‘A journalist’s only weapon is the truth’
Saturday 11th February 2017
AKIN OLGUN writes on the oppression journalists face in Turkey and highlighs the case of his arrested friend Ahmet Sik
A JOURNALIST, describes the Turkish author and investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, is “one that seeks the truth.”
It wasn’t long before Sik experienced the danger that comes with chasing the truth in Turkey.
Living in an authoritarian country and going after the truth means you are risking your life.
When you look at the number of journalists killed in different countries, you may not see the terrifying methods of oppression used by the authoritarian regimes there. But you should realise that the most courageous journalists are found under those regimes.
Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor of the Agos newspaper who was assassinated in January 2007, summarised the situation facing journalists in Turkey when he said: “Either I really liked danger, or it liked me.”
If you are chasing the truth and you reveal it without distorting it then you are in danger. No authoritarian regime likes to hear criticism and it always sees such things as a “threat.”
But the truth is a journalist’s only weapon. The fact that those in power are scared of the person who holds the truth shows us what an illusion that power actually is.
The early 1990s were dark and unforgiving times in Turkey. Anyone who lived through them will tell you about the extrajudicial executions, the kidnappings and the missing people, the villages that were burned down and the Kurds who were killed.
They will tell you how no-one questioned the violence of the state.
Renault’s symbol became a symbol of fear for dissenters. In these cars, the counterinsurgency kidnapped people, many of whom were never found.
Every week the families of those missing people, who came to be known as “Saturday Mums,” held a sit-in at the Galatasaray square in Istanbul. For over 600 weeks, they continued to ask about the fate of their loved ones.
The reason I write this flashback is to begin the story of how the Turkish authorities tried to silence and label Ahmet Sik a threat, all because he took his camera wherever there were extrajudicial killings or state violence.
Metin Goktepe, a journalist at the Evrensel newspaper, was a close friend of Ahmet’s. In January 1996, Goktepe was following the story of the funerals of political convicts who were killed in an operation at the Istanbul Umraniye prison.
He was detained by police and taken to the same gym where hundreds of people who wanted to attend the funerals were being held. The police beat and killed him.
Sik and Goktepe’s journalist friends fought to get justice and put those responsible behind bars.
In June 2011, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minster, described Sik’s unpublished book investigating the Gulen Movement’s infiltration of the judiciary, the police and the army as being more dangerous than a bomb. It was written during a time when the government and the Gulen Movement were allies conspiring together to conduct a witch hunt through illegal wiretapping and tracking. It was a time before the Gulen Movement was branded a terrorist organisation and blamed for the failed July 15 2016 coup.
Sik’s unpublished book, The Imam’s Army, landed him in jail for 375 days.
The reason Sik was released was because of the incessant campaigns from democracy groups and because the fight between the Gulen Movement and the government escalated, revealing cracks in their partnership.
Met by journalists at the doors of the prison upon his release, Sik said: “Everyone should know this. From all this oppression and persecution, a life that we yearn and fight for and a life that the government is scared of will blossom.”
After leaving the prison, Sik continued to chase news and write. The main media channels, that were under extreme pressure and control, found ways to keep him off the air and out of their papers. The method they used to do this was one of history’s most oppressive, censorship.
Sik began reporting on the jihadists crossing the Turkish border into Syria and investigating the forces that provided them with logistical support.
Right after, he started looking into the Turkish intelligence services and the government’s role in the shipment of arms across the border. This, once again, made him an enemy of the state.
He started receiving threats from those organising the shipments. He began noting down the people who would be responsible for things that might happen to him.
After spending time in London campaigning on the freedom of the press with the NGOs English PEN, Free World and Article 19, Sik returned to Turkey and found the country had been dragged into a new period of darkness.
Erdogan perceived the failed July 15 coup as “God’s gift” and used it as a chance to purge his erstwhile allies in the Gulen Movement. He did not hesitate to use this chance to label his political opponents terrorists and attack Kurds, opposition politicians, academics, journalists and writers.
Though the Gulen Movement had become enemy number one, its methods remained a friend of the government. Erdogan started taking away all democratic rights by implementing a state of emergency and issuing executive orders until “safety was restored.” What followed was Turkey’s largest state-sponsored witch hunt since the coup of September 12 1980.
Sik was once again a target. He knew that he would be arrested but he refused to stop seeking and reporting on the truth. “Just because we are worried,” he said, “doesn’t mean we have to hide the truth.”
On December 29 last year, Sik was once again detained by the police at his home. His ideas, his journalism and his social media feeds were classified as “terrorist propaganda” and used against him in court. Sik responded to questions by explaining what journalism is.
He told his prosecutors: “I believe that sharing the truth with the public without distorting or betraying it is a duty…
“It is a right for the public to know the truth and this right has been entrusted to the journalist.”
In 2011 Sik was arrested by Gulenists for exposing their corruption and brutality, but this time he is accused of operating terrorist propaganda in support of the Gulen movement.
Those who accused him realised that their accusations sound ridiculous and so have added support of the Kurdistan Workers Party to their accusations.
Ahmet Sik is currently still in jail.
According to data from the Journalists Association of Turkey, 780 journalists’ press cards were cancelled in 2016.
Over 800 journalists had to go in front of a judge because of what they wrote while 189 journalists were physically and verbally attacked. Over 150 publications have been shut down and over 140 journalists are under arrest.
In addition, 14 members of parliament from the HDP opposition, including the party’s co-leaders and 37 mayors, are in prison.
“Even under different gods, fascism is the only religion that doesn’t change,” tweeted Sik recently. I should add that there is now a separate case against him because of these words.
What can we do? That was the question.
There is only one thing. To tell the truth at the top of our voice.
“The emperor has no clothes.”
Akin Olgun is a Turkish freelance journalist and former political prisoner living in exile from Turkey.