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.

“The root of the problem is badly written laws,” declared Ercan Ipekci, president of the union. For several years, Ipekci said, his group has sought without success to meet with the government to discuss the problems. But his union doesn’t wield much clout; only 5 percent of Turkish journalists are members. “I have no hopes,” he admitted. “The government really doesn’t want to improve the situation.”

Turkish officials say they believe in a free press and deny the “myth” of imprisoned journalists, instead accusing those detained of “participating or praising violence and terrorism.” They similarly refute the recent CPJ report, calling it “one-sided,” according to Today’s Zaman newspaper.

Yet in November, Turkish officials said they would soon present a proposal to the parliament that would reform the ways journalists are treated. And officials have been quoted in Turkish newspapers predicting that these reforms will reduce the cases against Turkey filed with the European Court of Human Rights.

At a court appearance 10 months after his arrest, Ahmet Sik denied the charges against him and also took the opportunity to indict the system that imprisoned him. His courtroom statement was a lecture on journalism that ran 12 typewritten pages. “What is being subject to prosecution and trial today is the journalism profession itself,” he said. “It is yet another breach of expression, covered up with a fig leaf.”

Upon his unexpected release in March 2012, Sik’s fury was undiminished. “The police, prosecutors, and judges who plotted and executed this conspiracy will enter this prison,” he told reporters outside the jail. “Justice will prevail when they enter here.”

But his words had a different result. In July, a court ruled that his comments outside the prison had “insulted public officials,” among other violations, and thus added three to seven years to the sentence he is facing.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting supported this reporting effort.

 

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Stephen Franklin is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, The Philadelphia Bulletin, the Miami Herald, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he has trained journalists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, and Pakistan. He is currently the ethnic and community media director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago, a nonprofit organization that helps Chicago's diverse communities and nonprofit organizations tell their stories. He is working on a book about his longtime bond with the Middle East, Captured by the Light.