This is the unluckiest number for journalists in Turkey.
Under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, “insulting Turkishness” is punishable by imprisonment of between 6 months and 2 years.
Since both the definition of “Turkishness” and [the definition of] an insult is entirely down to subjective evaluation, many journalists and writers have been prosecuted under this article. Many have been convicted and imprisoned.
My aim in mentioning the following case is to illustrate how such vaguely worded legislation and such a nationalist approach can open the way to tragedies of such immense proportions.
In 2004, Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist who I am proud to have had as a friend, printed a news story in the Agos newspaper, which he was in charge of publishing in Istanbul as the editor-in-chief.
The news story alleged that Atatürk’s adopted daughter, Sabiha Gökçen was an Armenian child who was orphaned in 1915.
When the story made it into the mainstream media, the Chief of General Staff of the Turkish Army issued the very harshest of statements, asserting that opening this topic up to public debate, “Would in no way benefit national unity and societal peace.” The statement went on to say, “Publishing this [story] simply cannot be accepted as journalism. Revise your editorial principles.”
Those who know the history of democracy in Turkey know all too well how commonplace it is for military officials to lecture journalists on their profession. And, indeed, how common it is for journalists to interpret [such lectures] as direct orders.
Indeed, immediately after the statement was released, scores of columnists went on the offensive against Dink. Instead of working to disprove the allegation, a campaign was launched to smear the editor who engendered it.
An old article authored by Dink was plucked from the archives and presented as bait to the courts.
In the article at hand, Dink called out to the Armenian diaspora to stop recycling the ‘poisonous blood’ narrative in relation to Turks and to seek dialogue instead.
The text was misrepresented to convey the very opposite message to the one it set out to deliver.
Dink’s “poisonous Turkish blood” statement came to represent an insult to Turkishness, first in the form of a racist campaign and later in the form of a [criminal] investigation.
Eventually, Dink was tried over Article 301 and sentenced to 6 months in prison for “denigrating Turkishness.”
Turkish nationalist organizations declared, “Henceforth, Hrant Dink will be the target of our fury and hatred.”
This hatred was not counted as “an insult to Turkishness”.
And as a consequence of this campaign of hate - birthed by the state and fanned by the media - Dink was killed on the streets of Istanbul with a shot to the head in a premeditated assassination that took place on 19 January 2007.
The trial over his assassination has been ongoing for 10 years.
* * *
When confronted with criticism regarding the dire state of press freedom in Turkey, too often Turkish authorities tend to say, “The press is free to publish anything in our country.”
This is partially true.
We are free to write about anything; as long as we pay the price…
This price is comprised of a long list of troubles that extend from being prosecuted and jailed to being threatened and murdered.
Many journalists, who know this list by heart from the very beginning of their careers, choose not to write what they know to be true but to hide what they see.
Self-censorship has thus long dethroned censorship in Turkey…
The truly important news stories about what’s going on in the country can be found in the trash bins of the newsrooms.
What can be found on the screens and front pages of the mainstream media is only what the state wants the people to know.
The state conducts much of its manipulation through the media:
Making targets [out of opponents], fabricating facts, manufacturing hatred, and laying the groundwork for war are amongst these [manipulative techniques].
The mainstream media voluntarily takes on this role.
This is not purely because the free media is assigned the role of an official gazette in undemocratic political power structures but also because of the dependency that media owners [in Turkey] have towards the state as a result of their investments outside the media…
Such a dependency has transformed the media from the “voice of the truth” to the “voice of His Majesty.”
The alternative media, meanwhile, is stifled through various means.
* * *
Returning to the issue of nationalism.
The state has often treated nationalism like an enormous flag that it can throw over the truth or its own misdeeds in order to conceal it.
Those that raise this flag to expose the dirt that has built up underneath it are accused of “insulting the flag”.
The raising of the flag over illegally constructed buildings; the arrival of members of the mafia in court while being serenaded by supporters with flags draped over them; serial killers’ poses in front of the flag in photographs taken of them – these are all extensions of this state policy in civilian life. More often than not, they end up working.
There is value in remembering that the murderer who shot Dink had his photograph taken holding a flag at the police station after he was arrested.
* * *
Most of the time, the “national interest” comes before and overshadows the “public interest”.
This is done to such an extent that references to the “national interest” are often used to justify lying, oppression and censorship on the part of the government.
I was sentenced to 5 years and 10 months in prison last year for a news report I published covering the secret and illegal transfer of arms by the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT) into Syria.
Was the report fabricated?
But the state wanted to keep it a secret.
It was declared in the verdict that I had “exposed a state secret”. So even if the state had acted illegally, we were supposed to keep that quiet; despite the fact that it was “in the interest of the country and its people”
I must add that because of that very news report I was personally threatened and made a target by President Erdoğan and survived an armed assault after serving 3 months in prison.
The cost of the truth in some parts of the world can be exorbitant.
* * *
Yet there is another side to the story:
Still journalists committed to the truth fight for their freedoms.
Regardless of how big a flag may be, it will never be big enough to completely smother the truth.
Thanks to the communication technologies of our age, no means of oppression, no means of censorship suffices to prevent the spread of news.
And regardless of all the forms of nationalist lynching out there, the voice of our conscience cannot be silenced.
Allow me to conclude this article with a note from my dear friend Hrant Dink’s funeral:
To all the attacks in the mainstream media against Armenian identity, the Turkish people responded by calling out, “We are all Armenians”, in their tens of thousands.
And in her speech at the funeral, [Dink’s] wife Rakel warned that instead of blaming her husband’s murderer, “We must question the darkness that transforms a baby into a killer.”
The truth, protected by our conscience, continues on its historic march, even if it is through blood.