TedX Leiden University: 12 May

On Sunday 12 May, I will be one of the speakers at TedX Leiden University. The theme is ‘Through a new lens’, the title of my talk is ‘Are you ready to wash your whiteness away?’ I will connect the PKK’s fight against the patriarchy – about which I learned a lot during my time with the Kurdish armed forces – with the struggle against racism in the Netherlands. Come listen!

More info at the site of TedX Leiden University!

Murdered by the state, and remembered till justice is done

The swallows are about to leave their nest. Father and mother swallow encourage their little ones to take the dive into the bigger world, despite all the dangers out there. Every now and then, I see the adult swallows try to scare off the cats that come too close to the nest. It’s their way to give their offspring as much chance in life as possible. I go take a look at the nest a few times a day, and wait a bit. I’d love to see the little ones take their first flight.

Palamutbükü, Datca peninsula – which is where the nest is, located in a corner of the ceiling of the hotel where I am staying for a short holiday – is paradise. I look at the birds, I swim in the sea, read a book, have a glass of wine at night. And of course I follow the news.

Another state murder

The sorrow over the loss of 301 lives in the Soma mine isn’t even over yet and then the news comes in of two other deaths inflicted by the state, this time in Istanbul: Ugur Kurt and Ayhan Yilmaz. The incident in which they were killed was connected to another state murder: Berkin Elvan, who eventually died on 11 March of this year, after having been in a coma for months after being hit by a teargas canister in June last year, is remembered in his neighbourhood every Thursday. The police could have decided to back off, but they didn’t.

‘Will you organize a ceremony for every death?’, Erdogan asked in a speech, adding: ‘They died, and that’s it.’ No, sir: they did not just ‘die’, they were killed. Killed by the state. The mine workers because of negligence, the otherss because of brutal police violence, which is getting even more out of control because of impunity.

For average citizens who die of natural causes, no mass commemorations are held. Not right after they die, not on every anniversary. Remembering them is a private matter. But for the ones the state killed, it’s different.

Until there is justice for the victims

On 13 May 2015, people will remember the 301 deaths of the Soma mine, not only in grief but in anger too. On 22 May 2015, people will publicly remember Ugur Kurt and Ayhan Yilmaz. Soon, on 3 June 2014, the first deadly victim of last year’s Gezi protests, Abdullah Cömert, will be remembered. After that Ethem Sarisülük (14 June), Medeni Yildirim (28 June), Ali Ismail Korkaz (10 July), Ahmet Atakan (9 September) and Hasan Ferit Gedik (30 September).

These commemorations will go on until the day that there is justice for the victims. And it doesn’t look like that day is getting any nearer. The court cases that have started against the policemen who are responsible for the individual deaths over the last year don’t promise serious results. And who truly believes that the bosses of Soma Holding will be held responsible for the death of their workers, or that any government official, like energy minister Taner Yildiz, will step down?

Musa Anter, Hrant Dink

History doesn’t inspire confidence either. Turkey still remembers countless murders that everybody knows were committed by the (deep) state but the truth of which has never officially come out.

On 9 January we remember Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan, Leyla Söylemez, murdered on that day in 2013.

On 19 January, we remember Hrant Dink, 2007.

On 5 May, the Dersim massacres of 1937 and 1938.

On 6 May, Deniz Gezmis, 1972.

On 2 July the victims of the Sivas massacre, 1993.

On 6 and 7 September we remember the Istanbul pogrom of 1955.

On 20 September we remember Musa Anter, murdered in 1992.

On 28 September we remember little Ceylan Önkol, murdered in 2009.

On 24 October, we remember Ugur Mumcu, killed in 1993.

On 21 November, little Ugur Kaymaz, 2004.

On 28 December, we remember the 34 deaths of the Roboski massacre, 2011.

The list is close to endless. The Baran Tursun Foundation has been constantly updating a list since 2007 and the list now contains 157 names. Fraksiyon has a list of children killed by the state, starting in 1988.

Uprising, terrorism, civil coup

State murders go back to the early days of the republic, when opponents of Atatürk lost their lives. Murders have continued ever since and the state always had an excuse. In Dersim there was an ‘uprising’ (only there wasn’t: the people tried in vain to defend themselves against the mass slaughter they knew was coming), in the Southeast there was ‘terrorism’ (although it was a matter of human rights from the beginning), during the Gezi protests it was a ‘civil coup’ that needed to be put down.

It shows that, although many people call Erdogan ‘Ottoman’, the Prime Minister is in fact very much a child of the Turkish Republic. Under his authority and to keep him in power, citizens are murdered – despite all the excuses, and that is always the reason behind all the state murders of almost the last hundred years. Whoever was in power, Atatürk, Erdogan, or anybody else.

What is happening in Turkey now makes clear that all the so called democratization packages and policies are nothing but superficial. I knew that already, and it’s sad to see it confirmed again and again. I will only believe democratization has started when all these countless murders get solved, if those responsible get punished if still alive, if the state apologizes sincerely and if the history books get changed.

Then, the state will finally do what it is supposed to do: not protect itself, but its citizens. An important task, because it’s a dangerous world out there. No swallow hands its children over to the cats.

Coal mine disaster in Soma, western Turkey

I have updated several radio shows about the mine disaster in Soma, Turkey. Listen back here:

13 May, Dichtbij Nederland, Radio5, Netherlands. The interview starts at 13.20 (scroll down for the podcast).

14 May, The Pat Kenny Show, Newstalk, Ireland. The interview starts at 17.51.

14 May, De Ochtend KRO/NCRV, Radio1, Netherlands.

I couldn’t find the interview for a London based radio station on 14 May.

Since I was not on the spot (I was shortly visiting the Netherlands when the disaster happened) I have not written about what happened at the mine. As you know, I usually try to find an angle that others in Turkey don’t write about, and it struck me how much the Soma disaster resembles the Roboski massacre: both lay bare state structures.

Read about it in this blog post:
The mine killed the people of Soma. Like the planes killed the people of Roboski.

And in this article on Beaconreader (you can subscribe for 5 USD per month, for which you get an exclusive story from me every week and on top of that access to all Beacon writers):
‘Soma mine disaster makes us re-live Roboski massacre’ 

Defending Erdogan’s rights

Sivas massacre, Ergenekon trial, Uludere, the Van earthquake and its aftermath, press freedom, May Day celebrations, KCK trials, the Fenerbahce court case, Berkin Elvan, Medeni Yildirim, the countless ‘unsolved murders’ in the southeast, and the Constitutional Court: the head of the Bar Associations, Metin Feyzioglu, spoke out against a wide range of injustices in Turkey’s present and past. Erdogan got extremely upset and didn’t hide it. He had better think again: he may need people like Feyzioglu one day.

As a foreign journalist, in the last couple of months I have been spam mailed several times by a huge group of Fenerbahce fans. They send all foreign journalists in Turkey thousands of emails about the unjust treatment their sports club is getting, and for some reason they think annoying foreign journalists incessantly helps to get attention for their case. First time ever I heard of the Fenerbahce base. They speak out when injustice is done to them, but not when it’s done to others.

Ergekenon trials

The CHP has spoken out time and time again against the Ergenekon trials and against the violations of justice that were obviously part of the trials. Kemal Kilicdaroglu visited suspects in prison. Did he ever visit jailed KCK suspects? Or speak passionately on behalf of the families of the people who were murdered in the nineties and whose murders are still unsolved? No he did not.

Did the BDP ever defend the highest military leaders on trial in Ergenekon, or against injustices done to Fenerbahce? No. They have been vocal during the aftermath of the Van earthquake, and they speak out about the Uludere/Roboski massacre, but not about injustices done to their opponents.

In short, Turkey is full of groups who advocate mostly their own rights. The bar association, in the person of Metin Feyzioglu, showed itself differently.

In Feyzioglu’s speech, not only the government is reminded of its responsibilities, but others too had a mirror held up to them. The army, for example, must have applauded the bar head’s criticism of the several trials pending against them, but I hope they realized that by naming the Uludere massacre and other ‘unsolved murders’ Feyzioglu was addressing the army too.

Into trouble one day

This makes the speech apolitical. The bar association’s head would have been engaging in politics if he had only spoken out against one particular injustice. He did not: he mentioned so many, done to so many different groups in society, that he rose above politics – which perfectly suits a lawyer, of course.

Erdogan should applaud this. He may himself get into trouble one day. He and his party may be no longer in power and his political opponents may want to get back at him. What if a trial against Erdogan and other AKP politicians is opened because of the corruption allegations? What if those trials become a political theatre? Who, besides AKP supporters, is going to speak out on behalf of Erdogan if his rights are violated in a court case? The only one he might be able to count on is Feyzioglu, or a future bar association head. That wouldn’t be political either, but purely a matter of defending Erdogan’s rights. Will Erdogan then feel ashamed of his behaviour towards Feyzioglu and apologize for it?

Berkin, and: the exception murder

How devastating to again wake up to a state murder. The victim this time is Berkin Elvan, fifteen years old. During the Gezi protests in Istanbul last year, he went out to buy bread for his family. He was hit in the head by a teargas canister shot by the police. Taken to hospital, slipped into a coma and now, 269 days later, he passed away.

Berkin Elvan
Berkin Elvan

This latest state murder reminds me of other murders the state is directly responsible for and that happened during my time in Turkey. Hrant Dink, January 2007, less than a month after my arrival in the country. I can not put into words what a huge impression this horrible event made on me. The days I spent in front of Agos with all the people mourning, the massive funeral, and in the years afterwards the utterly shameful way the state delibarately failed to properly investigate the killing – a disgrace continuing up until this day.

Even more of an impact made the Roboski massacre. I learnt about it right after I woke up on 29 December 2011, a few hours after the tragedy in which the state bombed 34 citizens, most of them underaged, to death. It was done on purpose, let’s not forget to mention that. In the more than two years ever since, I have visited Roboski time and time again, and have become increasingly shocked by the mass murder and the way the state shoves it under the carpet.

Hrant Dink
Hrant Dink

And now Berkin Elvan. Yesterday the news was that his weight dropped to only a sixteen kilo’s. Fetherlight for a 15 year old. Not enough to hold on to life. ‘It is not Allah who took my son from he, but Tayyip Erdogan’, Berkin’s mother Gülsüm stated while crying her heart out. And we know already that those responsible – the highest in rank being Prime Minister Erdogan – will not be investigated, let alone be prosecuted and punished. The state will get away. There will be no justice for little Berkin, nor for his family.

In the close to one century the Turkish Republic has existed now, the state has not been held accountable for any of the thousands of murders it committed. From the early days of the republic, the state has ruthlessly killed to protect the ones in power and has gotten away with it, every single time, without exception. The ones that opposed Atatürk, the rebel leader Sheikh Said, the citizens of Kocgiri and Dersim, the dozens who died in prison after the 1980 coup, the victims of Sivas massacre in 1993 and of the pogroms against Greeks in 1955, the journalist Ugur Mumcu and writer and intellectual Musa Anter – the list is endless and knows no exceptions to the rule that the murders are all unsolved while we all know who did it.

Roboski massacre
Roboski massacre

But one day, the exception murder has to come. One of the future state murders – and really, don’t doubt for a second that more will follow – or a murder already committed will be investigated properly. Because Turkey has to change, it can just not be that the system will get away with cruelty in the length of times. The citizens of Turkey are increasingly becoming aware of the true face of the state and are demanding justice louder every single day. It’s impossible this won’t one day lead to the fall of the system.

One state murder will be the first to get thoroughly investigated. One representative of the state will be the first to face a judge and end up in jail for committed crimes. One family will be the first to experience what justice feels like and be strengthened by it in dealing with the pain of loss. That investigation, that prison sentence, that strengthening will then be the first of a long series in which the state gives account. Not only families but the whole country will start to heal. Please, let this day come soon. Turkey desperately needs it.

Berkin Elvan, like all the ones before you and after you, you will never ever be forgotten.

Update: click here for a list of children killed by the state since 1989.

Censorship is freedom

‘In my view’, President Gül tweeted, ‘in principal no freedom should be curbed. Everybody who wants to should be able to surf the internet freely’. That was on 28 May 2011. It may give some people hope that Gül will use his veto right to stop the new internet law from taking effect. But I doubt it.

The bill passed parliament last Wednesday and caused a wave of criticism both inside Turkey and abroad. The biggest problems with the new measures: bureaucrats can now block access to sites without a court order (and you need to go to court to try to get the decision reversed), they can block access to specific pages on sites, several techniques to get around the new regulations will be illegal, and last but not least: the privacy of internet users is violated because data about online activities of web users can be stored for two years and be made available to the authorities upon request.

Read more about the bill in this article.

Technicalities

Human Rights Watch has now started a campaign to urge President Gül to use his veto to stop the law coming into effect. Of course it is worth a try, but I don’t think Gül will do so. He has been called upon to use his veto before, for example to not sign the bill that bans medical professionals in certain circumstances from helping wounded people (read: protestors), and earlier a bill to re-organize the education system. He never did.

Gül has only rarely used his veto power  since he became president in 2007, and mostly over technicalities concerning laws that don’t arouse any public debate, like a law concerning rules for accountants and financial consultants in 2008, and in 2009 a bill about social security. The last time he reportedly used it was last December, when he rejected proposals PM Erdogan made for a cabinet reshuffle and Erdogan had to come up with new names for several posts – but this veto is unconfirmed and doesn’t concern any law.

But how then can the president not veto a law that restricts internet freedom when he so openly stated he thinks everybody should be able to surf the internet freely? First, it seems the president doesn’t use his veto power on matters of principle but more on technicalities. But second, it could be that he actually thinks this new law does not curb any freedoms, and in fact enhances freedoms.

Adultery in secret

At least, that is how the government explains the bill. It has stressed several times that the bill is not increasing censorship and violating privacy, but on the contrary is protecting people’s privacy. How? Access to sites and pages can be blocked if people’s privacy is being violated. An example often used (not by the government though) is the infamous ‘sex tapes’ that caused the fall of several politicians from opposition parties CHP and MHP in 2010 and 2011. If you explain the law that way, you can claim to be pro freedom on one hand and at the same time introduce restrictions.

Not that I am convinced, by the way: it’s like the AKP government standing up for people’s right to commit adultery in secret. And one of the first bans is already in force: access was blocked to a YouTube video allegedly broadcasting a conversation of the Prime Minister’s daughter negotiating the purchase of a villa. Many people don’t doubt the law will be used to try to prevent leaking of all kinds of videos and phone conversations that get the government into trouble, and even articles.

Turkey is a country of mind-boggling contradictions. I have seen many in the years since I have been here. Leftists being ultra nationalists. Feminists being against broader rights for women. Democrats being in favour of military coups. And now possibly freedom advocates approving serious internet restrictions. To fathom the line of thinking of these people is an intriguing way to understand Turkey better.

Pinar Selek

If you read this website regularly, you know there are many crazy court cases going on in Turkey. The prime example of the state of justice Turkey is in, however, is the case of sociologist, writer, human rights activist and feminist Pinar Selek. She has been in a Kafkaesk battle with Turkey’s court system for fourteen years now,  over involvement in a bombing that never even happened.

Pinar Selek, 41 years old, lives in France now, where she works as an academic. She cannot go back to Turkey, as the court case against her that started in 1998 is still not over. She is very active in Europe in human rights defence work and doing pretty well, I heard from one of her friends, but she’s also tired. Tired of fighting against a system that just doesn’t let go of her. Missing her friends and family, missing her country, not being able to continue the important work she had dedicated herself to in Turkey.

What happened? It all started in 1998, with an explosion in the Spice Bazar in Istanbul, in which seven people died and more than 120 were wounded. Pinar Selek was arrested in July of that year, accused of involvement in what the prosecutor said was a bombing. She spent two and a half years in jail, and was only released after experts concluded the explosion was not caused by a bomb but by the accidental ignition of a gas cylinder.

Case closed?

No, case not closed. The case against Selek continued, and in December 2005 the prosecutor opened a new trial against her for the same non-existent bombing. Acquittal followed six months later.

Case closed?

No, case not closed. In March 2009, the Court of Appeals requested a review of the case and reversed the acquittal. Followed by a new acquittal, in May of the same year.

Case closed?

No, case not closed. The Court of Appeals objected again in February 2010. The case had to be reviewed by a lower court. The lower court refused the review, ruled that the acquittal was legitimately and fairly given and upheld Selek’s acquittal. It was February 2011 by then.

Case closed?

No, case not closed. In a hearing last month the lower court decided to drop its refusal to review the case and proceed with reopening the trial against Selek. The refusal to review was, the court claims, contrary to procedure. The first hearing of the re-opened trial is today in Istanbul. Pinar Selek and five other already acquitted suspects in the case of the non-existent bombing won’t be there. Her supporters will be. I hope Pinar gets some strength out of all the support she gets.

Why? Why does the state keep chasing after a woman who they say was involved in a bombing that never even happened? That is, so it’s assumed, because of her academic research. It focuses on groups that are excluded from society. In the year before she was arrested, she decided to focus on Kurds, after she had been doing research on, for example, transsexuals and street children. That time frame, the nineties, was ultra-violent in the southeast of Turkey, but Pinar Selek decided to take up the dangerous job of talking to different sides in the conflict to investigate what exactly was going on.

And that’s what got her into trouble. She talked to the PKK as well. After her arrest in 1998, her research was confiscated, she was tortured in prison to reveal her sources, and fake police reports were made up to incriminate her. The ‘bomb’ was just a way to get her. That there was no bomb is just a minor detail to the justice system. It was not about the bomb to begin with, it was about silencing a young, promising, brave academic and human rights activist.

It can’t be predicted what the outcome of the court case today will be. Maybe Selek will now be acquitted ‘according to procedure’. If so, of course she still cannot feel safe – she was acquitted before. Her friend in Istanbul told me that some time ago, they were walking on the street in Paris and Pinar was often looking over her shoulder, afraid of being followed. She is constantly on her guard. It must indeed be deeply traumatizing to be caught up in such a mind-blowing case for years and years, never knowing when the nightmare will end and if you will ever have your life back.

The other scenario is that the case will continue and that she will eventually be sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole.

Dutch PM Rutte con-gra-tu-lates Erdogan

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, was in Turkey last week with a business mission. We, Dutch journalists in Turkey, were invited to have a chat with him, and with the brand new Minister of Foreign Trade (the new government was installed recently, but Rutte lead the previous government as well). Rutte also had a meeting with PM Erdogan, and of course we wanted to know more about it. A colleague of mine brought up human rights. Of course, Rutte said, he brought that up. But to be honest, I am still flabbergasted by the way he did it.

Of course, Rutte said, I told the Turkish Prime Minister that we are concerned about human rights. But, he said with a happy serious face: ‘I also congratulated the Turkish Prime Minister on the fact that Turkey will allow Kurdish as an official language in court rooms.’ I brought up press freedom, but no, that wasn’t discussed. ‘But it’s a very important issue, there are many journalists in jail’, I tried again. True, Rutte said, but of course, you can’t raise every subject.

Gestures and an intonation

So, time was limited, I understand that. But then, of all the human rights subjects he could have brought up, he chose to congratulate Erdogan on a step he is taking in the Kurdish issue that hasn’t even been taken yet. Let that sink in for a minute.

While there have been at least 700 Kurdish prisoners (mostly political prisoners) on an indefinite hunger strike for almost two months now demanding basic human rights, while Erdogan doesn’t even acknowledge there is a hunger strike, while the government again focuses mainly on a military ‘solution’ to the Kurdish issue, while children of this country die (both soldiers and PKK fighters), while the arrests in the KCK case are going on, while there are dozens of journalists in prison, the Dutch PM decides to con-gra-tu-late Erdogan on a policy change that the Justice Minister mentioned but that hasn’t even been brought before parliament yet.

I can still picture Rutte’s face when he told us about the congrats. Raising his eyebrows, and using gestures and an intonation that suggested: let’s not forget that also good steps are being taken in the handling of the Kurdish issue. But he can say human rights were brought up, so he did his duty. I bet Erdogan laughed his ass off after Rutte left. Oh these Dutchmen, anything for trade!

A vaguely promised breadcrumb

I don’t know if Rutte is really this much out of touch with the realities of the human rights situation in Turkey in general and with the Kurdish issue in particular. Of course, it would be good if Kurdish were allowed in court rooms, but does he realize that this is how Erdogan fools the Turkish electorate? The reality is that such steps are like breadcrumbs to a hungry child that is entitled to have a full meal, but the government makes it seem as if a full meal was given and the child is still nagging. And, let’s not forget: the bill to allow Kurdish in court rooms (one of the demands of the people on hunger strike) hasn’t even been sent to parliament yet. It’s not a given, but a vaguely promised breadcrumb.

When I travel in the southeast of Turkey and I tell people I am from the Netherlands, I always get the question why the European Union isn’t raising its voice louder on the situation of the Kurds. I usually say (among other things) that the economic situation in Europe makes the continent more concerned about itself than about others and about human rights.

It would be great if Rutte just acknowledged that. If he just said: ‘Sorry, the Netherlands is in a bad economic situation, this is a trade mission, Turkey has economic potential for our companies, that’s why I’m here. Human rights are just not our priority now.’ Because that’s how it is. Bringing up human rights this way, actually congratulating Erdogan on how he handles the Kurdish issue and that way misusing the Kurdish issue for business and night sleep purposes, is even worse than not bringing it up at all.

I am still a journalist

‘It seems to me you are not totally objective’, an editor emails me. I nearly explode. She is right of course – the subject I propose to write about reveals what I find important – but she means it differently. She means I’m not being journalistic. That I’m not looking for balance in the article I want to write. That I’m being an activist instead of a journalist.

It concerned a story about Kurdish language classes. As of this school year, taking Kurdish language classes is possible at state schools in Turkey, as an elective course starting from fifth grade, whenchildren are eleven years old. The magazine I proposed the story to wanted to have quotes from children in the article too. Kurdish kids of course, but also Turkish ones, because ‘the other side’ had to be heard too. I thought that was not a good idea. What can a Turkish kid really say about this subject, indoctrinated as they are at school with Turkish nationalism? Also, I emailed back, this is not a matter of Kurds versus Turks, but a matter of human rights. After which the ‘not totally objective’ email rolled into my inbox.

As if I don’t know what I am talking about. After six years of journalism in Turkey, always focused on human rights and by now specialized in the Kurdish issue, I claim to know more than the average person about the issue. Especially since I moved to Diyarbakir, the biggest city in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast of Turkey. I talk to experts and read reports, but most of all I travel in Kurdish areas and talk to the people in even the smallest villages.

I have become so much wiser by doing so, that by now I feel secure enough to also speak out. I do that by writing human stories that counter the violent image the conflict evokes. By now and then publishing op-eds. By choosing certain angles, by taking up controversial subjects, and by blogging and tweeting my opinion.

An open, democratic society

In Dutch journalism, taking a stand is unusual. Columnists are hired for it, but journalists, they write their stories nicely following the rules. Which is not that hard in the Netherlands. The country has accessible state institutions, and civilians and politicians who don’t have to be afraid of ending up in jail after expressing a spicy, controversial or totally non-mainstream opinion. Newspapers and weekly news magazines have a political colour, but they separate facts and opinion, and show their colour mostly by their choice of the news and the angle. There are exceptions, of course.

Which is quite the opposite in the country where I work. Unlike in the Netherlands, where papers are published by newspaper companies, most of the Turkish media are owned by big multi-facetted corporations. Media conglomerates also own construction companies, mining companies, and even tea plantations. The paper doesn’t have a journalistic, but an economic goal.

Because in Turkey economic interests are directly related to political ones, it’s important to stay within the boundaries of the existing political reality. Result: nationalism and polarisation set the tone in the articles. Diverging from the government stance is not smart, because you will for example miss out on government tenders. One of the most controversial issues is the Kurdish issue. Prime Minister Erdogan threatens papers openly and shamelessly: whoever ‘supports terrorism’ can count on measures being taken. And ‘support’  means writing about the issue from a Kurdish perspective. Kurdish media and journalists know what it means to colour outside the lines: huge fines, publication bans and prison sentences.

Giving a voice

But for me as a foreign journalist, Erdogan’s threats do not apply. He is not going to make serious trouble for a journalist from an EU country, of course. So, much as my opinion about the Kurdish issue is disliked by the Turkish government, I can express it freely.

And I can do the basic journalistic work that is not appreciated when it’s done by Turkish or Kurdish journalists, or in which the average newspaper-reading Turk is not interested: writing down the stories of ordinary Kurds. Their daily lives, their past, their choices, their losses, their pain. And yes, in the book that I will write about the Kurdish issue, the Turkish pain will also have a place – but doesn’t that get a lot of attention already? Isn’t it the task of a journalist to try to give a voice to the people who are in general not heard?

Of course I want to put those stories to paper as balanced as possible. But Turkey is not an open, democratic society like the one I grew up in and in which I learned all the journalism ethics and rules. That lack of democracy makes it hard sometimes to find balance and to strictly follow journalistic principles. Controversial subjects that nobody wants to talk about with their name used as source for fear of reprisals from the state. A government which almost by definition doesn’t answer repeated requests to give their side of the story.

When you can’t follow these journalism rules, it often means you can’t publish. Frustrating, because that’s how stories remain untold and that’s of course exactly how the Turkish government sometimes wants it. What is balanced about that? Let me give an extreme example: what if you could work as freely as a foreign freelance journalist in Turkey, but then in North-Korea, would you keep stories unpublished because people only want to share their experiences of human rights violations anonymously, and because the government refuses to react? Would that be a defendable journalistic choice?

Human rights glasses

I look for balance, for nuance, for the full story, and try to do that with as much journalistic integrity as possible. But of course, I’m pushed into boxes anyway. The ‘terrorist whore’ that was recently expressed towards me, I could easily dismiss because it’s just too pathetic, just like the often heard simplistic accusation that I am ‘anti-Turkish’. Also the Turkish friend who told me I was becoming pretty ‘pro-Kurdish’ judges me through black and white Turkish glasses. I am not anti-Turkish, but also not pro-Kurdish. I am not a part of the conflict; neither Turkish nor Kurdish blood is running through my veins, so you cannot define me in those terms.  I am an outsider. A journalist wearing human rights glasses, specialized in the Kurdish issue.

And in Dutch media, that’s okay. Because there does exist Dutch journalists who speak out, and they are not shoved aside because they are ‘activist’. Karin Spaink for example, who speaks out about privacy and the Iinternet. Linda Polman, who is eager to express her strong opinion about the UN and the international aid industry. And Hassnae Bouazza, who speaks about the Arabic world with all the knowledge she has of it. They know what they are talking about, and that’s why they are being asked their opinion.

And my view is not clouded and activist. Even though, because of my concerns for human rights, I feel connected to the faith of Kurds and Turkish society as a whole, I do guard my profession. I am still a journalist.

Fréderike Geerdink, who works for several Dutch and international media, is the only foreign correspondent based in Diyarbakir. Currently she is holding a crowd funding campaign to finance her book about the Kurdish issue. Step 1: watch the video!

This blog post was published on a big journalism website in the Netherlands, De Nieuwe Reporter (The New Reporter).

Hunger strike in Turkey: will people die in vain?

What’s going on?
Since 12 September an increasing number of inmates in Turkish prisons have been on a hunger strike. Recently, on 15 October, a huge new group of prisoners joined in, exactly how many is not clear, but at least 628.

Who are these prisoners?
Kurds, mostly political prisoners. Many of them are imprisoned (on remand) for the KCK case, but people who have been in jail for much longer are also joining. Let me mention especially today that even the imprisoned elected mayor of Van, Bekir Kaya, has joined the hunger strike. His city was hit by an earthquake exactly one year ago today.

What is the aim of the hunger strike?
There are three demands. 1. PKK leader Öcalan must be accepted as part of the political solution to the Kurdish issue, 2. Education in mother tongue, 3. Guarantees for the Kurdish identity in the Turkish constitution.

Why do they choose hunger strike? Isn’t that what you do when you really have no options left?
Yes, but the people joining feel that that is exactly the point the situation in Turkey has come to. Many of the prisoners were not involved in any crime, but fought peacefully for the Kurdish cause. They are for example journalists, mayors, municipal workers, students, union workers and academics. But it is not because of their own situation that these people started a hunger strike. Their own release or acquittal in the court cases against them is not part of their demands.

They feel the political process in Turkey towards a solution for the Kurdish issue has come to a stalemate. Öcalan has not been permitted any meetings with his lawyers since 27 July 2011, and has only seen his brother once, recently. He is the most important Kurdish leader in Turkey, and the Kurdish movement feels (and I agree) that there can be no solution to the Kurdish issue without him being part of it. But if he is not even allowed to see his family or his lawyers, if earlier negotiations between the state and the PKK have been broken off and seem unlikely to be resumed any time soon, if year-long demands to talk to Öcalan are not heard, what can the Kurdish movement do? They want to stick to peaceful action, and yes, in that case a hunger strike is the option you turn to when you feel no other options are left.

Also when it comes to the other demands of Kurds, there is no or hardly any progress being made. Yes, there is ‘Kurdish as an elective class’ now in state schools, but that is not what Kurds want, and it is also not what will help preserve the language. And the government doesn’t seem to have any intention to broaden language rights in education. A good indication of that is the fact that YÖK (the state controlled Board for Higher Education) suddenly cut the amount of master students at the Faculty of Living Languages (read: Kurdish) at Mardin University from 500 to 250. (Read a blog post about it here, on my site about the Kurdish issue.) This university is supposed to educate the Kurdish teachers of the future. Besides that, in every political party there is strong resistance to full education in Kurdish. The topic cannot even be debated. And by the way, talking Kurdish in school is still strictly forbidden – only the kids who follow Kurdish classes (2 hours a week) are allowed to speak it, and only during that class.

And when it comes to guarantees for the Kurdish identity in the constitution: no progress there whatsoever. A parliamentary commission with all parties in parliament is working on a draft constitution, but they only agree on trivial things. Why this guarantee is so important? The things the government has done for Kurds, are very tiny steps in the first place, but they mean even less without any guarantee. If Erdogan wants it, he can close the state Kurdish TV (TRT6), close the Living Languages department at Mardin university, cancel the Kurdish elective classes, etcetera. Not that many Kurds will miss TRT6, but the point is: Kurds don’t want small close to meaningless presents from the government, they want their fundamental rights for once and for all, so that nobody can ever take them away again.

All the politics they have been made for all these years, have only landed them in jail. So where can you go from there?

Doesn’t sound like these demands are any time soon met, does it?
True.

So when some hunger strikers started on 12 September, it’s not much longer till people will die?
It sure looks like that. Some seem to be in serious health condition already. But the prisoners on hunger strike don’t accept visits anymore, not from their families and not from their lawyers. It would ask too much from them physically to come to the visitors or the lawyers room to meet anybody. They need to stay put as much as possible.

And how does the government react?
Not at all.

And the people in Turkey?
Most of them don’t know about it. The TV and papers are not or hardly reporting it. Turkish channels do report about it when there is a demonstration, when people keep vigil, march or sit-in to support the hunger strikers (and there are a few of them every day!), but only when it gets out of hand (usually because the police starts using tear gas) so they can show ‘violent Kurds’ on TV. That’s how Kurds are framed in general in the media and it’s no different now with the hunger strike. So people don’t know, or they don’t give a damn.

So what’s the point of it all? Turks don’t know or don’t care, the government doesn’t react and the demands are unrealistic. People will die in vain!
That’s how you could think. But that is certainly not how it is perceived in the Kurdish movement. For close to thirty years now, the Kurdish struggle has claimed many lives. In the eighties and nineties, Kurds died, and also held hunger strikes, to demand things that seemed impossible at the time. Now Kurds are no longer called mountain Turks, the extrajudicial killings that happened all the time in the nineties are over, the existence of Kurds is being recognized. The people who fought and died before, either while carrying arms or committing themselves to peaceful struggle, contributed to what has been reached in thirty years. When in time the current demands of the Kurdish movement are met, the people on hunger strike now have contributed to that achievement.

At a sit in in Diyarbakir last week, I shortly talked to independent (BDP) MP Aysel Tugluk. I asked her why the hunger strikers have demands that will definitely not be met before they give their lives. She said: ‘We don’t formulate our demands based on what the government may be willing to give. We have our demands and they just need to be met.’