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Publish or perish - resilience in young Turkish journalists

A new movement of young Turkish writers is emerging, not only reporting on social and political issues, but also advocating environmental activism in ways that are being heard across the country.

Arthur Wyns
2 June 2017
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Yirca protest, Konuk Yazar. All rights reserved.Being a journalist has become one of the most ominous occupations in Turkey. The country imprisons more journalists than any other in the world; it has closed 178 news agencies and publishing houses in a space of five months and is even known to torture journalists in custody. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has recorded 64 journalists killed in Turkey since 1992 and reports indicate that at least 240 journalists are currently being held in prisons across the country.

Environmental activism and political discontent

Despite the crackdown on Turkish media, Turkish journalism is proving surprisingly resilient, with many critical reporters defying restrictions and being quickly propelled to martyr status.

Moreover, a new movement of young Turkish writers is emerging, not only reporting on social and political issues, but also advocating environmental activism: from covering protests against an open coal mine threatening a high-density residential area near Izmir in Southern Turkey, to questioning Turkish policies on climate change, young voices are vocalising criticisms that are being heard across the country.

“Writing about environmental issues used to be a relatively safe choice for a journalist out here. It was one of the few topics that wasn't yet highly politicised. People from all parties could be found [speaking] up for the environment, and writing about these issues is usually not considered to be anti-establishmentarian,” state Elif and Baris, two young Turkish reporters who have had their coverage of Turkish opposition movements published internationally. “That doesn’t mean, however, that protests aren’t struck down by bats and bullets, from private security forces or military guards,” says Elif.

“Since opposing the government, whether it is through protesting or writing, is considered an act of terrorism and can get you jailed, or even worse killed, it was worth considering changing to environmental journalism,” declares Baris.  

“I have grown up with protests my whole life. There are protests in Turkey every single day for as long as I can remember, and acknowledging and reporting these opposition movements is the single most important thing to drive the political situation in our country forwards,” says Elif. “Opposing injustice runs in the family. My parents used to take me to marches from when I was only 6 years old. Demonstrations and rallies that had peaceful intentions, but nonetheless often ended up being suppressed violently.”

The Gezi-protests in 2013, however, can be considered a turning point for environmental activism in the country. Since then even non-politicised opposition on environmental issues is considered an act against the state, to be silenced by any means possible.

The Gezi syndrome

What started out as a sit-in protest in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park to contest against the plans for urban development on the grounds, created a shockwave through the country after the violent eviction that followed:

“I was in the Gezi protests as a young activist, and very excited to be there. It was in Gezi Park that I lost all my naivety,” Elif states. “The sit-in started as a giant picnic, with students, environmental activists, and even families with children occupying the park. It quickly turned into a bloodbath, with police moving in, shooting cans of tear gas directly at people instead of in the air. Beating a protester to death, killing another one by shooting rubber bullets at him from close range, and blinding several people for life through close-range shooting of teargas. Nineteen people died that day.”

The violent oppression at Gezi led to strikes in 90 different locations across all major cities, with subsequent repercussions from the police forces. In the aftermath of the quickly repressed protests, the government curbed internet access, expanded its police force and criminalised the medical care of protesters, and restrictions have only gotten more severe since then. Despite this, people continue to protest.

“Death has become a reality in daily life, but despite everything, we keep writing. Recently a very famous Armenian journalist living in Turkey was killed. In an interview a few days before his death he was asked why he kept opposing the Turkish and Armenian governments, despite having been threatened hundreds of times. He replied that it is here and now that revolutions are made. Many western countries have had to go through similar revolutions in history, taking many years and even more lives, he stated, and now it was Turkey’s time to progress its national conditions through a revolution. Not so long after he made that statement he was murdered.”

A year after the Gezi protests, the flame of indignation briefly lit up again in the small town of Yirca, in Manisa province, where a group of elderly women took on a group of private guards that were paid by the energy company Kolin Group to clear the town’s ancient olive groves to make room for a newly-planned coal-fired power station, and calls of sympathy were heard across the country. With the bloody aftermath of the Gezi-protests still in its collective memory, Turkey’s population quickly dismissed any further attempts to cause nation-wide protests.

Yirca ladies c.Konuk Yazar.jpg

The local women of Yirca showing the last of their olives, their only source of income. Photographer Konuk Yazar. All rights reserved. “You’d expect writers and journalists to stop writing when all their colleagues are either fired, jailed or killed. But the opposite is true. Despite everything journalists keep reporting, professors, getting fired because of their anti-establishment views, keep writing and hundreds of teachers and government employees go on hunger strikes and sit-in’s. At the moment there’s the famous case of a father on hunger strike. They killed his son and he is demanding to get his body back, in vain of course.”

Hunger strikes are an often-used protest technique in Turkey, a last resort when everything else fails. The recent case of Nuriye Gulmen, a literature professor, and Semih Ozakca, a primary school teacher, who have both been on hunger strike for more than two months after they both lost their jobs in a crackdown following a failed July coup against President Tayyip Erdogan, proves that even using your own body as a means to protest no longer goes unpunished: after receiving too much media attention, both teachers were recently jailed. The prosecutor stated “their arrest is needed to prevent new Gezi-like protests”.

West vs. East

“Life here in the west of Turkey is not as bad as in other parts of the country,” says Elif, “The eastern, Kurdish part is bombed almost daily. You just can’t go to the east. I’m, in other words, leading an almost normal life close to a war.”

“One day, a group of young people of non-Kurdish origin organised a relief party for a severely affected area in eastern Turkey. They brought food, clothes and children’s toys with them. The Turkish government bombed them to pieces. The local Kurdish government grieved for the victims that, they said, ‘should have been them’.”

“But even in East-Turkey you’re not safe from danger. The peaceful march of the trade unions in 2015, for example, was targeted by a car bomb killing 97 people. My mother was planning to join the march, and only didn’t join because she had the flu. I was also on my way to the march, but had the luck to be stuck in traffic. You cannot let your mind linger on these coincidences for too long, or you become too afraid to leave the house.”

Despite everything, new and old critical voices keep writing. Journalism – in Turkey and worldwide – forms a last line of defence against complete indifference to the lives and sufferings of others. It helps to remind us that protesting is the only choice when everything else fails. That is why, for example, Baris, a young journalist in modern-day Turkey, responds to this interview with: “I’m really happy you are interested in our story. If these terrible things are happening in Turkey and nobody cares, we might as well already be dead.”

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