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Fighting with words

“I explained as thoroughly as I could that one of the words was the name of my lands, the other of my hometown, and that Newroz is a festivity that Kurds have celebrated for thousands of years. At this point I realized that the regime was not only pursuing physical warfare with tanks and batons but had also wagered a war against words.”

The journalist and human rights activist Nurcan Baysal writes about Turkey’s goal to psychologically and physically eliminate Kurdistan and its people and culture. This goal is a battle on many fronts, not in the least on social media where people are arrested and imprisoned daily (even more so since a new law was implemented in 2020) due to a tweet or an update on Facebook.

Credits Text: Nurcan Baysal September 17 2020

In spring of 2016, I was called to Diyarbakır Police Headquarter’s Anti-Terrorism unit. They were requesting I give a deposition as part of an investigation. They had put together a file with 10-13 of my social media posts and opened an investigation against me for "spreading terrorist propaganda." The prosecutor had latched on to certain words in my social media posts and decided based on these words that I was “making terrorist propaganda.” One of the words was Kurdistan. The police officer who took my statement at the station asked me why I used this word and what I meant by it. But the word Kurdistan had not been prohibited by any law. Over the years many politicians, including President Erdoğan, had used the word Kurdistan in their speeches. Another word that the investigation focused on was Amed, the Kurdish name of my hometown Diyarbakır. The word Amed was also in regular use throughout the city, including on municipality billboards. Yet another word was Newroz, the spring festival of Kurds. The police officer at the station kept asking me why I used each word and what I meant by them. So I explained at length that one was the name of my homeland, the other the name of the region in which we live, and the last one our spring festival we had been celebrating for millennia… That day I thought to myself that this war that had begun involved not just tanks, cannons, and guns, but also an attack against words.

I was not mistaken. Starting in the fall of 2016, the elected mayors of Kurdish cities were thrown in jail and replaced with government appointees. The first task of these appointees was to erase Kurdish symbols and words from Kurdish cities. Monolingual Turkish signs replaced our bilingual Turkish-Kurdish ones. The names of our streets, parks, theaters, squares, and even the names of our towns were changed. Everything was Turkified and cleansed of Kurdishness. The name Amed on the municipality sign was changed to Diyarbakır, while the name Dersim was switched with Tunceli. They began to rob us of our cities, memories, language, and words, one by one.

As Kurds, we have been able to live in peace in Turkey for just two years, between 2013-2015. For just 2 years were we spared funeral processions leaving our homes; for just 2 years we could speak Kurdish and our words without censorship. The fighting that broke out when the ceasefire between the Republic of Turkey and PKK came to an end in July 2015 was the most violent of the past 40 years. After 40 years, the war had left the mountains and descended to the cities; war and death had come to our doorsteps. The period of conflict that started in 2015, which some called “urban warfare” and some Kurds called “The Big War” paralyzed life in Kurdistan. People were dying and our cities were being razed. There was a de facto state of emergency in Kurdish cities. Months-long military curfews were being declared, cities were being bombed. In some cities the dead could not be buried, remaining on the ground for days. And yet, a large part of Turkish media was ignoring what was happening in Kurdish cities. It was hard to get information out, but as a handful of Kurdish journalists and writers living in the region, we were still trying to report on the events. After a while though, they started censoring our writings. All of a sudden, the “Kurdish problem” turned into “the terrorism problem,” and people like me who wrote about the Kurdish problem and violations of human rights became “supporters of terrorism.” We had regressed 40 years. Once again there was no such thing as a Kurd, only people whose shoes made a crunching “kart-kurt” sound when they walked in snow. There was no Kurdish problem, only a terrorism problem. A place called Kurdistan had never existed. Not just the media, but also publishers, art galleries, and theatres began to censor works dealing with the Kurdish problem and Kurds. A people that make up a quarter of Turkey, 20 million people, 20 million citizens, were once again thrown into a dark well as the country pretended they simply did not exist. Life continued as if there were no curfews, no violence and ruin in Kurdish cities, no fire that followed the war, as if each day did not bring more dead bodies. We were a big NOTHING. These days, it’s quite challenging for a book on the Kurdish problem to be published, for a theater performance to be staged, or for an exhibition to open.

To explain what was happening in our cities, the only channel left to us was social media. It was during this time that many Kurdish journalists and writers, me included, began to rely heavily on social media to report on the fighting, destruction, and human rights violations in Kurdish cities. I was trying to give live updates through social media about how many bombs were dropped each day on my hometown Diyarbakır, how many people lost their lives, our dead who were trapped in restricted areas, or the people taking refuge in basements. I can say that I used social media actively and intensely during 2015-2016, the period in which urban warfare and human rights violations were at their peak. This activity attracted attention, and after a period of time I was targeted with various social media attacks like hate speech, racism, criminalization, and defamation, smear campaigns and other forms of persecution. Investigations involving my social media posts also began piling up.

Meanwhile, an atmosphere of relative freedom prevailed in Western Turkey. As long as they never touched the Kurdish problem or demonstrated solidarity with the Kurds, a Turk could avoid trouble. That is until the coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

State of Emergency Arrives

After the coup attempt against the government on July 15, 2016, on July 20, 2016 a state of emergency was declared throughout Turkey. Hundreds of people were detained and arrested. Thousands of doctors, teachers, judges, prosecutors, academics, police officers, and military personnel lost their jobs over charges of “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding and abetting a terrorist organization.” Most fundamental rights and liberties were curtailed. During the state of emergency, which lasted two years, there were 36 decrees issued that carried the power of law, called KHKs in Turkish (Kanun Hükmünde Kararname). Over 130,000 people lost their jobs due to these KHKs. Numerous institutions and establishments were shut down also by the KHKs. Journalism especially experienced extraordinary repression. 178 newspapers, TV and radio stations and news agencies were shut down due to charges that they had ties to terrorist organizations, and their assets were seized. Civil society was nearly wiped out. Around 2000 foundations and associations were shut down. While exact numbers are unknown, about 200,000 people were banned from leaving the country and passport restrictions began. Turkey turned into a giant prison.

Once again, it was the Kurdish cities that were most affected by the state of emergency. In the Kurdish cities, all protests, meetings, and announcements were banned. Most NGOs in Kurdish cities were shut down. Among these were women’s organizations, children’s welfare organizations, non-governmental institutions working on Kurdish language and culture, day cares operating in Kurdish, organizations fighting poverty, environmental organizations, and even soccer fan clubs. Kurdish media was almost entirely shut down, including Kurdish children’s television channels. The only newspaper in Turkey to be published in Kurdish, Azadiya Welat, was closed, its employees either arrested or forced to leave the country. Many Kurdish journalists were jailed.

Now it was time to come after Kurdish politicians. Kurdish mayors were jailed and replaced by government appointees. Both the co-chairs and parliamentarians of HDP, Peoples’ Democratic Party, which is the political party of the Kurdish political movement, were arrested. Some of them had to leave the country. Overall, around 2500 Kurdish politicians were arrested and about ten thousand members of HDP were detained. Almost all political channels were denied to Kurds.

During the state of emergency, censorship began to seep into all aspects of our lives. Social media was also affected by this. We don’t know the exact numbers, but after the declaration of the state of emergency, hundreds of thousands of people deactivated their social media accounts or stopped posting on them. People began to fear logging on to social media with their real names. Just in 2017, 3658 people were tried for insulting President Erdoğan, and tens of thousands were tried on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda. Social media became a danger zone beyond the borders of any realm of freedom.

We begin self-censoring

It became dangerous even to use certain standard terms in our daily lives. This, of course, brought self-censorship with it. The few people who refused to censor themselves were of course made to pay a hefty price.

On January 21st 2018, while I was watching TV I was shaken up by a violent noise around 00:20. At first I thought it was an earthquake, but then I realized that the horrifying sound was coming from my own door. I thought my house was being shot or bombed and immediately ran to shelter my two children who were playing in their rooms. I could not. Someone was trying to break down my door. Since I had an iron door, it didn’t budge, but the walls of the house started to fall apart. Decked out in guns and masks, around 40 special task forces entered my house by breaking down the door and the walls, and detained me by force in front of my children. I was taken to the Diyarbakır Anti-Terrorism unit and placed in a cell. I was to discover my “crime” the next day. I was detained in this horrifying manner for five tweets about Operation Olive Branch, which Turkey had initiated against Syria’s Kurdish town of Afrin. In my tweets, I had demanded peace and opposed the death toll. It appeared that demanding peace had become a crime, and “peace” itself had become a suspicious word. Because according to the government there was no “war,” only a fight against terrorism. I was released after three days of protests in Turkey and all over the world, but the prosecutor nonetheless decided to charge me for these five tweets, with a potential sentence of three-year jail time.

In October 2019, this time my home was raided for my use of the word “war.” Since I was in London as a guest of PEN England at the time, I was not detained, but my two children and their dad suffered violence. The special task forces that arrived that day apparently told my family that my social media tweets were the reason for the raid. I had shared two tweets that day. The first was Amnesty International’s report on Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in Northern Syria, which had begun on October 14th. The other tweet simply said “Instead of peace and life; once again there is war, once again the young will die. May God never forgive you.” In short, once again my home was raided with 40 people simply because of words. That’s why they put guns to my children’s heads. My crime was telling Turkish people that what was unfolding was “war and death,” and reminding them that there was an alternative: peace and life.

Today, because most of Turkish media is under the control of the Turkish government, social media has become the only means of understanding what is happening in Turkey, and, simultaneously, a danger zone. The pressures on social media increase every day. These increasing restrictions cause not just ordinary citizens to censor themselves, but also journalists and writers. It is now exceedingly difficult to write about what’s happening in Kurdish cities, a task requiring exceptional courage. Because every word that I use affects not just my life, but also the life of my children. Every word that I use returns to them as raids, fear, and trauma. Today in Turkey, it requires a lot of courage to use those most beautiful words, “peace, life, freedom, justice, equality.” Many journalists and writers, including me, practice self-censorship. Most of us have a list of “objectionable words,” and when we write, we take care not to use these words or we choose not to write at all on certain topics.

The New Social Media Legislation

And yet, despite all these pressures, the government still has not been able to fully control social media. This is why, in order to extend their control, lawmakers passed legislation on July 31 2020 despite objections from the opposition and civil society. The legislation places a set of obligations and sanctions on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Youtube, TikTok, and Instagram, which have millions of users. According to the legislation, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which are established abroad but which have a daily access rate of more than a million in Turkey, must appoint at least one representative in Turkey. The platforms that do not fulfill their obligation to appoint a representative and share information can expect different levels of sanctions starting with monetary fees, ad bans, reduction of internet speed up to 90%, and even “de facto” restrictions of access.

Again according to the legislation, social media platforms must store Turkish users’ data in Turkey. The legislation also requires the platforms to send reports with statistical and categorical information to the government every 6 months, as well as posting them on their own sites. They must also abide by petitions to remove offensive content or to restrict access, regardless of violations of privacy.

With this new legislation, censorship of social media will intensify even further. It’s not just access that will be restricted, but removing news and content, including their removal from the archives will also become possible, creating a much more effective form of censorship within Turkey. When social media platforms open offices in Turkey, they will become purview to the Turkish legal system and will experience staggering repression.

War against Words

Even though the new legislation will increase the pressures on social media, we Kurds have been living under repression for so long that sometimes I cannot even remember our times of relative freedom. Every time I go to my hometown’s 7000-year-old historic center Sur, now destroyed, I try to remember what stood on that street or square before the destruction. Sometimes I can’t. I try to remember my childhood; I can’t remember with which Kurdish terms of affection my mother showed her love for me. I walk in a park, I try to remember its old name; sometimes I can’t. When all Kurdish village names were replaced with Turkish ones in the 1980s, our village in Diyarbakır’s Dicle region also lost its name. It used to be Şeyh Selamet, but the name was changed to Dede Köy. Today, the new generation does not know our village’s old name. Sometimes I fear that my children will forget the old Sur; sometimes I fear my children will never know certain words. I am afraid to death that our words, songs, names, parks, streets will be forgotten, that my home Sur will be forgotten.

I know why the Turkish government started a war against words. Because they want us to forget. They want us to forget those beautiful words, they want to erase the joy those words bring to our souls. They want us to fear those words now. They want to erase our memories by erasing those words. And that’s exactly why they meticulously fight every single word.

Dictators, repressive regimes wish to write a different history with different words. That’s precisely why we, as people who can write, must hold on to those beautiful words and write against forgetting. If they are writing history, we have to write an alternative history. We have to carry to future generations those beautiful words and the joy they bring to our souls, no matter the cost. The struggle for freedom must continue flowing to future generations, like a river.

I write this to you from the banned Kurdistan’s banned city Amed. Against all odds, I continue to write and carry water to the river of freedom.

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