Turkey’s purge of dissent poses a dilemma for reporters: support the government or risk jail. But for some young journalists, facts are worth fighting for.
Turkey’s purge of ‘dissent’ has thrown the country into uncertainty, posing a dilemma for reporters: support the government or risk imprisonment. But for a handful of young journalists, the facts are worth fighting for.
One day Dilek Gül tried to log onto Twitter only to find that her profile photo had been replaced with something sinister.
A man in a black face-mask, holding a massive rifle, looked back at her from the screen. Dilek’s eyes skimmed down in alarm: her feed had been hijacked by a series of posts outing her as a terrorist.
In reality, Dilek is a female Kurdish journalist – a dangerous thing to be in Turkey’s current political climate – and the hacking of her Twitter account was, she believes, a transparent attempt to get her arrested.
“My instagram is followed by policemen holding weapons,” says the 27-year-old with a shrug. “They know my name, my home… and maybe one day they will come to take me to prison. But I am not afraid.”
Given that over 160 Turkish journalists have been imprisoned in the past year, she has every reason to be.
Since an attempted coup against the country’s state institutions in July 2016, President Tayyip Erdogan has tried to purge Turkey of any remaining dissent, leading to over 47,000 arrests across all segments of society.
Erdogan is the head of Turkey’s conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and has been in power for over a decade.
At first, he was hailed as a leader who could unite the country’s conservative religious, secular military and political elite.
But what began with a wave of popular support and economic prosperity drifted into an increasingly authoritarian reign.
Last year’s coup was led by a strand of the military whose identity remains unclear. In one dizzying night, TV channels were taken over with claims that the president had been removed from office.
Erdogan uploaded a frenzied Facetime video where he urged his supporters to fight for him in the streets. That call was answered by many.
Erdogan is more than a leader in the eyes of Turkey’s conservative sector. He’s a symbol.
For years, the country enforced strict secular principles. Women could not wear hijab to university and Islamist parties were not allowed to run for parliament.
The night of the coup saw the streets filled with people who believed in what Erdogan stands for. They fought back against tanks and rubber bullets – with 265 civilians and military personnel losing their lives in the process.
It plunged the country into chaos. The only thing that seemed clear was that Erdogan remained in power… and that he could justify an unchecked crackdown on opposition, including the press.
Today charges against journalists can take any form. Former newspaper editor Ahmet Altan was arrested for sending “subliminal messages” backing the coup on a TV talk show.
Others have been arrested for simply tweeting comments deemed supportive of the cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former ally of Erdogan whom the president blames for the coup. (Gülen is currently in exile in Pennsylvania.)
If Dilek Gül is intimidated by this turn of events, there is no sign of it. With dark hair and a quick laugh, she speaks fluidly and passionately, untouched by the apathy and exhaustion expressed by other journalists.
Dilek got her start at a Kurdish-sympathetic TV channel called IMC in 2016 as a news anchor. “It taught me the value of journalism,” she says. “The people there did their job; they reported about all of Turkey.”
Then, in October, police raided IMC live on air.
“Freedom of the media won’t be silenced,” staff shouted from behind the news desk just moments before the screen went blank.
“After that, I couldn’t find a job; I couldn’t do news,” Dilek says in frustration.
Prospective employers would either turn her away for being tarred with the word “terrorist” or offer her work at far below a liveable wage, knowing she would have few options.
“Every journalist in Turkey is talking about what the government wants from them,” she says, “and a lot of older reporters have started to toe the line.”
To be fair, the prospect of having to choose between supporting the government and prison isn’t all that straightforward.
There are increasing reports of abuse in Turkish detention centres, according to Human Rights Watch, with many prisoners beaten, stripped, held in stress positions or threatened with rape.
For Dilek, the stigma of not falling into step has coloured every part of her life. She was about to move into a new apartment recently when the owner looked her up online, prompting him to back out of their agreement in the belief that it would be unsafe to have her living there.
But at this point, so many of Dilek’s friends have been imprisoned that meeting the same fate almost feels inevitable – not that she’ll let it stop her.
“This job is my duty,” she says. “My people [Kurdish] get a hard time; they’re put in a difficult position. I need to talk about that, not report on other countries.”
This idea of duty binds a lot of young Turkish journalists, many of whom are equally undaunted by the dangers they face or the power stacked against them.
“I cannot separate myself from the world and my country,” says Can Uğur, a 29-year-old journalist working at left-wing news site BirGün.
He cuts a diminutive figure but his round face wears a perennial smile. Even when talking about dark subjects, he can’t resist cracking a joke.
His reaction isn’t out of place here. Istanbul is so hot in summer that the days feel slow and sleepy. But at night, when the temperature cools, journalists catch up in bars at a much different pace.
There may be little hope, but there’s a lot of laughter. Can drains his beer quickly – joking about how covering protests all over the city has made him buff – before finally turning serious.
Mahir Kanaat, Can’s friend and colleague at BirGün, has been in jail for over five months. During a raid at his home on Christmas day, he and his pregnant wife were pushed to the ground by Turkish authorities, their hands tied behind their backs, and accused of belonging to a terrorist organisation.
Like many journalists, he remains in custody awaiting trial.
“My motivation is simply to bring positive change,” says Can. “This fight is worth everything to me as a journalist… and that sentiment is shared by many of us. Despite our problems, we are still smiling.”
But even for those who remain defiant, opportunities to exercise that commitment are disappearing. Birgun is facing several lawsuits for articles it published accusing Erdogan of corruption.
If it collapses under that pressure, it will join over 160 publishing outlets that have been closed since the coup, according to Human Rights Watch.
Canan Coskun is a 30-year-old journalist currently under investigation for “insulting public officials over their duties”. If convicted, she faces a sentence of over 23 years.
Canan began reporting for Cumhuriyet – a traditionally secular newspaper and one of the most widely read in Turkey – in 2012, determined to represent matters of public interest.
That was always going to be challenging, she acknowledges, but lately the landscape has looked particularly bleak.
“Thirteen of my colleagues are in prison only because they told the truth,” she says, referring to journalists whose seventh hearing will be on 25 September. “But I do not have the luxury of being scared; I do not have the luxury of flinching.”
Canan has wavy hair that reaches below her shoulders and speaks with a voice that’s soft but firm. She is well-known for reporting on high-profile court cases and is particularly steely when talking about her work, revealing the cynicism of a hard-worn veteran.
The story that landed Canan in a court case of her own was about corruption in the judicial system: a report revealing how top judges and prosecutors were given huge discounts for luxury apartments built by a public company.
“I knew a case would be opened against me but that’s a line I chose to cross,” she says. “I have to keep writing the facts.”
Reflecting on the number of friends arrested so far, Canan admits that what she feels is impossible to describe.
The crackdown has been so persistent that she has even considered swapping journalism for law school just so she can better defend the press.
“I don’t think there will be any ‘normal’ future,” she says finally.
Emre (not his real name) is a writer in his mid-twenties who wishes to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
He only started working in this field two years ago and says it’s the most fulfilling work he has ever done, that he can’t see himself doing anything else.
But he’s also afraid. Although Emre works as a fixer for major British newspapers, he does not want his name attached to the work he helps report on – a stance that pains him.
He’s sitting in a small cafe in Kadikoy, one of Istanbul’s most liberal neighbourhoods, where people who would look at home in Brooklyn or Shoreditch are drinking iced coffees to escape the heat.
It was here that Emre first got his start in journalism, writing short pieces for glossy magazines about music and culture without any sense of where writing would lead.
It had been a toss-up between becoming a journalist or a skydiving instructor, he says with a laugh, admitting that the latter option would have been safer.
We’re meeting in person because Emre believes his phone is bugged. He whips it out and swipes at the screen, proudly showing off his first major article – a front-page piece.
But, being critical of Erdogan, it sparked a backlash he will never forget. Supporters of the president inundated him on Twitter with claims that he was a spy, that he was trying to destroy the country.
It rattled him so much that he has been working behind the scenes ever since.
In April, Emre was assigned to cover a major constitutional referendum – one that would give Erdogan sweeping new powers.
For months, the streets of Istanbul had been filled with enormous red posters bearing Erdogan’s face, urging citizens to vote ‘yes’.
Government-controlled news outlets, meanwhile, claimed that voting ‘no’ would be a vote for terrorism, that only Erdogan could protect people.
Emre and a foreign reporter showed up at a polling station to interview people about their views. It didn’t take long for national security to pounce on the pair, aware that international media coverage was counteracting the State’s narrative.
“What the fuck are you doing? Who are these people [you work for]? What are their political views?” police asked him.
“I’m just a translator,” he replied, joking that they chose the right day to strip-search him because he had his Calvin Klein boxers on.
Emre believes that flash of cheeky charm, combined with his ability to distance himself from the word ‘journalist’, helped get him off.
But he knows he’s on police radars now. The only way for him to continue reporting, he says, is to get out of the country as soon as possible.
Dilek and Can cling to a different outlook. Both believe there is power in numbers and solace in conviction – however under threat they may be. Can even breaks out in a grin at the thought of Turkey’s future.
The referendum may have passed, he says, but only by a narrow margin. That 48.59 per cent of the country voted ‘no’ shows that opposition to Erdogan is far from dead.
“There are many people who think like us in the world and that is a source of great optimism,” he says. “Injustice cannot continue. We cannot let the good things in life be trampled upon.”
“It’s a dictatorship,” says Dilek. “It won’t last. It will be destroyed by the people. Until then, I’ll keep doing my job. I won’t escape. I’ll be right here.”