Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Freedoms trounced in Turkey

Ahead of a pivotal constitutional referendum later this month, the crackdown on Kurdish opposition, media and artists in Turkey is escalating every day

The original photo of Nusaybin town taken by Turkish authorities and Dogan’s painting

For a painting she did in 2016 of Turkish flags on buildings destroyed by Turkish forces, last month Zehra Doğan — an ethnic Kurdish artist and journalist from Diyarbakir, Turkey — was sentenced to two years and 10 months in prison.

Doğan was among journalists arrested in July 2016 as part of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on Turkish media following a failed military coup. An anonymous witness who didn’t even know her name testified that Zehra is member of an illegal organisation. A court cited the testimony as sufficient evidence to charge Doğan. That trial ended without sentencing, but Zehra remained in prison 141 days and was released in December 2016. On 2 March, she was taken to a court where her trial continued and Zehra was charged of “being a member of an illegal organisation” and was sentenced to prison for posting her painting on social media.

Zehra Doğan’s painting portrays the destruction of Nusaybin town of Mardin province, where she currently lives — a large Kurdish city in Southeast Turkey where a strict curfew was recently imposed. In a tweet posted by the artist and later deleted, Doğan said: “I only painted Turkish flags on destroyed buildings. However, they (the Turkish government) caused this. I only painted it.”

“Paintings fall squarely within the realms of freedom of expression and it is appalling that Zehra received a sentence for a painting that was based on a real photograph showing Nusaybin destroyed and decked in Turkish flags,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Turkey director, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Turkish court bans pro-Kurdish HDP's referendum campaign

Zehra Doğan (23), a registered journalist and member of the Union of Journalists of Turkey, is editor of the feminist Kurdish news agency JINHA, that publishes in English, Turkish and Kurdish languages. All staff in the agency, from photographers to the managing editor, are women.

Zehra’s media activities have continued in the Mardin Women’s Prison where she spent 141 days. Together with other jailed women she created the newspaper Özgür Gündem Zindan. The publication’s name is based on an Istanbul-based newspaper Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda), directed to Kurdish readers and which was subject to consistent persecution and closures.

Doğan is the recipient of the Metin Göktepe Journalism Award in 2015 for her articles about Yazidi women escaping from Islamic State group captivity. The award is named after a journalist who was tortured and murdered in police custody in 1996 in Turkey.

Turkish security forces have been trying to clear southeast towns and cities of PKK militants since July, 2015, when a two-year ceasefire ended, shattering a settlement process launched by the government in late 2012 to end Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish problem and triggering the worst violence seen in the region in two decades.

According to a report by Amnesty International issued in December, over the past year an estimated half a million Kurds were forced to leave their homes as a result of a brutal crackdown by Turkish authorities, which may be considered collective punishment.

Also, a 25-page report, issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last month, condemned the measures taken by the Turkish government in the southeast of Turkey. “Many of the victims simply disappeared in the wholesale destruction of large residential areas carried out by the military, which attacked systematically with heavy weapons, including bombing strikes,” the report said.

“During the crackdown on pro-Kurdish cities in 2015-2016, hundreds of thousands had to flee their hometowns. Everything that was built, created during the peace process, is now being criminalised, torn down. Diyarbakir municipality’s signs have been changed; the Kurdish name for the city Amed is gone. The sign depicts the historic city of Sur, but in reality Sur is in ruins and the government proudly announces new housing plans,” Turkish journalist and author Mehveş Evin told the Weekly. She added that, “multilingual signs of other municipalities are gone. Also, the Roboski statue in memory of 33 civilians bombed by a jet plane back in 2011, the statue in memory of Orhan Doğan, a deceased well-known Kurdish politician, and the lion statues in front of the municipality symbolising ancient Kurdish kingdoms are torn down.”

Last week, a court in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa province banned pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) billboards prepared to promote a “No” campaign on the referendum on constitutional amendments to be held 16 April. The amendments would enable Erdoğan to appoint and dismiss government ministers, take back leadership of the ruling party, and govern until 2029. “The proposal has been widely criticised for lacking adequate checks and balances to protect human rights and rule of law against misuse of power by the office of the president,” a 20 March HRW report on Turkey’s crackdown on Kurdish opposition stated.

“It is not shocking at all. Erdogan wants to — or has to — win the referendum no matter what. And he has all the necessary tools and power for it,” Evin told the Weekly, adding that the AKP government put big pressure on the HDP after the July 2015 elections, before the coup attempt in 2016. “Aside from 100,000+ accused of serving the Gulen Movement and arrested, the harshest purge was exerted on the left, specifically Kurds and the HDP. Over a thousand people working with the HDP are jailed.” 

“So banning the HDP’s referendum campaign is just another attempt to push pro-Kurdish politicians away and criminalise them,” Evin told the Weekly, also revealing that not only the HDP but other parties and movements promoting a “No” vote are being banned.


“Meral Aksener, a politician from MHP who is strongly opposing her leader, is not allowed to run campaigns. Civilians promoting ‘No’ are taken into custody. The main opposition CHP still runs ‘No’ campaigns, but they are being bullied.”

“It’s deeply damaging to Turkey’s democracy that the government is locking up the leaders and MPs of an opposition party that received five million votes in the last election,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. “The fact that the curbs come during a vital national debate about the country’s future is doubly disturbing,” Williamson stated in the HRW report.

The Ankara-appointed governor of the city of Sirnak last week banned a Kurdish song prepared by the HDP for its “No” campaign. The HDP’s campaign song, “Bêjin Na” or “Say No”, was composed by Kurdish singer Şeyda Perinçek and is widely used by Kurdish politicians while campaigning to persuade people to vote “No”.

The lyrics of the song contain slogans like: “No to one flag, no to one nation and no to one language,” referring to phrases often used by President Erdoğan. The police claimed the song could create enmity and unrest among people. In Van and Izmir cities police stopped and confiscated buses and vehicles playing the song on loudspeakers; drivers received a 15,000 Turkish liras ($4,127) fine.

“The banned song ‘Say No’ depends on who sings it, not the message. The song is in Kurdish and I think that’s why it was banned. The people portrayed in the clip are strong, resilient Kurdish people and HDP leaders in jail,” Evin commented.

The HDP — Turkey’s second largest opposition party — co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş, Figen Yüksekdaĝ as well as 11 other parliament members remain in prison, facing terrorism charges. Meanwhile, in Southeast Turkey, the government has taken control of 82 municipalities won by the DBP (Democratic Regions Party), the HDP’s sister party, and suspended their democratically elected co-mayors under suspicion of terrorism offenses, with 90 of them jailed pending trials.

The jailing of party leaders and members of parliament constitutes alarming interference with the party’s parliamentary work and its right to organise its campaign in advance of the referendum, the HRW report said.

Last week, a court ruled for the release of 21 journalists on trial on charges of being members of a group Turkish authorities say was behind the failed coup attempt of July 2016, but none of them were released as new detention warrants were issued immediately after the ruling, saying new investigations have begun. Almost all of them have been imprisoned for over seven months. Some 13 of the 21 journalists are charged of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and “attempting to overthrow the government of the Republic of Turkey or prevent it from doing its duty.” Their trial on terrorism charges will continue, and they are currently detained for seven days of questioning on the new charges.

“The news that 21 journalists were released first came as encouraging news. It was shocking to hear that they were all detained before they left prison. This seems to indicate that there is heavy political interference in court decisions. We can’t prove it, but that’s what it strongly suggests,” Sinclair-Webb commented to the Weekly.

“Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country in 2016 and closed some 178 news outlets and publishing houses by decree in the space of five months, allowing only a handful to reopen. Using emergency powers, the government vastly expands its latitude to close media organisations on broad, ill-defined grounds, to censor the internet, and to investigate internet users without court orders,” a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Turkey report stated last week.

Currently, 141 journalists are jailed in Turkey’s prisons.

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