Apart from a few short-lived democratic periods, Turkey has never been particularly tolerant towards the freedom of the press. However, the continuous, severe pressure and intimidation on journalists by the government together with its partners over the past decade is something that we have not experienced before. I say this not only as a journalist of 25 years but also as an amateur historian who conducts in-depth research on history of the press and politics in Turkey. The threats of being dismissed, accused of terrorism, or even imprisoned have hung over independent and ethical journalists in Turkey for many years like the sword of Democles. And in return, we journalists have only two weapons to fight back: our pen and the power of solidarity.
When I turned on the TV on the morning of March 3, 2011, before leaving for work, every news channel was reporting the breaking news that numerous journalists, along with over 200 other people, were being detained as part of the high-profile Ergenekon affair, which referred to an alleged secularist group that was accused of plotting against the government. Back then, the Gülen movement, which was later held responsible for the 2016 coup attempt by the government, was behind the investigations launched against the journalists. I could not believe my eyes when I saw that investigative journalist Ahmet Şık, who had been looking into the establishment of the Gülen movement within the state, was among those being detained. I had known Ahmet for 15 years and he was someone who always stands by the victim and the oppressed, who always follows the truth. When TV cameras turned on to Şık’s house while police were arresting him, he was shouting with tired but angry eyes, “If you touch, you will burn”, referring to the Gülen movement which he was investigating. I couldn’t hold back my tears. I was restless because I was not there with him at the moment to show that I was standing against this injustice. That’s why I went to his house right after work. There were many other colleagues, just like me, trying to show our solidarity by shouting slogans like “Ahmet will come back and will write again!”
The rest was all downhill from there. First, some of us [journalists] gathered at a cafe to talk about what we could do to make sure our colleagues were not left alone. When we learned that the detained journalists were going to be brought from the Istanbul Police Department on March 6 to the courthouse in Beşiktaş, where specially authorized prosecutors and courts were located, a group of more than 100 of us journalists immediately went down to the courthouse and protested against the arrests and trial. A number of journalists working for Oda TV – Ahmet Şık, Nedim Şener, Müyesser Yıldız, Sait Çakır, and Doğan Yurdakul – were formally arrested that day. When the lawyers’ appeal against the arrests was rejected a week later, we walked to the Beşiktaş courthouse with torches in our hands saying, “Journalists are jailed while criminals are free.” Surprisingly, there were still mainstream news channels broadcasting our demonstration live that day.
The Gülen movement, which was behind the investigations, had a strong influence in the media, and even in the police department. The courts were in their hands. They had powerful, devoted prosecutors who had the government’s support back then – if even now they are the subject of red wanted notices. What could we, as a group of journalists, do in this oppressive climate?
The first order of business was to raise public awareness of this injustice. And the best way to reach the public was to inform our colleagues who were actively writing columns and broadcasting on TV. In order to do that, we decided to get organized as a campaign group. Although there were other colleagues prosecuted in the same trial, which would be called later Oda TV/Ergenekon Trial, we named our campaign group “ANGA” (Journalist Friends of Ahmet and Nedim) since our generation of journalists knew Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener better. Although we had members working for various associations, we were a completely independent protest group. We met irregularly but frequently, setting agendas and discussing and deciding on actions to be taken.
The Organized Crime Department in Istanbul seized the draft of Ahmet Şık’s upcoming book, The Imam’s Army, about the Gülen movement, following the prosecutor’s order. All copies and documents related to the book were seized and deleted from computers during a raid at the publishing house. The prosecutor’s office sent a notification to Şık’s house for any copies of the book to be delivered to it. After we talked to Ahmet, his wife, and his lawyers, we decided to upload the final copy of the book online, which was likened to a bomb by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a speech at the European Parliament. Later on, it was published under the name “000 Book – You Touch You Burn” [000 Kitap-Dokunan Yanar]. 125 journalists signed the book as authors in a show of solidarity. We held demonstrations and read press releases in the main avenues of Istanbul before the trial hearings of our journalist friends. We held a cortege on May 1 and walked with pictures of Ahmet and Nedim. We wanted to draw the international community’s attention to the trial. Therefore, we arranged a meeting with international media representatives in Turkey.
As a voluntary organization, we did not have the resources to rent a place for the meeting. Anadolu Kültür Foundation, a non-profit organization for collaboration of art and culture in Turkey and abroad, and whose chair Osman Kavala has been jailed now for 1171 days, provided us with a venue for free. Kavala, who is now accused of espionage and links to the Gülen movement, was sitting right next to us when we read out that those who had created this unlawfulness were the members of the Gülen movement itself. And with the support of Erol Önderoğlu, the Turkey representative of Reporters without Borders, the international community began to pay more attention to the trial.
Ahmet and Nedim were released on March 12, 2012, after one year in prison, thanks to our insistence on fighting and the fall-out between the Gülen movement and the government. I remember that day while leaving the courtroom, the wife of one of our other jailed colleagues, Barış Terkoğlu, asked us, “Are you going to leave now, is this it?”. This had an immense effect on me. Certainly, we did not quit. We continued our fight, now under the name “Journalists Outside”, until all our colleagues on trial were freed.
After the Oda TV/Ergenekon Trial, we continued our work and carried out demonstrations for many Kurdish and socialist journalists who were charged with terrorism-related crimes even though they were only doing journalism. We launched a petition for a colleague, Bünyamin Aygün, who was kidnapped by a Salafi group in Syria, calling on the government to act faster. During a solidarity march for Charlie Hebdo after the magazine was attacked in France, our marching group was also attacked by a group of police. We went through tough times. The group sometimes got bigger and sometimes smaller, but we always managed to stick together.
During the Cumhuriyet trial in which 12 executives and colleagues charged with connections to the Gülen movement, we re-gathered our group. Some of our journalist friends who were previously detained were now with us at “Journalists Outside”. When our colleagues Musa Kart, Güray Öz, Kadri Gürsel, Ahmet Şık, Murat Sabuncu, Hakan Kara, Turhan Günay were behind the bars, we didn’t stay silent. We began preparations to protect our colleagues. We organized marches and social media campaigns once again to keep the case on the public agenda. This time we also benefitted from the new social meeting platform WhatsApp, which allowed us to organize ourselves more efficiently. Four days prior to the first hearing, the pro-government newspaper Güneş published an article on its front page, publishing some of our conversations in the WhatsApp group and targeting our members. Even though many of us filed a complaint, the prosecutor’s offices issued later non-prosecution orders and dropped our cases.
Despite this intimidation, we were in the courtroom on the day of the hearing as “Journalists Outside,” keeping our solidarity strong on the 110th anniversary of Turkey’s Press Day, which marks the abolition of official censorship in 1908. During the hearing, we shared our colleagues’ defence statements on social media.
When six journalists were arrested in March 2020 after reporting on the funerals of two officials of Turkey’s National Intelligence Service (MIT), we re-grouped once again to follow the case with a new campaign name “Do you know?” (Haberin Var Mı?). We followed and supported the trial with social media campaigns and continued fighting until the last colleague was released. Similarly, we campaigned for journalists Adnan Bilen, Cemil Uğur, Şehriban Abi ve Nazan Sala who were arrested after reporting on torture allegations of two Kurdish villagers, one of whom died, by Turkish armed forces. We monitored closely the trial of journalist Ayşegül Doğan who was sentenced to six years three months for terrorist propaganda.
Doing journalism is not easy in Turkey – not at all. The fact that journalists reveal truth is not looked upon favourably by most people, and those who fear facing the truth the most attack first. There were and will always be journalists in this country who will keep fighting for the truth and quality journalism. All obstacles will be defeated again by solidarity. Journalism will win because it is all that matters.