Project Exile: Turkish journalist lost home and family

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]This article is part of Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist’s Project Exile series, which has published interviews with exiled journalists from around the world.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Arzu YildizWhen Turkish journalist Arzu Yildiz reported a major scoop in 2014, she had little idea that the story might lead to the end of her journalism career, the loss of her home, and separation from her family.

Yildiz, then a reporter for the Turkish news site T24, was the first to report that local prosecutors in southern Turkey had intercepted a convoy of trucks bearing Turkish arms heading for Syria.

The disclosure had put Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in an awkward position, since Turkey had long denied that it was sending aid to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

When Yildiz later published footage of the of the prosecutors being put on trial, she herself was sued by the government. In May 2016, she was stripped of the guardianship of her two young children and sentenced to 20 months in jail – a decision which was stayed pending the approval of an appellate court.

But then Turkey’s climate for the press, already bad, took a sharp turn for the worse. In July 2016, a group of dissident Turkish military officers attempted to overthrow Erdogan in a coup. When it failed, Erdogan’s response was ferocious. Tens of thousands of soldiers and government workers were purged and media outlets viewed as critical of Erdogan were shuttered. In the aftermath, more than 300 journalists were arrested. As for Yildiz, after security forces appeared at her home with a warrant for her arrest, she and daughters Emine, then 7, and the infant Zehra, went into hiding. They lived in secrecy in a single room for five months.

“I could not continue living in this one bedroom,” she says. “It begins to affect you psychologically. Every time the door is knocked, you would think it was the police.”

In November 2016, Yildiz left both girls with their grandparents and fled across the border to a refugee camp in Greece. She was quickly given asylum in Canada and moved to Toronto by herself. In 2018, her eldest daughter Emine joined there, but Zehra, now 3, remains in Turkey.

Now working in a pizzeria in Toronto, Yildiz, 39, spoke with Global Journalist’s Lara Cumming about her career and the high personal cost of doing independent journalism in Turkey. Below, an edited version of their interview:

Global Journalist: How did you get into journalism?

Arzu Yildiz: After I finished school, I was a court reporter for a long time. I reported on the police and the justice system. I never cared about politics or the government I only focused on justice. I worked with Taraf [a liberal Turkish national newspaper] for over five years. After this I tried doing journalism independently at T24 for a couple of years.

For two months I worked [for a newspaper] close to Erdogan’s party, a big newspaper called Türkiye. But they censored my news. After that I quit. All this time, I may be the only woman court reporter who knows the law as much as a prosecutor or judge. When I was doing journalism, I was studying the law. Some prosecutors didn’t read as much as me. I was interested in not only the justice system of Turkey but also the justice [systems] of the world.

GJ: How did you know it was time to leave Turkey?

Yildiz: Two days after the July 15th [2016] coup attempt, the police came to my house. After the coup attempt, a lot of [arrested] people faced torture and no one would have written about it. If I continued to be a court reporter, I would write what is really going on in court and why people were detained.

After the police came, I lived an underground life for five months. One of my daughters was just 7 months old and the other was 7 years old. We lived in one room together.

[Later] I realized that this is no life. I tried to give them a chance. I could not continue living in this one bedroom. It begins to affect you psychologically. Every time the door is knocked, you would think it was the police.

GJ: Are you still in contact with your family in Turkey?

Yildiz: The little one doesn’t know me or who I am, she has no mother. She is in Turkey with my parents. I saw her birthday only through video. I have no contact with her, no telephone calls, no nothing. I divorced my husband and I have no contact with my mother and father also. They lost their daughter too. I didn’t only lose mine.

The [eldest] one had a U.S. visa before. She came to the U.S.A. alone [in September 2018]. One of my friends took her to the Canadian border. My other daughter had no chance to come to Canada. They will not give her a passport because of me.

My mother is 73-years old, when this situation is over I don’t know what will happen. I may never see them [my parents] again. The Canadian government will not issue them a visa.

Some say: “Meet them in another country.” They must think I’m very rich. I cannot go to Ottawa right now because I am working two jobs and only just paying my rent. All of the family is affected, three generations. My oldest daughter, who is with me, always asks why we are separated from her grandparents. My children referred to my mother as their mother.

GJ: What issues did you see with journalism in Turkey before you left?

Yildiz: My goal as a journalist was seeking truth. We have no goals to be heroes or to be famous. We are not actors. We are not singers. We are journalists. The goal is to tell what’s right and who the heroes are through our stories. And if the world starts talking about them, I can say I did my job well.

My problem is with the bureaucracy. I cannot trust politicians, but I should be able to trust the judges. For example, if people drive unsafely in Canada they will be punished by the justice system. They are not scared of the politicians, they are scared only of the justice system. In Turkey there is no trust of the judicial system.

I am not a religious person and I do not believe in any religion. Religion and racism are just the tools the politicians use for their benefit. I believe only in humanity. If I am dying, I do not want someone to define me only as a Turkish journalist but as a human. I do not care how a person looks or what they believe, only if they are honest. If you are a court reporter – like me – your only focus is if someone is innocent or if they are a criminal.

GJ: Do you have any plans to return to Turkey?

Yildiz: Before I came to Canada, I spent time in a refugee camp. The real meaning of being a refugee is not only the loss of the country, but loss of a family and being alone. I came with one t-shirt and no shoes. Believe me, I lost the shoes in the refugee camp.

I came with only cheap things. No mobile phone no nothing. Maybe $200 and that’s it. I will not be able to return to Turkey as they will put me in prison.

GJ: Has the pursuit of your work been worth it? You have done such brave work but also lost so much.

Yildiz: I lost so many things, no one can imagine. If I had the chance to return to the past, I would do this again. But one thing is broken: my heart.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_video link=”″][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist is a website that features global press freedom and international news stories as well as a weekly radio program that airs on KBIA, mid-Missouri’s NPR affiliate, and partner stations in six other states. The website and radio show are produced jointly by professional staff and student journalists at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, the oldest school of journalism in the United States. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

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Yavuz Baydar: Critical Turkish media is cracking under pressure

yarina bakis

The 6 March 2016 edition of Yarına Bakış, an independent newspaper print houses now refuse to publish

On Tuesday 19 July, Turkey’s independent and critical journalists, academics and law experts woke up to another day of concern and fear.

The uncertainty is driven by the lack of assurances on media freedom or even a basic respect for the rule of law. At a time when the country is purging its administration of alleged coup plotters, its leaders should be calming nerves and calling for transparency. On the contrary, President Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım appear to be in favour the reintroduction of the death penalty.

The media is the most fragile element in the middle of the mess.

Arzu Yıldız, a rigorously independent expert reporter on judicial affairs, was one of the first to feel the heat. An arrest order — with no reason given — was issued against her but the police who came to her flat early on Monday morning were unable to find her. She later tweeted that, since she “had nothing to fear” she would surrender to the police. So far, no further news has been heard about her.

Colleagues I spoke to share the view that by silencing such an expert reporter the authorities may be intending to erect a wall to hide what has been “really” happening — what many of us see as a massive purge within the judiciary — where more than 2,500 members (judges and prosecutors) are sought under a mass arrest order. Yıldız knows many of them, who they are and what they stand for.

Hours after the collapse of the coup attempt, a long list of journalists “to be arrested” went into circulation. Most of them are either editors or columnists — mainly liberals and leftists — who have been writing for newspapers as Özgür Düşünce, Yarına Bakış and Yeni Hayat. They have all now been smeared as affiliates of the Gülen Movement. Can Dündar, the editor of Cumhuriyet daily, is also among those targeted.

Since the day after the bloody coup attempt a media blackout has spread. More than 10 news websites have been shut down. On Monday night it was reported that several print houses refused to print Yarına Bakış and Yeni Hayat dailies, with no reason given. The editors feel that political pressure or fear lie behind them. Yarına Bakış issued an editorial online stating that it was forced to suspend its print edition, citing oppressive measures. On Tuesday, the liberal Özgür Düşünce daily, many of whose columnists found themselves to be victims of the witch hunt, announced it was also considering discontinuing its print edition. The independent website Haberdar, that was the first to break the coup attempt story, is to radically downsize, closing its newsroom and firing staff, according to inside sources.

There seems to be agreement among Turkey’s down-trodden, critical journalists and their foreign colleagues that the “dark times” will be long lasting and it may spell an end to independent journalism altogether.

Many fear a crackdown will sweep through the Turkish and Kurdish media. There are concerns over the closure of one free outlet after the other, the financial struggles these organisations face and the journalists forced into unemployment, declared as “public enemies” or “pariahs” and left without mediums to report and comment. The situation could not be any more serious.

A version of this article was originally posted to Suddeutsche Zeitung. It is published here with permission of the author.

Turkey Uncensored is an Index on Censorship project to publish a series of articles from censored Turkish writers, artists and translators.