Veteran journalists in the dock as plucky upstarts report on them

28 January 2019
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Fatma Yörür

We weren’t able to do journalism in line with the “normal flow of life” in a normal country. Instead, we have found ourselves in the middle of a surreal world in which journalism had been torn asunder amid the ruins of the media.

The first time I went to a courthouse was to follow the case of Turkish sociologist Pınar Selek, who was on trial for a deadly bomb attack in 1998. I was back in the hearing room several years later with “Hrant’s Friends,” a group seeking the murderers of Hrant Dink, the editor-in-chief of the Armenian bilingual weekly Agos who was killed in 2007.

There, in the giant halls of the court, where I couldn’t even hope to find my way without assistance from “Hrant’s Friends,” I learned about the Court of Serious Crimes, what the SEGBİS, the voice and video informatics system, means and where the canteen was.

The hearing rooms were not as serious as seen in the movies. Sometimes, I felt like I was watching the “Muppet Show;” sometimes, I felt like I was watching a theater play in a strange country whose language I did not speak.

And what else have I witnessed in my journalism career, a winter with no spring? Indictments that change in accord with political circumstances and a never-changing tradition: The judiciary is always under the thumb of politics.

And then there are our masters, journalists who do not recognize such dominance due to their nature. The toughest part has always been seeing them standing in the dock as suspects.

At the start, my goal was to do investigative reporting. Journalism is teamwork; if you don’t work in a team, you’ll have to battle like Don Quixote against the giant entities arrayed against you. We have been in this business at a time in which all press structures have been destroyed; a time in which Cumhuriyet newspaper, one of the last castles still standing, has come under fire and the torture of the Kurdish media has continued.

There were journalists we wanted to learn from, but they were either outside the country due to political trials or they had already surrendered and quit.

The rest of them, meanwhile, were standing in the dock as suspects. We were ready to be grilled by them in the newsroom, but now we were listening and writing as they grilled the courts.

“The thing that I know best is the universal principle that a journalist should stand by individuals and different groups against all political powers,” said Tuğrul Eryılmaz, who would be sentenced to 15 months in prison for his symbolic, one-day stint as editor-in-chief at the Özgür Gündem newspaper.

In another hearing, we listened to Kadri Gürsel: “One should never forget that journalists are curious people and they can meet with anyone.”

“A journalist talks to everyone, while still keeping his or her distance,” said Murat Sabuncu, who was tried without arrest for “membership in FETÖ” but remained in prison due to an indictment in the Cumhuriyet case. “Journalists used to witness the news and the history, but now they are witnesses in cases in which their colleagues are on trial.”

“Yes, I am accused of benefitting an organization with my actions, without being a member or committing a crime in its name,” shouted cartoonist Musa Kart, who was tried for “membership in FETÖ.”

“I accuse you back.”

And then there was Ahmet Şık, whose right to defend himself was cut short by the chief judge of the case. We could only obtain his plea through his lawyers. His defense proved that journalism is possible, even inside the four walls of the prison.

Meanwhile, our cohorts were also taking their turns as suspects. We were supposed to be racing to get the scoop, but we were listening to them carefully so as not to miss a word, fearing that we would be cast out of the courtroom if we came eye to eye with the judge.

“I wrote those stories because I defend the people’s right to be informed and learn the truth. My conscience, rather than permission from the presidential palace, controls my pen,” said Derya Okatan, the managing director of the Etkin News Agency (ETHA).

“We were battered by police here because of news reports that would win an award in another country,” said Dicle News Agency (DİHA) News Editor Ömer Çelik.

Tunca Öğreten, an arrested reporter with the online newspaper Diken who was standing trial in the same case as Okatan and Çelik, highlighted the absurdity of the indictment.

“The indictment says that I followed some accounts on Twitter and that they followed me back, which is evidence that we are linked. I also follow the accounts of leftist organizations and the Islamic State. Does that make me a Salafi Marxist?”

When veteran journalist Aydın Engin stood trial, I completely understood that the place in which we found ourselves was not actually a court and had nothing to do with justice. I felt the same thing at the trial of 75-year-old intellectual Murat Belge.

So if this place had nothing to do with justice, what was it then? It was not real, but it was not a lie either. Did journalism mean being an actor in this play, which was stealing time from our short lives? Or was it “pacta sunt servanda” to these people who were defending our right to information?

During this period, we learned what patience means from lawyers who insistently said journalism and free speech were rights. At the same time, we also learned what being a “vassal” means from the riot police sitting in the gallery and what being a “puppet” means from the prosecutor who was huffing and puffing, staring at the ceiling.

The powers that be were a party in each trial but they never took part.

I was constantly returning to that same question: Why am I reporting on people that I am supposed to be working with?

In this theater play, written in an unknown language and staged in a strange country, it was only the words of the suspects that I could understand. I felt like a refugee in the halls of the courthouse – places that seemed like the streets of that strange country. I endlessly felt the urge to leave and return to the newsroom, yet I kept on bumping into the wall.

While I was typing up the suspect journalists’ statements, the investigative reporter inside me was shouting at me: What the hell we are doing here? Let’s get out of here!

They didn’t hear me. Ahmet Şık was gesturing at the judge. Tunca Öğreten was counting the names of the organizations that he was ostensibly the member of. Lawyer Fikret İlkiz was providing a lecture on the law. Nevertheless, the child inside me was screaming that we had to go. Like a nightmare, it was as if the voice was shouting but couldn’t be heard.

Then all headline started being the same. The failure to be heard had a real side. Actually, we were a very big part of the people who lived in a country that did not hear us. No one cared about anything until something happened to them. It was only a handful of people in those courtrooms tiring themselves out in an effort to explain.

We weren’t able to do journalism in line with the “normal flow of life” in a normal country. Instead, we have found ourselves in the middle of a surreal world in which journalism had been torn asunder amid the ruins of the media.

We could not write about the scandals of the rich and of politics. We could not reveal anything. Everything was there in the open… We wrote about the scandals of journalists, but no one cared; everything was there in the open.

“The people’s right to information” was there in the open…

This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.