One of those observers was Cumhuriyet journalist Mine Söğüt, who writes for the paper’s political section. The International Press Institute (IPI) met with Söğüt in Istanbul a day after her colleagues received harsh prison sentences despite a lack of evidence. While three of the accused were acquitted, 14 were sentenced to between two-and-a-half and a little more than eight years in prison.
For Söğüt, the sentences did not come as a surprise, even though many had expected less harsh verdicts.
“With an administration like this, it is no wonder”, she remarked. “In former times, even under military rule, the press was able to stand on its two feet and talk about different issues. Now everything is just heading in a negative direction.”
The fact that Cumhuriyet journalists were sentenced for supporting organizations with vastly different aims, among them the movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, is absurd, Söğüt said. President Erdoğan has accused the Gülenist movement of orchestrating the failed coup attempt in July 2016.
She noted that Cumhuriyet had always opposed political Islam and that the paper had been a strong critic of the Gülenist movement when the latter was still allied with Erdoğan and the ruling AKP party. Cumhuriyet even ran a campaign starting in 2010 with the catchphrase “Are you aware of the danger?”. It was meant to warn people of the consequences of letting political Islam take a stronger foothold in the country.
Once attacked for criticizing Gülen, Cumhuriyet journalists are now being jailed for allegedly supporting him.
“This is a dangerously comical situation”, Söğüt commented. “I want to fall asleep and wake up.”
From culture to politics
Söğüt started her journalistic career after studying Latin and Greek. She pursued journalism for a while, but the field at that time was not the kind of environment she enjoyed working in. She turned to making documentaries and writing books and novels.
In 2013, Söğüt received an invitation from Cumhuriyet to start writing for their culture section. However, the invitation came at the same time as the Gezi Park protests spread across the country, with millions of people gathering to demonstrate on issues like freedom of speech, the right to assembly and other political matters. Very soon, Söğüt decided she wanted to cover politics.
Today, Söğüt writes about political and moral issues, with topics ranging from domestic life and women’s issues to education and religion. Some have classified her as a feminist writer, but she does not agree. Söğüt said she wants to view the world through a broader lens.
“I can’t call myself a feminist, because it puts everything in a framework”, she said. “I’d rather see myself as a writer on many different issues, not only women’s issues. I don’t even like separating people due to their gender.”
The crackdown on freedom of expression is the most crucial issue in Turkey right now, Söğüt said, because it is preventing discussion on all other important topics.
“We can’t discuss anything the government doesn’t want us to discuss. Not even with each other on the street”, she added, referring to national hotlines set up in 2013 allowing people to call and inform on those suspected of having anti-government sentiments. Freely stating one’s opinion has become dangerous.
Söğüt said she has been asked many times whether she is scared to write.
“There is pressure, but I ignore it”, she remarked. “I don’t worry while I’m writing, and I don’t write in a hard-line manner anyway.”
Future of Turkey at stake
When it comes to the future of Turkey, Söğüt doesn’t want to make any guesses. The unpredictable domestic political scene and the sensitive geopolitical situation of Turkey guarantee that anything could happen. Meanwhile, Söğüt tries to stay away from the trap of optimism and to look at things as they are.
“There is a big fire burning elsewhere, and we’re close to the center of that heat”, she said. “I’m not a pessimist but a realist, and reality looks very dark now.”
For Söğüt, it is the media’s responsibility in transferring ideas and values that keeps her writing and speaking out for freedom in a repressive country. In the ongoing war for the future of Turkey, as she described it, where she stands is clear.
“What happens is not important, it is about which role you play in it”, she said. “What I really know is that whatever the word ‘peace’ means, we have to protect it.”