There’s a saying in Turkey: “if you want to be a writer, you need to go to prison,” says PEN International board member Burhan Sönmez.
By PEN’s count, there are at least 150 writers behind bars in Turkey – almost all of them there because of “an attempt to quell critical and dissenting voices by a government that is moving ever closer to authoritarianism.” The New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists reckons that by the end of 2017, 73 of them were journalists. Freedom House says there were 76 journalists in prison, while one Turkey-based group says the number is closer to 145. By any count though, Turkey ranks as world’s most prolific jailer of journalists and writers.
Thousands more have either been sacked or forced to resign, hundreds have lost their press credentials and an unknown number have had their passports confiscated. At least 150 media organizations have been forced to close and had their assets seized.
Although Turkey has had a long history of silencing writers, human rights groups say the latest crackdown began in July 2016. That is when a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces called the “Peace at Home” Movement tried to overthrow the government of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The attempted coup failed, and Erdogan accused the exiled Gullen Movement of being behind it.
He then declared anybody associated with the movement, and soon after, anybody who challenged the government, of being “terrorists”. Erdogan began rounding up thousands of lawyers, academics and journalists – anybody who dared question the president’s legitimacy – as a threat to national security.
Can Dundar is one of the most high profile journalists caught up in the sweep, but his story is typical. In April 2018, an Istanbul court issued an arrest warrant for his arrest on espionage charges, and asked Interpol to issue a warrant of its own. The charges stem from a report Dündar published in the newspaper Cumhuriyet while he was editor-in-chief about alleged smuggling of weapons into Syria by Turkey.
Dündar is a recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award and he has lived in exile in Europe since 2016, when a Turkish court sentenced him to seven years for ‘revealing state secrets’.
Mehmet Altan is another journalist imprisoned for his alleged links to the Gulenist Movement. He was first arrested in September 2016 and then sentenced to life in prison.
The constitutional court had ruled that Altan should be released because his rights had been violated but a lower criminal court ignored the ruling and he remained in jail until he was finally released on June 27, almost two years after his original arrest.
His conviction and sentence have not been quashed and he remains subject to a travel ban and obligation to report to authorities regularly.
As disturbing as the stories from Turkey are, they are consistent with a much wider trend. Around the world, the CPJ reckons about two-thirds of all journalists in prison are on charges that could generally be described as “anti-state” such as terrorism, sedition, treason and so on, echoing the national security rhetoric – and sometimes the tactics – from more liberal democracies.