European Federation of Journalists

“Van minute”: Observing the elections as EU journalist in Turkey

Joachim Legatis, member of the national board of the German journalists union dju in Verdi and EFJ-IFJ expert travelled to Van (South East Turkey) as observer to monitor the November 1, 2015 national elections. He is sharing his mission report with us : 

“We are in times of war. I can tell you it’s no fun to be a political opponent to the Turkish government, especially when you are working as a journalist”, says Ferhat Celik, head of Van office for the Kurdish news agency DIHA.

Van (called Wan in Kurdish) is a city with 500.000 inhabitants not far from the border with Iran in a south-eastern province of Turkey mainly populated with Kurdish population.

Ferhat Celik reports me that Sunday, on election day, three grave incidents occurred in the region being covered by his office in Van. In the village of Acikyol, district of Muradiye close to Van, journalist Remzi Solmaz has been beaten by supporters of the ruling AKP when he tried to take pictures of a clash between AKP and HDP voters. The journalist received hits in the face and the attackers broke his camera. In the city of Bitlis, another DIHA reporter has been attacked by a special unit officer who was accusing the journalist of being member of the outlawed PKK. The surrounding people finally managed to save him from being arrested. And in the province of Agri, 200 kilometers from Van, the local governor issued a ban on media coverage for DIHA journalists. “Of course, this is against the law but the police eventually prevented our reporters to cover the elections” added Ferhat Celik.

Suruç, a turning point
“As long as somebody works for Kurdish media the government treats him as opponent,” says Celik. According to the reporter, in Turkey many journalists are working in exchange or in expectation of a favor from the government. A turning point in the country was the bombing of Suruc on July 17th, when an explosion killed 34 people at a meeting of the Kurdish youth movement. After this attack the PKK started again its attacks against the Turkish security forces and the State answered with more bombings. The peace process between the Turkish State and the PKK has practically ended from that moment.

Ferhat Celik also recalls that the government decided to ban 90 news websites seven days after the incident of Suruç. Many of them belonged to DIHA and JINHA, a news agency by and for women.

On August 10th, police officers in Hakkari heavily beated a DIHA reporter after accusing him of belonging to the PKK. During the last months the police filmed journalists at work during demonstrations. Civil officers are now recording reporters attending meetings and events. DIHA has seven reporters in the province of Van, 20 more in the other provinces of South east Turkey.

Another problem for local journalists is legal pressure. During the last 12 months, prosecutors called six to seven times reporters for interrogation. It is dangerous for journalists to go there, they are afraid of being beaten and jailed based on fake accusations. Usually, journalists prefer to send their lawyer to represent them. “I also received an invitation myself some weeks ago. The reason was a short report we wrote about the protest of religious students against bad cooking in their dormitory. I don’t know why the prosecutor wants to examine this kind of article. As usual, the general accusation is based on terrorist charges”, says Celik.

In case of problem, fear is dominant among journalists
The relationship between Kurdish journalists and their colleagues in media critical to the government is not good. Celik explains this attitude by the need to avoid problems with the Turkish state. “We know each other but even the independent media speak the language of the state. Let me give you an example: When the police arrests four journalists at a demonstration, journalists of non-Kurdish media write of four individuals being arrested. In case of a problem, journalists prefer to play low profile and act like the voice of the government,” says Celik. Just a few of them don’t really follow the path of the ruling party like the freelance journalist Ahmet Shik. “We are at times of war and the independent journalist don’t want to be targeted by the state. In times of peace, free press may write but in times of war they remain silent”, adds the journalist.

The media owned by Koza-Ipek Holding is, according to Celik, on the same side as the ruling AKP when it comes to religious issues, the only differences are on economic matters . The government imposed a trustee to take the control of the media holding just a few days before election. Like others, Koza-Ipek media used to stir hatred against Kurdish media. For example their journalists accused ours of being part of the PKK in the same way AKP-oriented publishers did. Even the TV-broadcasts in Kurdish work in favor of the government. Three months ago a privately owned Kurdish TV-station has been opened. It was 15 years of struggle to get this license in Turkey.

Freedom of media in Turkey is more and more under pressure. In the ’90s torture of journalists was common, 72 of them have been killed. Kurdish news agency has been shut down many times. During the first years on power the AKP was in favor of a more democratic system. But since the year 2007, the pressure on media is getting harder. What’s coming might be even worse…

Photo Credit : Joachim Legatis / IFJ-EFJ