Snow was falling outside Silivri prison as we drove up the road bordered by high wire fences. A senior delegation of PEN International from Europe, North America, and the Middle East had come to Turkey in solidarity with the more than 150 Turkish writers and publishers now in prison. The majority of these were incarcerated behind the walls of Silivri.
For the first time in two decades, Turkey is again the largest jailor of writers and publishers in the world. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who came to power in 2002, civil institutions have been increasingly circumscribed. In the past six months more than 170 news outlets have been closed by the government. A third of Turkey’s judiciary – judges and prosecutors – have lost their jobs and/or been put in prison. University presidents have been fired; thousands of academics have been forced to resign, and more than 140,000 civil servants and military personnel have been purged; a third of these are now in detention. Ever since a coup attempt last July, Turkey has existed in a declared “state of emergency.” Those who oppose the government have been labeled and charged as “terrorists” or “supporters of terrorist organizations.” The crackdown that was already under way before the coup attempt has escalated.
At Silivri, our delegation was restricted to a remote parking lot. The prison officials had been notified the delegation would be arriving, but the gendarmes who encountered us appeared unprepared. Eventually they returned us to our minivans and encircled these and blocked us with police vehicles as they collected our passports. A young gendarme with an assault rifle boarded our bus, impeding our exit for almost an hour, though he appeared unsure of what he was supposed to do with us except keep us from taking pictures. Finally the delegation, which included three current and former International PEN presidents, including the current chair of the Nobel Prize for Literature, were escorted away from the prison. There was no interchange with prison officials or meetings with the writers behind bars. The cars were stopped again outside the grounds by the police, and our passports were once more collected. After approximately two hours, our two white minivans turned back to Istanbul.
Earlier, in the Turkish capital of Ankara, a smaller delegation of PEN met with the minister of Culture and other government officials to protest and express deep concern over the restriction of free expression and the imprisonment of writers and publishers in Turkey. PEN questioned the legitimacy of the constitutional referendum President Erdoğan is putting on the ballot this spring. The referendum will expand the powers of the presidency, giving Erdoğan the ability to suspend parliament as well as rights and due process, “extorting individual rights and freedom” by statutory decree. It could allow him to stay in office until 2029. While PEN, which promotes literature and defends freedom of expression worldwide, does not take political positions, it challenged the legitimacy of a referendum held during a state of emergency, when opposition voices are silenced.
After our delegation returned from the prison to Istanbul, we met with recently released writer Asil Erdoğan (no relation to the president), linguist Necmiye Alpay, and others, including the spouses of writers still in prison or killed. “It is not our husbands in prison, but journalism,” said the wife of one. “Journalism is a prerequisite for a country to have a free press. If we don’t have a free press, we can’t be considered anything. Don’t use the word “journalist” and “terrorist” together. It is very sad to see.”
Several of the writers noted that often no indictment is made when individuals are detained. They are held without charge because the prosecutors can’t find anything to charge them with. See #Journalismisnotacrime.
A new effort
One newspaper, Özgür Gündem, which had a large Kurdish readership, was shut down in August after 25 years. But a new newspaper, Demokrasi, has grown up out of its staff and readership.
At the top of a steep four-floor walkup, writers, photographers, and editors work to put out the daily paper with a readership of 30,000. The design and layout team work elsewhere as do some of the writers and other organs of the paper, in the belief that the more decentralized the operation, the better chance it has to survive.
“The government wants to eliminate the Kurdish movement – the language, the news we report. They want a single state, single religion, single language,” said one of the editors. “Kurds are not only the target; our newspapers are the target. We are OK with a single flag, but we don’t want religion and language imposed.”
The Turkish government has fought with Kurdish separatists for decades. A cease-fire from 2013-15 held out prospects for a more lasting peace and for the allowance of Kurdish language and culture to be recognized as part of Turkish identity. The rapprochement broke down, however, after the predominantly Kurdish HDP party won enough votes in June 2015 to secure seats in parliament and deny Erdoğan and his AKP party its parliamentary majority and the supermajority he was seeking for his constitutional changes. Hostilities with the Kurds were renewed shortly afterward. A new election was held in November 2015, and the AKP party won its majority.
The gray-haired editor of Demokrasi spoke calmly behind an empty desk in a sparse room with pale yellow walls. He acknowledged that the state police could come at any moment to take him away, but there would be others to take his place. “We received support from 100 journalists who volunteered to be editor-in-chief at Özgür Gündem. Thirty-seven of those are now on trial. But it is not a problem for us to repeat.”
As we left the Demokrasi office, the editor with his photographer stood at the top of the stairs in the shadow of a half-opened door, the light behind them. “Thank you for solidarity!” he said.
When we emerged, the sun was setting. The winding backstreet was filled with people as the lights of shops and apartments readying for dinner flickered on, and the snow continued to fall.
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman visited Turkey as part of a delegation from PEN International, where she is a vice president. Ms. Leedom-Ackerman is also a former reporter for the Monitor.