Monday, February 29, 2016

Can Dundar: A Journalist's Struggle to Defy the Odds

Last Friday, after 92 days of being imprisoned, the Editor-in-Chief of the Turkish opposition daily Cumhuriyet, Can Dundar, and his colleague, journalist Erdem Gul, were released pending trial.  This came upon a surprise decision by Turkey's Constitutional Court's ruling that their rights had been breached. The two journalists were jailed 5 months after the newspaper released a story on a secret Turkish arms transfer to Syria. If found guilty the two could face life imprisonment.  

In January 2014 the story first made headlines as Turkish prosecutors demanded the seizure of the secret arm shipment, which the Turkish government had claimed was humanitarian goods. All state authorities who took part in the raid were later jailed or purged from their work accused of numerous crimes related to espionage and staging a coup against the government.

Can Dundar-This picture originally appeared in Todays Zaman 
What makes this current story unique is that for over a year, Can Dundar has been in a public scuffle with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is important to keep in mind that Dundar is also not just your average journalist. He is a very popular writer and a documentary film maker. He is sharp, witty and has a laid-back yet hard working character. In short, his boldness has proven to be the perfect match for Erdogan with the two constantly butting heads.  

In fact, it was Erdogan who opened the criminal investigation against him, demanding a life sentence, stating that Dundar would pay the "highest price" for his actions. Already late in 2014, a case had been opened against Dundar for defaming Erdogan and his son, Bilal. Last December, however, while imprisoned for the Syrian arms transfer story, he was found innocent on the charge of defamation, much to the dismay of the president.

As people gathered last Friday evening at the Silivri prison gates awaiting their release, they ended up having to wait until 3:00 am, thus coinciding with Erdogan's birthday. Dundar seized this opportunity to take a jab at the Turkish president, cynically stating that he was sorry that his friends had to wait so long but his February 26th release was well-timed as a birthday present for Erdogan. 

Well, Erdogan has taken their public quarrel to a new level all together. On Sunday he stated the following shocking words, "I will remain silent to the decision the court has given. But I don't need to accept it, I want to make that clear. I don't obey or respect the decision…this has nothing to do with press freedom. This is a case of spying." 

In other words, the spat between the two now has the Turkish president openly defying the Constitutional Court. 

Dundar seems poised to continue on with his struggle, now addressing Erdogan in an open letter, where he thanks him for sending him to prison, explaining how the prison has made him a better person and writer, in addition to showing the world the authoritarian shift taking place in Turkey. According to Cumhuriyet, the article has had a record 4 million hits

What is clear is that the stakes could not be higher and that this saga is far from over, not to mention the fact that according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, "Turkey remains the worst jailers of the worldwide," and that Dundar and Gul could once again find themselves behind bars for a very long time. For now, only time will tell....  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The New York Times Travel Section's Bad Judgement: Swimming among Refugees

Last Friday, the New York Times travel section came out with an article, which caught my attention. The article, "In Turkey, Adventure Travel Takes the Plunge," introduces to its reader the Turkish coastal region of Kas, just miles away from the Greek Island of Meis (Kastellorizo). Here, Americans and Europeans will find nothing short of paradise. 

What the article fails to highlight is that Syrian refugees are dying in these waters with increasing frequency. Since January 1, over 400 people have lost their lives making the journey from the Turkish coast to the Greek Islands, while 72,000 have reached Greece, traumatized by their sea journey and facing new hardships. True, most of the refugees are crossing much farther north from Kas, in the Aegean waters, but just earlier this month a group of Syrian refugees were returned to Turkey after trying to reach the island of Meis. 

The NYT article does briefly mention the refugee issue. However, the information provided appears to have been written last summer and not updated. Further, it strangely juxtaposes the refugee vis-à-vis the tourist, who is unable to reach Greece:  

Our family agreed that it was our best holiday ever...

Not everything was perfect, of course. I would have preferred actually stepping onto the isle of Meis to start the Greece-to-Turkey swim instead of hopping from the boat a long way offshore. (That shore-to-shore crossing is undertaken by locals in an annual race in June — and at night by refugees passing through Turkey to seek asylum in Greece. Ali Gumrukcu, the captain of the daily ferry between Kas and Meis, said that of the roughly 400 refugees crossing the water into Greece each month, most of them from Syria, 10 to 20 brave the swim, waiting for nights with no moonlight so they would be undetected).

However, these waters are safe. According to the NYT:

The locations usually feature clear, relatively calm water free of watercraft and sharks. The tour guides are certified beach lifeguards with first aid training and powerboat licenses. They say the biggest hazards can be Jet Skis, jelly fish, sudden storms and swimmer fatigue.

Seeing endless tragic videos of refugees in trouble at sea, I could not help compare their plight with that of the European and American tourists:

*A tourist spends about $1,000, which gets them hotel, boat and daytime meals but not flights, dinners or tips. The pricier tours are based on boats. Swimmers are often in their 30s to 50s, though ages range from 16 to the 80s.

*A Refugee pays about a $1000 to a smuggler to cross from Turkey to Greece. They too are of all ages. However, if they are caught by the Turkish Coast Guard (or soon to be NATO ships), they are forcefully returned, with smugglers making away with their money. 

*Tourists are required to get travel insurance. 

*Refugees have no life insurance.

*Tourists are promised to have the luxury of having certified life vests

*Refugees often buy uncertified life vests which are dangerous. They are not able to hold body weight, which lead to drowning.  

*Tourists are guaranteed an "open water swimming experience"

*Refugees often receive the "open water swimming" experience with even the strong ones not strong enough to survive.  

Turkish Coast Guard rescues a lone survivor, have a watch and learn more about the refugee issue. 

Of course, my point is not to say that Turkey should not be a tourist destination. That would be ridiculous. I too have been to Kas and can tell you the article is not at all exaggerating in terms of its beauty. It is simply breathtaking. Further, tourism continues to the Greek Islands despite the influx of refugees. There is no difference here. Further, Turkey is home to over 2.5 million refugees and should be commended on taking in so many people. This is certainly not a reason not to go there.  

However, the NYT travel section editor should have shown sensitivity to the issue, realizing that now is not the time to pitch a story about a summer swim get-a-way in a place where so many people are drowning on a daily basis. Or, if it did not want to shelve the article, it could have provided up-to-date information on the plight of the refugees, weaving it into the story. For example, one local Turkish site provides information on how tourists can help refugees while visiting Kas, or the neighboring Kalkan.  

Perhaps, the travel editor should have picked up its own paper to understand that the timing was not right. The NYT regularly reports about the refugee crisis. In fact, just a day after the discussed article came out, its Istanbul Correspondent, Ceylan Yeginsu, issued an important in-depth story focusing on the rampant death of refugees at sea, entitled: Constant Tide of Migrants at Sea, and at Turkish Cemetery, which I highly recommend to read.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

First They Came for Turkey's Journalists, Then Their Academics*

On one of my last nights during a recent stay in Istanbul, I made my way down to a restaurant, just off the main pedestrian avenue of Istiklal Caddesi in the Beyoglu neighborhood. Arriving a bit late, the table was already full of old and new friends, mostly academics and journalists, some Turkish, and others foreigners. Not surprisingly, in no time the conversation took a turn towards President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent attack on the country’s academics, which lead to a wave of arrests and investigations of university professors, and left us debating which of our colleagues could be left unemployed or threatened with sanctions. 

In fact, Turkish academicians could increasingly find themselves in a similar position to Turkish journalists – that is to say, in a precarious and intimidating situation. 
Just two months ago, Can Dundar, the editor of Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s leading opposition dailies, was arrested together with his colleague Erdem Gul, for publishing a story on an alleged Turkish arms transfer to Syrian rebels. Both are facing life sentences on charges of aiding a terrorist organization, and threatening to overthrow the government, a punishment the Washington Post recently described as ‘shocking’ and a further sign of Erdogan’s efforts to move ‘away from democracy and into the abyss of authoritarianism and ignorance.’

In addition to journalists, private businesses and media outlets with alleged ties to the Gulen movement have had their companies seized by the government. This is before mentioning the growing number of Turkish citizens receiving jail time and court-ordered financial penalties for crimes related to defaming Erdogan. Earlier this month, a woman was sentenced to 11 months in jail for making a rude gesture at Erdogan at a political rally in 2014.

Academicians have become the latest target of Erdogan, and the prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, a professor himself, following the issuing of a petition they signed condemning the Turkish military and state operations taking place in Turkey’s Kurdish regions. In the petition, 1,128 Turkish academics, together with international signatories, such as Noam Chomsky, Immanuel Wallerstein, and David Harvey, stated: “We, as academics and researchers working on and/or in Turkey, declare that we will not be a party to this massacre by remaining silent and demand an immediate end to the violence perpetrated by the state.” The petition highlighted what it described as systematic collective punishment. 

Erdogan lashed out at the Turkish signatories, calling them “academic terror actors,” rhetorically claiming they support PKK terrorist acts. These words come upon earlier statements accusing them of “falling into the pit of treachery”, with him stating, "in a state of law like Turkey, so-called academics who target the unity of our nation have no privilege to commit crimes...they don’t have immunity.”

With the continued strife in Turkey, it is not hard to imagine why the petition was organized. Since the November 2015 snap-elections, when the AKP managed to regain its parliamentary majority, the Turkish government has set at all its energies on rooting out any PKK presence from Kurdish populated regions, at a heavy cost to the civilian population. The government itself initiated talks with the PKK aimed at a peaceful resolution of the decades-old conflict that has led to the death of over 30,000 since the 1980s, reaching a ceasefire in 2013. 

When this peace process collapsed last summer, Turkey’s leaders - rather than working to breathe new life into the talks - opted to take the PKK head on in a military confrontation. However, whereas in the past the Turkish security forces’ opponents were guerilla fighters in the surrounding mountains, the Kurdish resistance is now located in the heart of the cities, often taking on the characteristics of a popular uprising. 

In the numerous major urban centers under curfew, such as Silopi, and Cizre, and the Sur neighborhood of Diyarbakir, to name a few, the situation is dire. According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV), between August 16-Janauary 21, a total of 58 curfews have been implemented by the state, leading to the death of at least 198 civilians, among which 39 are children. Amnesty International describes the curfews as “crippling,” and that they “don’t allow people to leave their houses…effectively laying siege to entire neighborhoods,” placing the “lives of tens of thousands at risk.” 

Pictures emerging of these cities show major destruction, such as this video from the Sur district of Diyarbakir, suggestive of a major warzone. Further, personal stories, such as that of Taybet Inan, show us the extent of human suffering. Last month, Inan, a 57-year old mother to eleven children, was shot dead by the security forces. In attempt to retrieve the body, her brother-in-law was also shot dead, while her bereaved husband was wounded. In the end, her dead body laid out in the open for seven days until the family was finally able to retrieve it for burial. In the last two weeks alone, it has been reported that at least 10 people have met a similar fate, with ambulances unable to reach them in time to take them to local hospitals for treatment.  

Any questioning of the government’s policy towards its war on the PKK can lead to serious accusations of supporting the terror group. In one case, in late December, a university lecturer in Amasya was detained as she finished lecturing for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda. A student had reported to the police her alleged discussion of human rights violations even before the lecture was over. In addition to being detained, her office was searched, and police seized documents. Fortunately, for her, the court found the claim baseless and released her. However, this demonstrates to what extent academics are in danger of having their words twisted, the result of which could even be to land them in jail. 

Now with this group of academics speaking out against government policy, the threat of sanctions against them seems more real than ever. In the first round, twenty-seven academics were detained for singing the petition; the state prosecution claimed they were promoting terror propaganda. They have been released pending trial, however the Supreme Education Board announced that it would be taking legal action against all the local academics who signed it. Even if the case does not result in official charges, already 29 of the signatories, from among nine public and private universities throughout Turkey, have been suspended from their work place, in what one Turkish news outlet, Diken, is calling a witch-hunt. 

As of late last week, 85 professors and 6 graduate students at Istanbul University and Yildiz Technical University are facing an internal investigation by their universities, with Yildiz’s administration claiming they “publicly insulted the Turkish Nation, the state of the Republic of Turkey, Grand National Assembly of Turkey, the Government of the Turkish Republic and the judicial organs of the state as well as propagandized for the terrorist organization.” In such an atmosphere, it is not hard to imagine that many more academics from the 89 universities in which they work are feeling the backlash, not least, for the younger scholars who signed the petition, being blocked from future job opportunities. 

Back at the restaurant, our conversation almost seemed like déjà vu: We had spoken in the past in very similar terms about journalists, in addition to our regular discussions about what the future holds for Turkey, and for those who do not see eye-to-eye with the government. 

Turkey seems to be headed for stony days for both its civilians’ security and for free speech. If its government does not reach some type of understanding with the PKK, the melting of the snow, which traditionally reignites fighting between the Turkish army and the PKK, together with spring’s warmth, could spell much more difficult days than now. This of course is not even addressing the recent ISIS bombing in the heart of the tourist center of Sultanahmet, which killed 11 German visitors, and the serious challenges it poses for tourism, as well as a sluggish economy.  

As we were about to part ways, I sipped my last bit of raki and whispered to myself the Turkish drinking toast: en kötü günümüz böyle olsun (may such times be the worst of our days). Usually, this is meant to be express the sunny feeling that all our days be just as happy like the current moment. But with Turkey’s days looking more and more difficult, I saw it differently, thinking that we should hope that we do not see even worse days than the current ones, with all of us knowing that indeed things can get worse. The days the AKP ruling party provided hope are long over. 

As I made my way back up Istiklal, all seemed eerily normal, as it must in many parts of Turkey. Despite that, as Turkey’s instability becomes more palpable, most Turkish citizens have some awareness that something has gone terribly wrong. That is a feeling that will remain and cannot be conveniently excised, even if the silencing of dissent deepens and becomes even more institutionalized. 

*This article appeared in Haaretz on February 4, 2106. Click here for article

Shock Waves From Syria Intensify Turkey’s Chaotic Times* (From December 2015)

Last Saturday, on the streets of the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, Turkey’s renowned human rights lawyer and head of the city’s bar association, Tahir Elci, himself a Kurd, was murdered straight after an outdoor press conference he had held. Hours later, a video emerged of the gun battle, in which concealed attackers fired at Elci and people standing around him. It’s not clear whether he was shot right before, during, or after the gun battle. What was missing from the video was a clear picture of him actually being shot, leaving us only with a glimpse of Elci dead on the ground with a pistol lying next to him. The incident also left two policemen dead, with the perpetrators escaping free.

Regardless of who was actually responsible for his killing, Elci’s assassination - or his death as a result of being caught in crossfire - serves as a metaphor of the chaotic times with which Turkey has become all too familiar.
In fact, last week, just as the newly elected AKP Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu presented his government to the parliament, the country was thrown into a whirlwind of events. From the Turkish Air Force’s downing of the Russian jet, to the arrest of Turkey’s main opposition newspaper’s editor, and the killing of Elci, Turkey watchers have been overwhelmed with non-stop headlines.  

While seemingly unconnected, these events are all somehow related to the greater question of Turkish policy in Syria (even if not solely). With the war progressing into its fifth year, shock waves are continually being felt in Turkey, both domestically and internationally.

The Russian jet shot down, on November 24, 2015. Credit: Reuters.
The shooting down of a Russian jet fighter over Syria caught all by surprise; however, in retrospect, it seems to have been a calculated action, meant to draw red lines for Russian involvement in Syria. Turkey was motivated by a determination to retain one of its last strongholds of influence in Syria and a buffer zone to prevent a Kurdish military presence there. Until now, Turkey has done its utmost at preventing Syria’s Kurdish forces from moving into this region, which would give them an autonomous and contiguous block situated along most of its southern border. However, now with Russia bombing its Turkmen allies, Turkey is in danger of losing influential territory to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army, a worst-case scenario.

This week also saw the jailing of Can Dundar, one of Turkey’s most influential journalists who serves as the editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet, together with his journalist colleague, Erdem Gul. They were arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage as a result of their front-page story about a secret arms transfer to rebel groups in Syria. The Turkish government had claimed the shipment was humanitarian aid destined for Syria’s Turkmen community.

This wasn’t actually a new story: it first broke in January 2014, less than a month after massive corruption charges connected to then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. Certainly, Dundar and Gul were not the first journalists to write about the arms delivery. However, their reignition of the debate last May, just days before general elections, hit at the heart of Erdogan’s Syrian soft spot, with speculation that these arms could even have been making their way to ISIS. This led Erdogan at the time to vow publically that he would punish Dundar for his newspaper’s actions. The irony of their arrest just last Thursday is that only days before, Erdogan bragged that it really did not matter if it was an arms transfer or not, begging the question why he was still so keen to put them in jail to await trial.

The significance of the jailing of such prominent journalists is that Erdogan is ready and willing to take on anyone within Turkey challenging his plans to take an active role on his terms in a post-Assad Syria. This determination can quite easily take the form of a personal vendetta for Erdogan, who won’t forget or forgive what he considers acts of disloyalty, even if the payback comes with a time lag.

Lastly, the killing of Elci can also been seen within the context of Turkish policy in Syria. The murder is representative of the chaos that has become part of the daily life of southeast Turkey’s Kurdish citizens since they largely split with the ruling AKP over the future of Syria. Last year’s peace talks between Erdogan and the PKK and the nation’s Kurds went astray when the two camps entrenched their loyalties into opposing camps. The Kurds, together with leftist Turks, formed the People’s Democratic Party, the HDP, a grassroots movement inherently connected to the social and political revolution of the Syrian Kurds across the border. 

The 2014 battle of Kobane, in which Syrian Kurds (including volunteer fighters from leftist groups in Turkey) and ISIS (ironically also including volunteers from Turkey) fought just meters from Turkey’s border, positioned the HDP in opposition to Erdogan’s attempts to block Kurdish expansion and self-defense. This led to claims that he was secretly supporting ISIS (in a variation of the ‘enemy’s enemy’ stratagem) , a position that was seemingly proven in Kurdish eyes by Erdogan’s apparent acceptance that Kobane would eventually fall to ISIS, and that Turkey shouldn’t intervene to prevent it happening.  

The hatred between the ruling party and the pro-Kurdish party grew and grew. When the HDP’s grassroots support translated into a first-ever electoral win in the general elections in June, the peace process went off the rails, and these days PKK and Turkish forces are entrenched in daily fighting.

Not surprisingly, Elci was killed minutes after he called for peace between the Turkish state and the PKK. Just minutes before his death he declared: "We do not want guns, clashes and operations here." It was a scenario with ghastly similarities to last month’s Ankara suicide bombing of mostly pro-HDP demonstrators for peace, allegedly by pro-ISIS operatives, which left over 100 dead.  

It was clear that Elci himself at the least felt he was a marked man. He was a clear opponent of the Turkish government and had recently spoken of credible threats against his life, especially following his appearance on CNN Turk earlier this year, when he stated that the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK, “is not a terrorist organization. Rather, it is an armed political organization which has large local support.” This led to him being detained and released pending trial for spreading terrorist propaganda, with a hefty fine served on the television station.

While these recent events might lead some to argue that Turkey is certainly in over its head, its prime minister, Davutoglu, has proven to all that he and Erdogan are able to balance this intrinsic instability with glimmers of hope.

On Sunday, Davutoglu signed a comprehensive agreement with the European Union to receive 3 billion euros in return for keeping Syrian refugees tight and as far away from Europe as possible. Other major perks might come with this, such as visa-free entry into the EU for Turkish citizens, and the EU renewing Turkey’s hope of one day entering the union. For Turkey the timing could not have been better, offsetting the proposed Russian sanctions against Turkey, with wall-to-wall support from within NATO as well

On the other hand, for those journalists jailed in Turkey, or those who thought that Europe would speak out against human rights violations in Turkey’s southeastern regions, increasingly subjected to long military curfews and fighting in the streets, they shouldn’t hold their breath.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on December 1, 2105. Click here for the article.