In Turkey, a Battle Between Press Freedom and the Cult of Erdogan

Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule, Turkey has jailed more than a hundred journalists since the failed coup last year.

Istanbul, Turkey: It was Kadri Gursel’s task to take ten-year-old Erdem to the basketball court, while his wife Nazire Gursel, a dance enthusiast herself, cherished taking him to waltz classes. Now, she does both. She has been forced into being a single parent after her husband’s arrest six months ago.

“A ten-year-old student in my son’s school said his father is in prison so we can be free.” Alone but glowing with pride, Nazire talks about her journalist husband’s incarceration and what it means for Turkey. “Kadri wrote for Cumhuriyat, the last independent paper left in Turkey. People deserve to know the truth.” Gursel is a renowned columnist with the liberal Turkish daily Cumhuriyat (pronounced as “Jamhuriyat”), which means “The Republic” in Turkish.

The Republic of Turkey has jailed more than a hundred journalists since the failed coup last year. Kadri is one of the many slapped with the charge of helping terrorist organisations and being a coup conspirator. “I mean, everyone knows these charges are frivolous, everyone does. Kadri has been arrested because he is critical of the government. Always has been, always will be,” says Nazire. According to a report released by the Council of Europe and compiled by Cumhuriyat, 87% of journalists in Turkey feel targeted. Seventy-two percent experience threats from the police, 64% from political groups and 51% admit to self-censorship and reporting events less critically.

It is an uphill task, but Nazire says they are determined to fight and not give in to the government pressure. She says Kadri has refused any back-channel deals, he is challenging the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government from behind bars. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), he has asked the prosecution to provide irrefutable evidence to prove the charges against him.

Outside, Nazire has gotten together with the wives of 11 other arrested employees of the paper and formed a ‘Cumhuriyat Wives Club’ to create awareness about the case.

“Since October 31, he is in Seville prison, which is modelled on isolation as a torture technique. He is with two others from the paper but that’s it. Every day, for 24 hours, he is with these two people. He is unable to write, which is exactly what they wanted. But we are not weak. Kadri has told me to not be over emotional, so the government doesn’t think it has won,” she told The Wire.

Nazire’s strength is tested every day, not only when she navigates the many daily chores, but also as she witnesses the steady crumbling of institutions of Turkey and the rise of the Erdogan cult.

Some days though, it is just hard to hide the pain, she says. “I miss him a lot, especially on Valentine’s Day. And I tweeted about it; Kadri will be very angry is he finds out. But even the prison guards read it. So when I visited they apologised and said, ‘Oh, we are sorry you weren’t together on Valentine’s day, hopefully next year you will be’.”

Hope is difficult to come by, as the government crackdown continues. On April 26, the police detained 1,000 people on the charge of supporting Fetullah Gulen, a preacher and former ally of Erdogan’s now exiled in the US who the government has accused of plotting the coup. The latest round of arrests comes days after Erdogan declared a victory in the referendum conducted on April 16, which gives him sweeping powers. Andrej Henko, a German lawmaker sent by the European Council to observe the voting, disputes the result and says, “The referendum did not meet the Council of Europe’s standards.” He fears the repression against dissenters will continue. “This is why I see it as very important to deal with the issue in the Council of Europe, where Turkey is a member as well. This week we will hold discussions at the parliamentarian assembly in Strasbourg, where the situation after the coup and the referendum will be on the agenda. We demand that the Turkish authorities lift the state of emergency, halt the publication of decree laws which bypass parliamentary procedure and release the detained parliamentarians and journalists.”

While European countries have been cautious in making statements on the referendum, Donald Trumps’s congratulatory call to Erdogan has created a furore in the US. Only a few other countries like Qatar, Guinea and Djibouti have congratulated Erdogan post the referendum. India, the first country Erdogan visited after the referendum, is yet to respond. When asked, the Ministry of External Affairs neither made a statement on India’s stand on the referendum result nor on India’s take on press freedom and arrests in Turkey. The MEA says, “India does not respond to internal matters of a country.” Sources in the MEA told The Wire that press freedom is not a part of the bilateral agenda.

Nazire is running out of optimism and depends on the international community to build pressure on Turkish government. She asks the Indian government to support democracy and secularism in Turkey. “Rapists and pedophiles are allowed to meet their friends and family once a month, but journalists are not. Erdem has seen his father just twice in the last six months. They are using this as a torture technique too. My ten year old asks, ‘Mumma, will Papa ever return home?’”

Note: On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, a group of journalists and members of different organisations in Turkey will come together to discuss what the journalistic community can do to to fight the oppression and be able to report freely. They ask journalists across the world to show support by publishing a joint statement or join the social media campaign by Amnesty International Turkey’s Media Freedom Campaign using the hashtags #FreeTurkeyMedia #WPFD2017).

Anchal Vohra reports from the Middle East and Europe. She has covered South Asia for over a decade.