I Paid a Price for Honest Journalism in Erdogan’s Turkey

I am a Turkish journalist and I’m coming from a country that has the highest number of imprisoned or exiled journalists in the world. Apart from being a journalist, I am from a country where even a police dog was exiled after it was claimed to be a dissident.

Turkish Journalist Arzu Yildiz. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@arzuyldzz)

Remember those Syria-bound trucks carrying arms which were intercepted on the border? I was the first journalist to break that story. Then all hell broke loose. The Turkish government wanted police officers, judges, prosecutors and journalists, who uncovered that weapons supply, arrested.

Also Read: Live- Erdogan Favours India’s NSG Bid, Multilateral Talks on J&K

During that operation, a bomb-sniffing dog named Vahim was ordered to be exiled after he sniffed and found the weapons. He was sent to another city and was not allowed on the field anymore. I don’t know if he’s as lucky as I am and if he could make it out alive. This could sound like a joke to you, but this is a real life that we are living in Turkey.

According to official reports in my country, at least 165 journalists were imprisoned. More than 500 journalists were issued arrest warrants. All of these are individuals despised and sought by the government in power. These journalists include Kurdish, Leftist, as well as members of the Gulen movement. All these journalists published stories that were critical of the government.

Turkey was no paradise for journalists. But especially after the failed coup attempt, the crackdown on the media has escalated significantly. Within minutes of the coup attempt, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the people to confront the military on the streets.

Members of the Gulen movement being arrested by Turkish police. (Photo: AP)

Witch-Hunt Against Any and All Dissenters

More than 250 people, sadly, lost their lives during clashes between police forces and the rogue troops. Some were killed in airstrikes in Ankara, while others were murdered after rebel troops fired on people on an Istanbul bridge under ambiguous conditions. Instead of investigating the actual perpetrators of this horrific act, citizens who were sitting at home and watching the events unfold in complete shock were labeled as the target.

It turned into a complete witch-hunt targeting mostly intellectuals and educated individuals, including not only journalists, but also academics, Kurdish politicians, party leaders, members of the higher judiciary and artists. More than 1,50,000 individuals have been summarily dismissed from their jobs without an investigation or due process.

Also Read: Turkish Prez Erdogan’s Visit to India: Here’s What to Expect

Even pastors and imams were taken into custody. And after these arrests were carried out, all human values, rights and legal maxims were violated and victimisations were carried out.

For example, a law enacted recently prevents the wife or child of a wanted individual from obtaining a passport, thereby violating personal rights. Even during the preliminary phase of an investigation, all of their assets are seized. The government has confiscated more than 1,000 companies’ assets worth of over $15 billion.

According to the data we obtained, at least 70 people lost their lives while under the custody or in prison. Seven individuals, all of whom had been previously purged by the government under the state of emergency, have reportedly been kidnapped last month.

The Lines of Innocence and Guilt are Permanently Blurred

We saw on TV police raiding homes of Kurdish politicians and pile soldiers into helicopters and arrest them after having landed on a soccer field. Not only journalists, but anyone critical of the government and those who are willing to oppose, expose, and report the unlawful acts were threatened and suppressed through these acts.

Let me tell you what type of tragedies Turkish people have gone through following the coup attempt. A teacher known to work at a school affiliated with the Gulen movement was taken into custody and kept there for 30 days without even getting a chance to give an official statement. His intestines were punctured due to the immense tortures he had faced. He eventually lost his life.

Following the death of Gokhan Acikkolu, a teacher who never participated in any violent action, a city mayor working under the current government in power demanded that he must be buried in a traitors’ cemetery set up by authorities to bury coup plotters.

His corpse was only delivered to his father, who had to carry his son from one city to another all by himself. Even though he wanted his son to be buried in a regular religious ceremony, imams refused to observe a funeral prayer as they too became politicised.

This teacher’s death went under-reported on media outlets. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty was ignored. He died in pre-trial detention under brutal conditions before even giving his testimony. He was declared a traitor by the government even before a trial.

Turkey’s Purge Has Caused Massive Brain Drain

In fact, these type of incidents did not begin with the coup attempt. The turning point took place on 17 December 2013, with the outbreak of a corruption scandal involving President Erdogan. This is the president who had just declared his one-man rule with questionable referendum that took place on 16 April.

This corruption scandal involved Erdogan’s children, son-in-law, bureaucrats, ministers, media executives, and businessmen close to him. The documents disclosed the way in which these media establishments were founded through a system named “pool”, in which money was collected through a patronage system between the government and wealthy businessmen.

Right now, there are more than 60 Turkish journalists who are forced to live in exile all around the world. The purge in Turkey caused a massive brain drain. After the coup attempt, thousands of intellectuals, writers, academics, politicians, police officers, prosecutors and judges were charged and declared terrorists and traitors.

Charges include having 1 dollar US bill, downloading an encrypted messaging app, possessing religious books, browsing critical news websites or just posting tweets.

Thousands of children were left alone after both their parents were imprisoned. Journalists and intellectuals were kept under custody for days, subjected to insults and sent to prison.

Judges and prosecutors who ordered their release were dismissed from their jobs the very same day. For example, last month, 21 journalists were released and moments before leaving the prison, they were taken into custody again. They were held at the police station for 14 days and sent back to prison.

Judges who released them were suspended from duty. There are 12,000 judges and prosecutors in Turkey – almost 5,000 of them have been dismissed from duty and over 3,000 are under arrested.

Free Media on Death Row

There is no media left in Turkey to report this. Hundreds of media outlets were shut down. Investigative journalism and free media are on death row.

This is exactly the reason why a daughter of two arrested judges opened a blog and is publishing news and articles on her own. Or a woman whose husband was kidnapped tries to make her voice heard through a video she shot at home through social media.

While victims are trying to voice their plight, reporters working under the control of the government are opting to be silent about all these developments. They choose to remain scared and close their eyes.

Journalism is a profession of sacrifice. We shouldn’t have the luxury to be scared. I can’t put my life, my kids, my money, my safety before everyone. I am one of the few dissident female journalists in Turkey and I would like you to know that I made it here today sacrificing all that I have.

I was forced to leave behind my kids, my family, the streets I grew up in. I left behind my colleagues whom I love and whom I look up to as an example. I don’t know when or how or if I will ever see them again.

Instead of keeping it quiet and under the radar in a geography where people are being burned in basements by the government and ran over by tanks, I would like to be able to freely raise my voice and fight for freedom.

The world doesn’t only consist of Turkey. There is pain everywhere. There is injustice, persecution all around the world.

They’re calling me a traitor now. They’re telling me to return to my country. However, I’d like to think like Virginia Woolf; “My country is the whole world.”

(Arzu Yildiz is a Turkish journalist, who was sentenced to 20 months in jail by the Erdogan administration for posting court videos involving a weapons-smuggling scandal.)

(This piece has been published with her permission. The original article was published in The Globe Post.)