Turkey: Füsun Erdoğan Still Behind Bars for Doing her Journalistic Job

This is the account of EFJ Observer Esben Ørberg, who attended Füsun Erdoğan’s trial in Istanbul, Turkey, on 24 September:

Two massive human walls stretch across the courtroom, separating the accused from the public. One wall consists of 18 police officers with their backs to us, standing shoulder to shoulder. The other wall comprises eight police officers facing us in the gallery. The level of security is puzzling. We are on the eighth floor in the world’s largest and probably also most secure courthouse, near Istanbul in Turkey.

Perhaps the security presence is due to the accused, Füsun Erdoğan [pictured], who stands straight and proudly in the middle of the room, even though she has spent seven years in prison just for being a capable, active, and critical journalist. No, no, they say; we don’t imprison journalists in Turkey. We imprison criminals.

And it is precisely Füsun’s supposed criminal career which could send her to prison for life – she is accused of being a senior member of a Marxist organisation that is banned under Turkish anti-terror laws. But none of the many organisations that have investigated her case have found the slightest evidence of this. It is obvious to all that she was a thorn in the side of the government when, as a journalist and the founder of Özgür Radio, she repeatedly defended minorities and, moreover, made no attempt to conceal her socialist opinions.

So now, here we are again; in a courtroom packed with relatives, journalists (including myself, representing the European Federation of Journalists), and her media colleagues. At the top of a podium tower the judge and his ten-strong team. Füsan has attended numerous court appearances and hearings, in which the prosecution has stubbornly insisted that there is plenty of evidence that she controlled the finances of the banned Marxist organisation. (Her letter from prison can be found on the EFJ website here.)

“Make up your minds with what Füsun is to be charged. Is it for being an ordinary member, or a leading member? If she was an ordinary member, she should be released immediately. Seven years in prison must be more than enough,” says her defence counsel, who is also Füsun’s sister.

Now we hear from Füsun herself. For the first time in the many hours of hearings, she is allowed to speak. She speaks in a clear voice, but is constantly interrupted by the judge. Finally, she is heard. The journalists make diligent notes. It’s completely quiet in the courtroom. Everyone is listening.

“Allow me to eliminate one of your so-called conclusive pieces of evidence. The document which is supposed to prove my guilt did not come from the computer at your so-called crime scene. That document was planted later. Like so much else in this baseless case.”

The hours go by. There are also other accused journalists in the courtroom. Suddenly a plainclothes officer runs down to a Dutch colleague behind me and pulls his phone off him. My colleague is escorted out. He is suspected of photographing the room.

The atmosphere is tense. And then, suddenly, it’s all over. We are herded out. No one knows what will happen next.

After an hour, the defence counsel is told that the public prosecutor is dropping the charge that Füsun was a leading member of the organisation. Now she is only considered to be an ordinary member. For this, she will finally be sentenced on 30 October.

The chairperson of the Turkish Association of Journalists, Turgay Olcaytol, tells me he feels slightly optimistic – not only because the charge was considerably reduced, but also because the Turkish judges are coming under increasing pressure from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This applies not least to the requirement to understand and comply with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which deals with freedom of the press and the rights of journalists.

In addition, more and more international organisations are casting their critical gaze upon Turkey’s practices towards media and journalists critical of the government. Today, four major organisations have sent representatives. And there is one person in particular who makes an impression – and not just on me. He is Kadri Gursel, known to most Turks as a high-profile journalist with leading newspaper Milliyet, and especially from a TV interview program that he runs on CNN Turk. Fewer people realise, however, that he is also the man behind the Journalist Freedom Platform – a campaign calling for the release of imprisoned Turkish journalists for which the EFJ is also a main advocate. He is so well-known that the authorities don’t dare touch him. I praised him for the commitment he has shown, investing all his personal prestige to help his colleagues. Gursel replies:

“It’s all part of being a journalist. We help each other when our livelihoods or our lives are threatened. That’s just how it is.”

Now a phone call comes from Ercan Epekci, the chairperson of the Union of Journalists in Turkey (TGS), who accompanied me here this morning. He is at a nearby police station, where our Dutch colleague has been incarcerated until a decision is made on how the offence is to be regarded in terms of punishment

Over the coming days, a number of other cases will continue against Turkish journalists. Fortunately, these cases are also enjoying the attention of the outside world. As early as tomorrow, there will be a court hearing scheduled in the KCK case, in which some journalists are accused of terrorism in the form of membership of the banned Kurdish organisation. Later, a handful of MEPs will meet with Turkish journalists. The MEPs have formed a committee to closely monitor the cases of the imprisoned journalists. And next week, two Danish ministers, the Minister for Trade and Investment and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, will also visit Turkey. They will also put pressure on their Turkish colleagues, and emphasise that democracy cannot exist and thrive without freedom of the press.

I feel that the pressure from the international media and the journalists’ organisations will increase, becoming more visible and thereby more embarrassing for the government. If pressure from the politicians also increases, we will see quiet improvements – not only for journalists, but also for the young people in this country, who are tired of moral guardians and strict public morality. In EFJ, we have decided to keep up full pressure – for as long as is needed.

Unfortunately, it is hard to do something about the root of all the evil, namely the anti-terror laws, which remain the government’s best excuse to treat journalists as common criminals of the highest calibre. By accusing journalists of terrorism, the regime all too often manages to avoid criticism, because even highly democratic countries have special legislation against terrorism. We in Denmark also have an anti-terror law which makes it possible to shut down journalists’ freedom of expression at will.

I will leave the last word to Nadire Mater, founder and director of the rights organisation and website bianet.org. She has known Füsun Erdogan for twenty years:

“When Füsun was imprisoned in 2006, I thought she would be released within a few days, as she is a journalist through and through. But I could soon see that she was not being listened to. Even though the evidence against her was completely false, she was not allowed to speak. I realised then that all journalists who exercise critical thinking are painted as terrorists. This is the weapon, and it’s horrible!”

Finally, a small ‘success story’: The worldwide protests after the Gezi Park demonstrations actually made a difference. One example is the television station NTV, which broadcast the penguin documentaries while violence flared in Taksim Square. Not only did thousands of people demonstrate outside the television station – what few people know is that NTV’s miserable journalism also caused several million Turks to abandon the major bank that owns the TV station. So never say protests do not help!

By Esben Ørberg, EFJ representative