Firing Turkey’s Ece Temelkuran: The Price of Speaking Out
By: Matthew Cassel
Published Friday, January 6, 2012
For the first time in her nearly two-decade-long career, journalist Ece Temelkuran is without a job. The feature reporter and columnist, currently in Tunisia, writes regularly about the plight of Turkey’s ethnic minorities. She was fired from her staff position at the Haberturk daily on Thursday after publishing articles critical of the Turkish government’s handling of the massacre of Kurds on December 28 at Iraq’s border.
Turkey has long been feted by mainstream Western media as a bastion of secular democracy in a wider and largely Muslim region ruled by despots. However, critics argue that this image is allowing the Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to become increasingly authoritarian. In recent years, journalists who report on stories not fitting within the government narrative have been targeted.
Ninety-seven media professionals are currently in prison according to the Turkish Union of Journalists. In addition to this, The Economist magazine recently reported that 47 lawyers, more than 500 students and some 3,500 Kurdish activists are in prison. A recent survey by the Associated Press found that more than one-third of the world's convicted "terrorists" are in Turkey.
Temelkuran has played a leading role on social media (she started the hashtag #freejournalists on Twitter) in defending 11 journalists who are currently on trial in Turkey for supporting illegal “terrorist” organizations.
After beginning her career as a correspondent in 1993, Temelkuran became a feature reporter in 2000 for Turkey's Milliyet daily. In 2009, she left Milliyet to take a job at the nascent Haberturk, another major daily in Turkey. On Thursday Temelkuran received a phone call while in Tunisia that she had been dismissed from her job at the newspaper.
In addition to covering Turkish affairs at home, Temelkuran has reported extensively from the Middle East and Latin America.
I spoke to Ece Temelkuran on Thursday by phone about her career, her dismissal and the current state of journalism in Turkey.
Matthew Cassel: When you're not reporting around the world what types of stories do you generally write about inside Turkey?
Ece Temelkuran: The Kurdish issue, Armenian issue, women rights, social issues...Not the most popular subjects, especially the Kurdish and Armenian issues.
MC: Why aren't they popular issues in Turkey?
ET: Because since the establishment of Turkey [in 1923, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire] Kurds have been treated as second-class citizens and there has always been a lack of political and individual rights for them. There is deep and wide racism against Kurds in Turkey and there is the armed PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] movement and anything that goes under Kurdish issues is considered terrorism. So it's not surprising Turkish media doesn't cover the issue, and if they do they represent the government's point of view.
MC: Do you feel that you've always been able to write what you want to? Have you ever been censored?
ET: I haven't been censored, but when I reported from Kurdistan in northern Iraq, even mentioning the name 'Kurdistan' was taboo. And when I wrote about tens of Kurdish children being tortured in 2003 people were outraged. There has always been pressure on journalists who write on the Kurdish issue.
But pressure on media has never been like this. Now it's fear of being imprisoned, and once you're in prison no one can get you out. [Journalists] Ahmet Sik and Nadim Sener have been in jail for 11 months, they didn't even know until 6 or 7 months [after their arrest] what the charges [against them] are.
Since there is government propaganda to legitimize these prosecutions, it's very hard to get around this. The propaganda machine is huge. Not only nationally but internationally.
MC: Did your firing come as a surprise?
ET: Not really because the stand I took about the arrested journalists and the massacre [of 35 Kurdish civilians on Turkey's border with Iraq] was too strong for the mainstream media to handle. Because the prime minister, a few days ago just after the massacre, [threatened] ones who use [the term] 'massacre,' and I've been using it on twitter and social media.
MC: That sounds like Turkey's recent warnings to France after its senate voted to recognize the 1915 mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as a "genocide." Why is language so important for the Turkish government?
ET: Because terminology creates political and ethical responsibility. Then if you use term 'massacre,' the prime minister might have to apologize for the massacre, which he doesn't want to. Rather he wants to blame media. And that media was silent for about a half day after the incident. None of the networks gave the news until prime minister’s official statement about massacre, but that wasn't enough. He only wants to see his thoughts [printed in the newspapers].
MC: Why were you fired?
ET: The last two articles I wrote might be perceived as 'too controversial.’ One was called "Sir, yes Sir!" referring to the prime minister. The article ended "So you give the orders my commander but I'm not listening to you anymore. We are the rest of this country! We are not listening to your orders anymore!"
The last article was about how 19 of those killed were kids between 12 and 15. He made this speech about Uludere [the border town where the attack happened] massacre, which was outrageous, and he blamed journalists. And I wrote an article repeating the number [of dead] ridiculing the prime minister’s cruel attitude in a bitter way.
MC: Are you the only person writing like this in the mainstream media?
ET: There are a few others, and all of them called me today to say that ‘we are coming as well to the land of unemployment, just wait for us.’ They say, 'we are writing our articles as if we're writing our last articles.' Everyone is pessimistic about the coming days.
MC: Why are they targeting veteran journalists like Nadim Sener and Ahmet Sik?
ET: Because they were writing books about the Gulen movement [Islamists believed to have close ties to the AKP] getting organized in police department and intelligence services. They took the manuscript of Ahmet's book, The Army of the Imam (which has since been published online). Nadim's book [on how the Gulen movement is organizing in the police and state intelligence] is unpublished.
They were reporting on different things, especially criticizing the government and revealing the bad practices of government.
MC: Who was Hrant Dink?
ET: He was an Armenian journalist and had his own paper. He was a vocal journalist about Armenian rights and oppressed minorities. And he was shot dead in the center of Istanbul in his neck. Nadim has been writing books about him. He wrote about police negligence in the investigation into Hrant's killing. Hrant was a dear friend as well. Since he wished me to write a book on Armenian issue before his death I dedicated my book Deep Mountain to him. He helped me a lot.
MC: Did Dink's killing change journalism in Turkey?
ET: Armenian issue was already a taboo for mainstream media but after his death we learned that we shouldn't talk about Armenian issue more. His funeral was historic though, because 100,000 attended and they all chanted, "We are all Armenians." Armenians have always been despised by the nationalist Turks, so that funeral was a turning point in modern Turkish history.
MC: Did it create fear among you and your colleagues?
ET: It wasn't the only [attack on journalists], and it didn't stop there. After that came the mass arrests, there have been many incidents that created fear among journalists.
This time [the attacks are] done under name of 'democracy,' or as AKP supporters call it 'advanced democracy.' This time it's hard to get the things out there and say we've been oppressed. When there was a coup and fascist generals in power with their uniforms it was easier to say who were the bad guys. Now it's more complicated because fascism didn't show up in uniforms this time. That's why international media has taken too long to understand what's really going on in Turkey.
MC: How has Turkey managed to maintain that democratic image to the outside world?
ET: Through international and national propaganda. Mainstream western media is serving their own governments' foreign policy interests. So they wanted to see this model of Muslim democracy, which looks good from outside and has freedom of people, ‘bon pour l’orient’ (French for “good enough for the orient”). It's not good enough, neither for people in Turkey or the rest of Middle East.
To the Western world it tries to show democracy, and to the Eastern side it tries to show its Muslim side. Obviously it’s not a democracy anymore. As for the Islam, I am not an expert but such cruelty cannot come from religion.
MC: Do you think Turkey is losing that democratic image?
ET: The image is changing for sure.
Today, I was surprised to see the news on the front page of The New York Times, and I think finally our colleagues around the world are coming to their senses about Turkey. They're no longer being deceived by these lies of 'AKP democracy.'
MC: Over the past year, you've reported from pro-democracy uprisings in a number of Arab countries. Do you see similarities between the repressive forms of government that people have been rising against and your own government in Turkey?
ET: Now there are rising numbers of people that think Prime Minister Erdogan is acting like Bashar Assad. After the Uludere massacre they've been referring to his previous statement about Bashar Assad, “a president who kills his own people is not legitimate anymore.”
MC: Have activists, journalists and others who want change in Turkey been inspired by the Arab uprisings?
ET: They [demand change] already, but when they do they've been attacked violently. Every demonstration that happened after elections has been suppressed by tear gas. Especially by Kurdish people, they've been violently suppressed and attacked. Now and then they do protest, but the opposition in Turkey has been divided into too many parts, they're too split to create an alternative [to the AKP].
MC: You've already lost your job, are you worried what else can happen to you when you return to Turkey?
ET: I am freaking out, it's not the imprisonment necessarily, but now I feel like I have this stamp of persona non grata by the government. I am afraid I might be unemployed for a while because no newspaper would employ me because of that stamp. And if they did I'd be really surprised.