by Seda Taşkın
Journalists are memory banks for the people. They constantly remind people about injustice and unlawfulness, keep them abreast of the news and ensure important events are not consigned to history. Journalism is the symbol of not letting people forget the truth.
I am Seda Taşkın, an imprisoned reporter for the Mezopotamya News Agency. I have been kept under arrest at the Sincan Closed Women Prison in Ankara for 10 months because of my journalistic activities.
My roots are from Dersim in the east, but I was born and raised in Ankara. I have been a journalist for three-and-a-half years. Because I come from a region where human rights violations and civilian deaths are deemed not-so significant by the state, I encountered unlawfulness at a young age; something that forces one to grow up early. At school, the massacres, the pain and the exile the people of Dersim suffered following the Seyit Rıza resistance in 1937 and 1938 were taught us in a way that did not reflect the truth.
When I learned that people from my hometown had had their share of pain and exile — as well as when I witnessed policies in Turkey that told us “You don’t exist” — I was deeply impacted. Equally impactful, however, was the determined resistance shown against these policies. This is how I chose and came to love journalism, a profession that unveils what is covered and reveals what is denied thanks to its grounding in morals and conscience.
In the first month of my internship, which I started in great enthusiasm, I wanted to photograph of a group of young people who were being beaten while unfurling a banner. Before I could do anything, however, a plainclothes police officer bent my arm and hit my face into a wall, then pushed me down the stairs. They wanted to detain me, but my fellow colleagues wouldn’t let them. I couldn’t use my hand for a week, as it was bruised and bulged. To protest and demonstrate is a right in Turkey, like in all other countries. But that day, those who wanted to use that right and I, who wanted to cover it, were subjected to violence. This was my first step into the rough and tumble profession of journalism.
After working for three years in Ankara, I traveled to Van province to see new places and cover stories in those places. After that, I traveled to Bitlis and Muş in the same region. I was under police surveillance everywhere I went because I carried a camera, which announced to the police that I was a journalist. They expected me to fear and surrender to psychological pressure. My first destination for news coverage in Muş was the district of Varto. When I first arrived in Muş, I did not know exactly what to cover. I went to the Varto Solidarity Association to see what kind of stories I could work on. There, I learned that Sise Bingöl, a 80-year-old woman who had attracted public attention after being imprisoned, was from Varto, so I went to visit her house. I wrote stories on the culture and environment of the town. After collecting material for some reports, I went back to the center of Muş. When I entered a clothing store with a friend, two plainclothes police officers followed. They said, “There is a serious tip-off about you” and pushed me into the changing room, searched my backpack and inspected my camera, even though they didn’t have a warrant. Then they gave me back my ID and press card and left. Half an hour later, however, the police called my friend and told me that there was paperwork to sign and asked me where I was. After that, I was detained.
Being a journalist was reason enough for them to detain me. Still, they cited “a serious tip-off” (I learned the charges I was facing only in court. During my detention, they gave me no information because there was a confidentiality order on my file). I was taken to the Muş police headquarters, but everything I was experiencing felt like a theater play on unlawfulness. Following my detention, they broke the law with me, one infraction after another. My camera and all my belongings were seized. When I said I would refuse being strip searched, more than 10 male police officers entered the room. They threatened me, saying that they would handcuff me behind my back, lay me on the ground and forcefully undress me if I refused. This is how I was subjected to a strip search. And this was repeated. Then I was tortured with songs from the Mehter band – the Ottoman military band — playing all night long in the jail. On one occasion, one officer made a victory sign and started singing “Hoşcakalın Dostlarım – Farewell My Friends” by Grup Yorum, a leftist Turkish protest music band. With the song, the officer was implying that I would be arrested — something that duly came to pass.
I appeared before a prosecutor in the evening on the fourth day of my detention. After my testimony, I was sent to the court on duty with a demand for my arrest, only for the court to release me on probation. The severity of the “serious tip-off” however, would come to light a month later when the prosecutor opposed my release.
After being released, I went back to Ankara. For one month, I fulfilled all the conditions of my probation. But upon the prosecutor’s objection, I appeared before a judge once again. Following one day of detention in Ankara, I was arrested by the Bitlis Criminal Court of Peace. The court claimed I was a “flight risk” and “could destroy evidence” and arrested me, even though I had fulfilled all the obligations of my probation. Of course, the real reason was that a journalist wandering outside was “dangerous.”
I was going to prison for the first time in my life. I did not know what kind of place it was or what awaited me. I spent my first night alone in a small and dirty room with no windows. I was kept inside a cold room with a tiny T-shirt because my outfit was in “forbidden colors.” Later, I learned that the name for that room was the “short stay unit.” I had left behind my colleagues, my friends who I call my family and my loved ones. While walking to the ward where I would stay, I was anxious and full of uncertainty. Thankfully, the smiling young faces that I saw when the ward’s door was opened swept it away. Listening to the life stories of each of my fellow inmates, I felt a desire to report on the rights violations and unlawfulness.
That day, I realized that one could report from anywhere; this could not be limited or prevented by the walls of the prison. At the end of the day, a person’s will, efforts and thoughts are all free. Motivated by the principles and ethics of journalism, I felt like reporting monthly on the rights violations in prison and sharing them with the public.
Actually, we are facing several human rights violations, just like many other prisons. Our right to our basic needs and clean water is being denied. We have to fulfill our needs with brown and dirty water from rusty spigots. On top of that, they have even restricted our water allowance. They give us half a bucket of hot water per person. This triggers many illnesses. No regulations have been adopted to correct this situation despite our applications and complaints to several institutions.
In addition to this, the prison management drives sick inmates to hospital in shuttles that are so tiny that a person can barely fit into them. Sometimes, they even put asthma sufferers into these vehicles. Those who do not want to travel in those vehicles due to the nature of their illness are investigated and accused of “actually being in good health” for refusing the drive in such a confined space. Thus, their right to medical treatment is violated.
I was not released by the court even though my lawyers contested the charges of “conducting propaganda on behalf of an illegal organization” and “membership in an illegal organization” during the first hearing. In the court, the name that I have used since my childhood was labeled as the “code name” that I used as part of the organization I was accused to be part of. Two hearings were postponed because of this reason alone, even though this was patently not true.
I was accused of sharing a reporter colleague’s social media posting, even though that colleague was acquitted in a trial launched because of the same posts. The panel of judges, however, ignored this. During the hearings, judges did not ask me a single question. I was charged with “being a member in an illegal organization,” but there wasn’t a single thing about it in my file.
I was convicted in the final hearing for “aiding and abetting an illegal organization,” whose name was never mentioned in any of the hearings.
I believe that this was a verdict whose sole aim was to prevent my release. This is a sentence against the profession of journalism on my behalf. In short, sentences are given to silence and intimidate people. The arrests are actually a message to journalists on the outside who are trying to do their job properly. They are also a message to a young generation that would like to become journalists.
Journalists are memory banks for the people. They constantly remind people about injustice and unlawfulness, keep them abreast of the news and ensure important events are not consigned to history. Journalism is the symbol of not letting people forget the truth. Now, they tell us that you will be the part of the pool media – Turkey’s mass media with close ties to the government – or not be a journalist at all. Our arrest was certainly a political decision; it has got nothing to do with the judiciary. We journalists are seen as “sticks in the mud” because we act in a way to keep what happened alive. But for the sake of society, being a “stick in the mud” is an honor.
This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.