like the sword of Damocles for years and the problems of freedom of the press and freedom of thought in Turkey have been going on for decades. In the 2023 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Turkey ranked 165th out of 180 countries. Sadly, Turkey has to be labelled as a “journalist prison”. The situation is aggravated as the economic crisis in Turkey is deepening day by day; also journalists are struggling with economic pressures and problems. Some media organisations that could not manage to sustain themselves closed down before the elections and this situation continues after the elections. New journalists are gradually being added to the caravan of unemployed journalists.

Also Kurdish journalists of course work in conditions of great economic hardship. But if you ask a Kurdish journalist about their problems, of course the main problem will not be economic. Kurdish journalists have always been the ones most frequently and easily targeted by the government and the state. In my humble opinion, the results of the polls will not be a respite for the independent media. It is not realistic to think that the AKP government will give up its repression and censorship of the free press. As said, it has turned the country into a prison for journalists. In Turkey, where the conditions for practising journalism are extremely difficult, the situation is even more dire when it comes to Kurdish journalists. As usual, the AKP carries out operations against Kurdish journalists. The first major operation after the elections was the arrest of the Kurdish journalists Esra Solin Dal, Erdoğan Alayumat and Mehmet Aslan on April 26. According to the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), there are currently 28 imprisoned journalists. This number was much higher until a few months ago.

AKP, the notorious enemy of the press, struck another blow to press freedom on 1 May Labour Day. The government banned the celebrations in Taksim Square which has a symbolic importance for workers. The workers who ignored the ban and wanted to march to the square were subjected to harsh police intervention throughout the day. More than 200 people, including two journalists, were detained. Journalists Umut Taştan and Fatoş Erdoğan, who wanted to record the violence, were also subjected to police violence.

Moreover, the government has signalled that it will continue its repressive practices on the Kurdish issue. We know that whenever we start to hear the footsteps of an unlawful process, whenever a climate of conflict is entered, the AKP government immediately launches and carries out operations against journalists. Therefore, as long as the AKP continues its security policy, Turkey will continue to be a prison for journalists. This latest operation is a flare for this. The AKP has started to bill journalists for its election defeat. The coming summer carries the danger of becoming ‘winter’ for journalists.

The government criminalises Kurdish journalists and accuses them of “terrorism” just because of their journalistic work. This repressive party state claims that if a journalist is Kurdish, she/he is a terrorist. Kurdish journalists can be imprisoned for years without any evidence for such huge allegations.

This brings me to one other issue I would like to draw attention to. Some journalism organisations and international associations in Turkey prefer to remain silent against these allegations by the government and do not react when it is not Turkish journalists who are being persecuted. When journalistic organisations do not support Kurdish journalists, the government’s hand is strengthened and it is easier for it to attack Kurdish journalists.

Whichever journalist is subjected to persecution, solidarity must be shown. This discrimination in not providing support to Kurdish journalists must stop. If you do not put an end to the beatings of Kurdish journalists, then the government increases the dosage of repression and Turkish journalists are also attacked.

In short, if we don’t want the country to become a hell for journalism, we need to stand together against the oppressive hand against Kurdish journalists. If we can achieve this unity, we can put the government offside.

 

What role does Kurdish media play in the wider Turkish media landscape? What does it mean to have your own media outlets?

The AKP party-state wants a media with a single voice as one of the most fundamental parts of its monist policy. In the partisan media it already controls, the news is always published in a similar language. The government imagines a media that does not bring up the lawlessness and injustice arising from its anti-democratic rule nor the economic crisis. Therefore, it tries to intimidate the media it cannot control with the judicial stick and economic pressures. In such an environment, the role of independent and alternative media is very valuable for making social problems visible.

Some of the media, which the AKP cannot control, do not think much differently from the government when it comes to the Kurds and Kurdish issues. In essence, there are only a handful of media outlets in Turkey that listen to Kurdish demands for rights, freedom and justice.

Moreover, both the repression and human rights violations in Turkey and the economic crisis are most acute in Kurdish cities. It is precisely in such a grave environment that the existence of Kurdish journalists gains undeniable importance. In fact, very few of the media that the government cannot control operate in Kurdistan. In other words, if there were no Kurdish journalists here, whatever the government says would be seen as the only “truth”. Kurdish journalists are the ones who spoil the game. Since the government knows this very well, it suppresses, judges, detains and imprisons Kurdish journalists.

Let us not forget that Kurdish journalists have to work at great cost. Sometimes Kurdish journalists have to pay a high price to escape this grotesque repression and report the news. To put it in one sentence: It is vital for Kurds to have their own media organisations. Without Kurdish journalists, there would be no one to see and write about the persecution of the Kurdish people.

 

What significance does Kurdish media have for seeking information on current events and following the news for all those Kurds who had to leave their home country?

As I mentioned before, there is almost no media organ other than the Kurdish media that writes about the problems and demands of Kurds. This is not only the case for Turkey, but also for the other countries where Kurds live and of course also for the diaspora. Therefore, for hundreds of thousands of Kurds who are forced to live in the diaspora, the Kurdish media is the main source to follow the agenda.

For example, in Kurdish cities in Turkey, it is possible to see oppression or persecution almost every day. However, these reports, which are censored by the mainstream media in Turkey, cannot be seen in the international media. Reports about the Kurds and the injustices suffered by them are very rarely covered in the international media. There are actually two layers of censorship: the mainstream Turkish media and the international media. A report about Kurds either must overcome this double wall of censorship, or it must be published in Kurdish media. Therefore, the Kurdish media serves as a “bedside book” for Kurds in the diaspora.

I would like to touch upon another issue here: While the Kurdish media concentrates so much on the problems in the mother country, does it report enough on the problems Kurds face in the diaspora and their demands? Can it be a voice for their problems? A Kurdish migrant, who had arrived in Germany 9 months ago and applied for asylum, committed suicide last week in the heim in the German city Erfurt. Kurds in the diaspora have all kinds of problems which should be reported about.

While Turkey serves as a prison for Kurdish journalists, Kurdish media organisations are also subjected to repression in the heart of Europe. The Belgian police raided the studios of the Kurdish television channels Medya Haber TV and Stêrk TV on the night of April 23. The police broke the door of the Uplink room and after confiscating technical equipment, they cut all cables to prevent the broadcasting and left the building.

Not a single international press and freedom of expression organisation has reacted properly to this repression of the media in the EU capital. When it comes to Kurds, everyone prefers to remain silent as if in unison. Let us note this shame on the page of history.

 

You also are a Kurdish journalist, facing the problems you have just described. With what emotions do you look at your career if you look at it with regards to the aforementioned aspects? How do you reflect on your role as journalist in these systems?

My career? Actually, my journalism career has a tragicomic story. I started journalism in 2012, so I have been a journalist for 12 years. However more than half of this time has been spent in prison. If you live in a country like Turkey, where journalists can be arrested at any time for trivial reasons, you too could have spent years in prison.

When I started my career, I decided that I would always use my pen and camera for those who have been persecuted or exposed to injustice. As important as it is to remain independent and abide by the ethical rules of journalism, it is equally important not to remain silent in the face of persecution.

Like countless of my Kurdish colleagues, I chose to write and paid the price for this by being imprisoned for nearly 7 years. When I was released from prison, I continued journalism with the same belief and thought. I think my pen is now a part of my body. I don’t think I can ever give up my pen.

In countries like Turkey, where democracy exists in name only, it is indispensable that journalists remain committed to the truth and observe the public interest. The role of journalists in rescuing the country from the authoritarian quagmire it has been dragged into cannot be denied. Our duty as journalists is to advocate for society. Journalism is also a fundamental control power and mechanism. We must be the public conscience against the government that normalises all kinds of injustice and lawlessness. Journalism is the last castle. We must not lose this castle.

 

How do you see yourself working in the future? 

Currently, I am temporarily in Germany. Here I continue my literary work while occasionally writing articles. I have a collection of poems which is almost ready for publication. I have another book project. By the way, while I was in prison, one of my books called “Über Mauern” was published in Germany.

When this temporary period is over, I will return to Turkey and continue to work as a journalist. I have bad news for you: In Turkey, sometimes it makes no sense to plan for the long term. One day you can be arrested randomly and be imprisoned for years!

I want to write as long as my life lasts. When I look years later, I see my pen in my hand again. I honestly don’t know if the price will be prison again. The only thing I know is that we don’t have the luxury of putting down the pen. Journalists don’t have the luxury of burying their heads in the sand. Because if journalists also remain silent, there will be no one left to speak and write.

Interview and research conducted by Emma Wendland, Support Intern at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

Information about the ECPMF Journalists-in-Residence programme can be found here.

Read news by categories:

Related news

Support

“We cannot put down the pen” – Nedim Türfent on Kurdish journalism in Turkey

Journalist for 12 years, Nedim Türfent was imprisoned for nearly 7 years for his work.

READ MORE
Support

Nominations open for IJ4EU Impact Award 2024

The IJ4EU fund has opened nominations for its annual Impact Award celebrating the best of European cross-border investigative journalism.

READ MORE
Support

Two years of war: Support for journalists in Ukraine

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has shaken Europe and beyond. The war has led to a humanitarian catastrophe for people on the ground, and also included numerous deliberate attacks on journalists in an attempt to silence their vital reporting.

READ MORE
Support

IJ4EU rebooted: €2M in grants for cross-border journalism in Europe

The Investigative Journalism for Europe fund is back with a new and improved programme of support for watchdog reporting.

READ MORE
Support

“Journalism is a job for those who are brave enough to bear the consequences”

Armağan Kabaklı, a devoted local journalist from Turkey committed to covering environmental and policy issues, joined ECPMF’s Journalists-in-Residence Programme, after the devastating earthquakes on 6 February 2023 that destroyed 11 cities and when his investigative reporting triggered a criminal case.

READ MORE
Support

UNCOVERED Conference 2023

We are excited to announce that the latest instalment of the IJ4EU UNCOVERED Conference will take place this year from 12-13 October 2023!

READ MORE