Speaking out perilous in Turkey Danger: Journalists and human rights workers who catch the attention of the Turkish authorities are lucky to get long prison terms. The unlucky disappear and are found later, dead.

Sun Journal

January 18, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- In a bright modern newsroom in the center of Istanbul, Gulsen Yuksel, 31, cooly contemplated the risks of being a journalist in Turkey.

"There is a danger here," said the woman, with a toss of her long black hair. "We all know it." Over her shoulder, the portraits of eight dead colleagues at the newspaper stared from the wall.

Two weeks later, at 3:30 a.m. Dec. 3, 1994, her newsroom erupted in a huge bomb blast. It killed a receptionist and injured 19 others still in the building at that hour.

The blast reinforced the message. A journalist in Turkey can pay a high price for trying to exercise freedom of the press.

Last week, Metin Goktepe, a reporter for the paper Evrensel, paid the price. He was picked up by police while covering a funeral of two leftists killed in a prison clash, according to colleagues. He died from a severe beating; his head was crushed and a rib broken, according to the autopsy.

Yucel Gokturk, editor of a small, weekly newspaper called Express, hopes the price he will pay himself will be only a prison term.

"People get shot. People are missing," he says. "We work late at night at this newspaper. The policemen could come in here at night, and take three of us away.

"Then our friends would write that these three people are missing. And two months later, our bodies would be found. This is a possibility. It's real."

Tiny circulation

Mr. Gokturk edits the paper from a tiny office on a third-floor walk-up in Istanbul and sends it to a printer who publishes 9,000 copies. He can sell about half.

The Express is a left-leaning paper, full of praise for workers and scorn for the establishment. Its political pages often focus on Turkey's abysmal human rights record. There is plenty of material.

"When the state violates human rights, we write it. Sometimes people write us with their own accounts. Sometimes we report it ourselves," he says. "It's an issue to bring to the public's attention."

His interest in this issue bodes poorly for his future. Mr. Gokturk has been indicted on six charges and ordered to appear before the state "security court" to account for what he has written.

None of the trials has been held yet. If they had, he would not be reclining on an old stuffed chair in the newsroom talking about his business. There is a "50-50" chance he will be imprisoned after the first trial, scheduled for next month, he says. And he is an optimist.

Turkey has used the state security courts, which are outside the normal civil court system, to imprison hundreds of journalists and writers over the past few years.

According to the Turkish Daily News, 432 journalists were detained last year alone. Sentences against "freedom of thought" prisoners totaled 1,564 years, the paper calculated. At the end of November, 133 people were in prison for what they had written, according to the Human Rights Foundation in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

Most of the writers were charged with violating the "Law to Fight Terrorism."

Turkey has been locked in a grinding struggle with its Kurdish minority. Criticism as to how the government conducts that struggle, or even a hint of sympathy for the plight of the Kurds, is interpreted by the government as espousing "separatism," a crime akin to treason.

The charges against Mr. Gokturk, for example, involve his

publishing pictures of Turkish soldiers cutting off the ear of a Kurdish woman as a battle prize.

Another charge involves his publishing an interview with a Kurdish leader in exile. Another involves his writing about a man who refused to serve in the Turkish army, claiming he was a conscientious objector. The other charges were for reporting on human rights violations.

Little sympathy from public

"The state has created such an atmosphere, that to bring up human rights violations is seen as supporting the PKK" -- the Kurdish guerrillas, he says. "If you say the Turkish government is violating human rights, killing people, burning villages, then the public's attitude is that you are wrong."

There is little pressure on the Turkish government from its own citizens to change this pattern.

"Unfortunately, violence is one of our national characteristics," says Seref Turgut, a human rights lawyer in Istanbul.

The Turkish police are accustomed to treating people quite cruelly. A police chief will openly say, 'If I catch a suspect, what can I do to get a confession except to torture him?' "

Human rights workers hope this is changing. Thousands of Turks marched in protest in Istanbul last week after the body of Mr. Goktepe was found.

Mr. Goktepe, who wrote for a left-wing newspaper, had been seen by other reporters among the people arrested at the funeral of the two leftists. His body was found in the sports complex where police had taken those detained.

Authorities denied he was in their custody. Such disingenuous denials are not unusual.

Authority is ambiguous

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