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Come to Turkey and show your support #WPFD2017

TGS' press freedom protest: the banner reads Journalism is not a crime   -  © tim dawson

3 May 2017

NUJ president Tim Dawson describes a meeting with Turkish journalist trade unionists in the midst of Erdogan's crackdown.

On Tuesday, I sat in on an executive meeting of Türkiye Gazeteciler Sendikası (TGS), the journalists’ union of Turkey.  Twenty five elected representatives from newsrooms all over their country came together in a sweaty Istanbul hotel.Top of their agenda was detailed consideration of their demand for the release of colleagues from Turkey’s prisons.

At the end of 2016, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that worldwide 259 journalists were in jail as a result of their work. Few doubt that the greatest number of these are in Turkey, but the question that gripped the TGS representatives, was just how many are behind bars for their work? With World Press Freedom Day the following day, the executive of the 65-year-old union wanted to be sure of the figure for their campaign.

It was a heart-breaking and humbling debate to witness. Many contributions had the passion and eloquence you might expect at a trade union executive meeting. 

But there was also visible pain as local union presidents spoke of friends and colleagues in jail.

 "One can find spots on the milk but not on our Hakan; this journalist is totally clean and innocent and deprived from his freedom," said a branch leader using a Turkish phrase to stress the case of Hakan Karasinir from Cumhuriyet newspaper. 

Some wondered whether more partisan reporters or those who supported previously the jailing of colleagues should be excluded from their list? Public support might be less forthcoming for those with close links to opposition political parties or religious groups. There was also a debate about whether the jailed accountant of one newspaper should be included. He is not a journalist, but he was incarcerated for his vital role in his newspaper’s operation.

That debate concluded that of course he should be included – but they must make clear that their list is of jailed media workers as well, not just journalists.

One representative reported on his own experience of summary 48-hour detention and an ensuing two-year travel ban.  It was only lifted because of a campaign by TGS within Turkey and support from the European and International Federation of Journalists..

Colleagues arrested on the same night, but lacking union support, were still confined to their home city or in jail.
In the end, their decision was a journalistic one. TGS – which has over 1,000 members and employs just two administrative staff – wanted a list of which they could all be absolutely sure. Someone else’s research would not do.  They voted to devote scarce funds to employ a lawyer part-time to scrutinise the paperwork relating to each case. 

Better to have robust facts, even if they would not be ready for Unesco’s World Press Freedom Day. "This is not a race to be the first to publish the highest figure and all different figures published by many organisations are actually pointing to the same unacceptable problem of jailing journalists", said a board member. Few expected the tally to be far short of 150 – more than half of all the world’s jailed journalists.

I have sat through hundreds of union executive meetings, and participated in decisions that would have profound effects on those affected, but never have the decisions seemed so raw or painful.  And it was by no means the only sign of the perilous position in which Turkey’s civil society finds itself.

When I arrived in the centre of Istanbul it was swamped with thousands of armed police, including detachments of teargas-ready riot police and water cannons. The aim was to prevent the traditional 1 May march getting anywhere near Taksim Square in the city centre. 

Trade unionists and left-wingers were allowed to process along a road called Bakirköy nearly ten miles from the city centre.  Despite this, a reported 40,000 took to the streets – nearly ten times more than a year before.  There were similar marches in more than 50 of Turkey’s 81 administrative departments – a considerable achievement taking into account the state of emergency

President Erdogan had extended the state of emergency that allows him to rule by decree, as well as having acquired sweeping new powers in a controversial referendum which international observers described as ‘not being held on a level playing field’.

And the day before I set off for Turkey, the government blocked access to Wikipedia and sacked 4,000 more civil servants.

Clearly, Erdogan enjoys considerable support of about half its citizens, the remaining half is strongly and vocally opposed to his policies.  But I also spoke with many Turks who are scared.  Some talk about leaving the country in fear. Others anticipate further arbitrary crack downs.

Responding to such situations from outside is never easy. The best one, so far as I can see is this. Build links with the Turkish people, the trade unions and civil society organisations. Once the riot police were back in barracks, Istanbul returned to its joyful, exuberant, easy-going best. Same-sex couples mingled with the scores of Arab men who come here for inexpensive hair transplants. The streets buzzed and country’s economic vitality pulsated from restaurants, bars and the bazar.

Come to the country. Bear witness to the trials. Establish links with those Turks, Kurds, minorities and refugees who are working desperately hard to save its civic institutions. Let cheap travel and the internet deliver more than beach holidays and cute cat pictures. Do that and we will not only strengthen the hand of Turkey’s democratic forces, but we will also enjoy a share of what makes the country so vital and exciting.

Tags: , world press freedom day, turkey, Erdogan, tgs, journalists arrested, journalists association of turkey, Türkiye Gazeticiler Sendikasi, Istanbul