Mehmet Ali Izmir is the only Kurdish editor at the Star, a large daily that supports the government. Often he comes across stories about Kurds, which, he said, “are lies or not true or not confirmed.” But he rarely speaks out. “I can’t say anything. I’m not powerful. This is the way things are.”
“They look at me and say, ‘You are a Kurd. We know how you think.’ ”
Still, the press situation in Turkey has improved. From the late 1970s to the 1990s, 49 journalists were killed, according to a 2010 tally by the Hurriyet Daily News. One of the last to die was Hrant Dink, editor of a Turkish-Armenian newspaper, in 2007. The killers, ultranationalists, were caught and convicted. But as CPJ pointed out last year, some Turks believe that the masterminds of the killings eluded justice.
In today’s Turkey, prison terms have replaced bullets, and new taboos have replaced old ones. This has been the case since the AK Party (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002; the right-leaning, religiously conservative party has steadily grown more powerful, winning nearly 50 percent of the vote in 2011. It has presided over an economic boom—and also a seismic shift in political thinking.
Some Turks argue that under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there’s more freedom in Turkey today. Others fiercely disagree. Certainly the military, which long guided modern Turkey, has been defanged. The government’s loose embrace of Islam has grown tighter. Sacred notions about Turkey’s secular identity—decreed by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—have been tossed aside.
Meanwhile, tensions with the Kurds have flared. Conflicts with armed Kurdish groups, called terrorists by the government, have also tainted the Kurdish news media, concedes Salih Memecan, a political cartoonist for Sabah, a paper closely aligned with the government. His wife is a member of parliament from the AK Party.
“There is a difference between terrorism and freedom of expression,” said Memecan, who thinks it should be legally “difficult or impossible” to jail journalists for doing their work. Yet he says it wasn’t so long ago that “the military were calling our bosses and telling them what to do, and many of our bosses cooperated. Some of those people who complain today about freedom of the press were cooperative with those campaigns.”
Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a journalist and lawyer who writes for Today’s Zaman, a paper close to the AK Party, also believes the media climate is better these days. “From the Armenian genocide to the Kurdish question, Turkish journalists are free to write about anything,” he said. “There’s been a huge improvement.” But he concedes that some may be jailed without reason. “There is a huge and terrible interpretation of the antiterror laws,” he said. “It is getting more and more difficult to criticize Mr. Erdogan. He brings personal cases against journalists, and this creates a terrible atmosphere.”
Most any Turkish journalist can name a colleague who was fired because his work made him a liability. Ali Akel is one of them. He was a founding reporter for the Yeni Safak newspaper, serving 17 years on staff including five as Washington correspondent. That is, until he wrote a tough article in May 2012. “I criticized the government, and I lost my job,” he said, a few days after his firing in June. Five months later, he had yet to receive a “serious” job offer.
Evrim Kepenek, 35, was covering the aftermath of an earthquake in eastern Turkey when she was rousted from her tent and arrested. She was one of 29 journalists rounded up across the country on the same day in December 2011. Nearly all were working for Kurdish media; all were charged with links to an outlawed Kurdish organization. Their case is still slogging its way through the courts.
As we talked in an Istanbul café, Kepenek said she had worked for a number of mainstream newspapers before getting a job with the Dicle News Agency, a Kurdish outfit. She is Turkish, not Kurdish, an issue she says interrogators repeatedly raised, asking why she would work for Kurds. She said that there had been no reason to arrest her, and tried to sound brave about the seven-year prison term she faces if convicted. Then tears welled up, and she paused. “But I am afraid of being attacked in the street,” she said, “and I’m afraid of something happening to my family.”
Not far away, piles of the Arrested Journalist (Tutuklu Gazete), a special-issue newspaper put out by the Journalists Union of Turkey, sit in its Istanbul office. In the newspaper, imprisoned journalists deny the charges against them and describe prison life. WE ARE NOT TERRORISTS. WE ARE JOURNALISTS, reads one headline.