On August 16, 2016, Erdoğan regime’s attack on the media and press since the July 15 abortive coup took a different turn by the closure of the daily Özgür Gündem on court orders, and the storming of its Istanbul headquarters by special operations police. The quarter-of-a-century-long history of Özgür Gündem represents all there is to know about the militant censorship of information and press under the state of emergency lawnessness in the context of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey. It also represents a venerable and dedicated press tradition of struggle and solidarity for the right to information and freedom from censorship.
We condemn this offensive against Özgür Gündem as a deliberate message that the Erdoğan-style state of emergency democracy promises nothing but darker days ahead of us regarding the basic rights and freedoms of Kurds and all other groups and voices of dissent in Turkey.
Özgür Gündem began publication on 14 May 1992, at the height of the 1990s’ violent conflict in the Kurdish region. In that context, wherein the production of any non-official knowledge on the Kurdish issue was punished under a draconian State of Emergency Rule (1987-2002), the newspaper provided the only alternative, non-official public information on gross human rights violations and struggles in the region.
Hence, the daily was the target of an unremitting campaign of judicial and paralegal state violence and intimidation. Twenty seven staff members of Özgür Gündem, including journalists, distributers and writers, were murdered over the first two years of its publication, mostly in acts of extrajudicial execution. Out of the 580 published editions of the newspaper, 486 were seized on court orders. Editors and staff of the daily were continually harassed for their reportages by hundreds of lawsuits, systematic detentions, arrests, and frequent office raids. Most editions of the daily were banned in the emergency-ruled Kurdish region, where violence was extended to include also its readers through routine policing and harassment.
In April 1994, Özgür Gündem was closed down by a court ruling, which compelled its editors and contributors to maintain their struggle of independent journalism under differently named newspapers. On 4 April, 2011, after a forced break of seventeen years, Özgür Gündem resumed publication under its original name. During the “Resolution Process” agreed by the AKP government between 2013 and 2015, it offered for journalists, activists, and intellectuals of different political persuasions a key platform of debate toward building a democratic, egalitarian and sustainable resolution to the country’s long-standing Kurdish conflict.
Özgür Gündem has been subjected to a renewed cycle of state violence and oppression for the past year, since when Mr. Erdoğan unilaterally ended the peace process, declared a conflict policy of “no-comprise” against the Kurdish dissent, and instituted a comprehensive rule of violence in sieged Kurdish towns and provinces. Dozens of the daily’s reporters were detained and arrested until Spring 2016, and its editors Reyhan Capan and Eren Keskin received prison sentences on allegations of “making terror propaganda.”
As pressures against the newspaper increased, a group of mostly Turkish democratic journalists and intellectuals launched a solidarity campaign to serve as “editor-in-chief on duty.” Until August 7, when the campaign ended, fifty-six publicly known campaigners served daily as Özgür Gündem editors in rotation. Virtually all of the campaigners have been punished for their act of solidarity in many lawsuits filed over the past three months, on the same charge of “making terror propaganda.” Of these, the acclaimed human rights defender Professor Sebnem Korur Fincanci,
who chairs The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Turkey Representative of Reporters without Borders Erol Önderoglu, and mathematician-journalist Ahmet Nesin were further remanded and imprisoned briefly.
The latest offensive against Özgür Gündem, on August 16 has also been justified on the allegation of “making terror propaganda.” According to the news that hit the press, the police raid in the daily’s headquarters was deployed prior to the official notice of the temporary closure verdict, which is in contravention of procedures of criminal proceeding. During the raid, the office was ransacked, archives were destroyed, computer hard discs were seized, and around forty people were detained under physical and verbal abuse. Among them are over twenty staff of the paper, reporters from independent media channels who were trying to cover the raid, representatives of civilian-democratic institutions, and readers who were at the office for solidarity.
This illegal police violence was extended to several of its prominent editors and columnists in targeted house raids: The houses of Eren Keskin, former editor-in-chief of Özgür Gündem and a world-renowned human rights advocate, Ragip Zarakolu, editor-in-chief of the Belge Pubishing House and a member of the International Pen, Filiz Kocali, well-known feminist journalist and member of HDP Central Executive Committee, and Asli Erdogan, a famous Turkish author, columnist and Advisory Board Member of the daily, were raided by fully-armed special operations police units.
A month into the failed army putsch of July 15, Erdoğan regime has made it very clear that it conceives of no route toward democratic restoration in the country, but an ever more autocratic preemption of institutional democracy, and militant repression of its all kinds of opponents. In this context, the indiscriminate mobilization of “terrorism” charge against the putschist Gulenist organizations, liberal journalists, academics, and all legal-institutional representations of the Kurdish opposition only prove one thing: Rather than pacifying militaristic threat against democracy and thereby creating possibilities for peaceful and democratic co-existence in the country, the Erdogan regime sees the failed coup attempt an opportunity to silence all individual and organized voices of democratic dissent, the Kurdish political movement in particular.
In this context, the closure and storming of Özgür Gündem represents not merely another attack on freedom of press by the post-coup attempt Erdoğan regime, which would have been alarming enough in itself. It also conveys the clear message that this state of emergency regime is extending its repressive grip on the Kurds, their institutions, representatives, and friends, who have nothing to do with the coup plotters.
With this understanding and sense of urgency, we call upon all democratic countries, EU authorities, international organizations, activists, intellectuals, and particularly international media and press institutions to act now, speak out, and keep in strong solidarity with Özgür Gündem.
Vice Co-chair of HDP Responsible for Foreign Affairs Deputy for Bingol