Turkish-Armenian academic faces deportation from Greece over controversial views

Sevan Nişanyan at home in Samos

A prominent Turkish-Armenian academic faces deportation from Greece after being labelled an “undesirable foreigner” in what he sees as punishment for creating a database of Greek placenames and how they have changed through history.

Sevan Nişanyan, born in Istanbul in 1956, is a linguist and compiler of the hugely comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Turkish Language.

In 2012, he wrote a blog post about free speech arguing for the right to criticise the Prophet Mohammed which incensed then prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Speaking to Index in an interview at the time, Nisanyan said: “I received a call from [Erdogan’s] office inquiring whether I stood by my, erm, ‘bold views’ and letting me know that there was much commotion ‘up here’ about the essay. The director of religious affairs, the top Islamic official of the land, emerged from a meeting with Erdogan to denounce me as a ‘madman’ and ‘mentally deranged’ for insulting ‘our dearly beloved prophet’”.

The following year he was sentenced to 13 months in jail for his “insults”.

While in prison, he was further charged with violations of building regulations in relation to the village of Şirince in Turkey’s Izmir Province and particularly the mathematical research institute established there in 2007 by Ali Nesin and in which Nasanyan was heavily involved.

Nişanyan was charged with 11 violations of the code leading to a total prison term of more than 16 years.

At the time, he and others were convinced that this was a political case, because jail time for building code infringements is almost unheard of in Turkey and he was merely being punished for his earlier views and blog post.

In 2017, Nişanyan escaped from the Turkish low security prison where he was being held and travelled by boat to Greece, where he claimed asylum and was granted a temporary residence permit.

He has since been living on the island of Samos and married a Greek citizen in 2019. While there he successfully applied for an Armenian passport and dropped his asylum application.

Everything changed on 30 December 2021 when he was denounced by the Greek police as a national security threat. His supporters say his name was added to what is known as the EKANA list of undesirable foreigners, administered by Greece’s Ministry of Public Order. At a recent press conference, Nişanyan claimed the reasons for the inclusion of his name on the list is considered a state secret.

The fast-growing use of the EKANA list has been called a “particularly worrying development” by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs.

“The Ekana list has become a favoured tool of the Greek police, primarily used against refugees who are denied asylum,” says Nişanyan.

Nişanyan says he has no concrete idea why his own name is on the list but he can speculate.

“There have been all sorts of accusations of me working against Greek national ideas,” he says.

He suspects it may be related to his creation of the Index Anatolicus, “a website looking at the toponomy of placenames, the authoritative source on the name changes to 53,000 Turkish places”.

“I recently decided to expand into Greece, North Macedonia, and Armenia,” he says.

He recognises it is a sensitive issue. In 1923, Greece and Turkey agreed to a population exchange after the fall of the Ottoman Empire which saw 1.3 million people made refugees.

“A hundred years ago, none of the towns and hamlets in northern Greece had Greek names. I have been accused by lots of insignificant people that this was a grave betrayal of the Greek motherland. That is absurd.”

On 7 January, the court ordered Nişanyan’s release saying he presented no risk of fleeing but gave him 15 days to leave the country voluntarily. He appealed against the ruling but this was thrown out on Thursday 13 January, meaning he must now leave by 22 January or face forced deportation. His request to be removed from the EKANA list has also been turned down. Nişanyan has appealed both decisions with the Administrative Court of the First Instance in Syros.

Nişanyan claims he is not a threat and that deportation would be particularly harsh on his wife, who is seriously ill.

He believes he has also become persona non grata as a result of a less welcoming attitude towards foreigners in the eastern Aegean in recent years.

“There has been enormous panic and paranoia over the refugees. Three years ago, people in Samos were divided on the refugee issue. Now you can be literally lynched if you say anything positive about refugees. It is a huge emotional mobilisation against all refugees and not surprisingly, part of that hostility has been directed towards Westerners and the NGOs who have ‘invaded’ the islands over the past few years.”

Where can Nişanyan go?

“I am tired and getting old. My wife’s health is a huge disaster. My normal instinct would be to stay and fight as I have been a fighter all my life. Now I am a weary,” he says.

“My three grown children are in Turkey and I have property there. However, I cannot go back unless there is some sort of presidential pardon.”

“The reasonable thing would be to go to Armenia, sit out the storm and come back some time,” but says that his chances of getting back to Greece appear slim.

It is also unclear whether his wife will be well enough to accompany him.

Nişanyan hopes the government comes to it sense and reconsiders an “utterly stupid decision which was obviously taken at the instigation of a paranoid and ignorant police force”.

He says, “I don’t think ever in the history of this country has a person who has not committed any crime whatsoever been deported to Armenia, historically one of Greece’s closest friends. It doesn’t make any political sense.”

Nişanyan has also gained support from the Anglo-Turkish writer and Balkans expert Alev Scott.

Scott told Index, “It is ironic that Sevan is hated in Turkey as an Armenian and in Greece as a Turk – and in both countries, as an outspoken intellectual who challenges conservative beliefs and nationalist sensibilities.

“He fled from a Turkish prison to a Greek island and embraced it as his new home; sadly, in recent years the Greek islands have become more and more hostile to foreigners as the refugee crisis worsens, and Sevan is a victim of this development.

“He is a big local presence on Samos, and receives a steady stream of visitors from Turkey and elsewhere – clearly, this has not gone down with locals, or with police,” she said.

“Sevan’s scholarly work on the etymological roots of place names raised hackles in Turkey and his proposal of a similar project on Greek place names has had a similar effect. Anything that challenges the existing nationalist narrative in both countries is, of course, highly controversial. It is beyond absurd that this academic – outspoken though he may be – presents a national security threat to Greece.”

Nişanyan also claims support for his case at the highest levels in the country – “former prime ministers, people high up in the judiciary system and journalists”.

“They seem shocked,” he says. “They cannot imagine something like this happening in a presumably democratic country.

Turning back the tide: the refugee crisis tests Greek media freedom

Ingeborg Beugel had been living and working in Greece on and off for years when, last month, a stone thrown at her head and a wave of online bullying and threats against her life forced her to return to the Netherlands. The attacks happened after she asked Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis why he “keeps lying about pushing back refugees” from Greek to Turkish waters. Her case adds to a growing list of violations against media freedoms in Greece, a worrying sign that all is not well in the European country.

“I hadn’t expected a digital witch hunt”, Beugel told Index on Censorship after she had returned to the Netherlands. Beugel is known in the Netherlands for her many reports from the Greek islands, where refugees are held in camps in dire conditions and where she tracks refugees personally, collecting first-hand evidence of those who are sent back to Turkey. Press conferences with authorities are not her cup of tea, but this time was different, she said:

“This was my chance to let two prime ministers, Mitsotakis of Greece and Rutte from the Netherlands, not get away with denial of push-backs anymore. Until the last minute I wasn’t sure how to phrase my question, but I knew I had to be sharp.”

What she came up with was: “When at last will you stop lying about the push-backs? Please don’t insult either mine or the intelligence of all the journalists in the world. There has been overwhelming evidence and you keep denying and lying. Why are you not honest?”

Mitsotakis reacted furiously, taking it as an insult to both himself and the Greek people. Asked if she had been impolite, Beugel answered: “You know what’s impolite? Pushing refugees back, which is against international law, and lying about it.”

In the evening following the press conference, a rock was thrown at her as she left a grocery shop, grazing her forehead. She ran home and only then discovered the digital witch hunt. [Some of those online were criticising Beugel for helping an asylum seeker,  for which she was briefly arrested over the summer. – Editor]

A couple of days later, she was on a plane back to the Netherlands. The Dutch embassy in Athens, the Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Dutch Journalists Union NVJ strongly advised her to leave because her safety couldn’t be guaranteed anymore.

“’Let it blow over’, they said. So I’m waiting for it to blow over,” Beugel said.

Yannis Kotsifos, director of the Journalists’ Union of Macedonia and Thrace in Greece and chairperson at the European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) in Germany, told Index: “Mitsotakis didn’t react in the right way to Beugel’s question and even though I didn’t like her style, I understand why she did it this way. But we need to be careful not to make the debate about press freedom political. Greece’s position on the press freedom list is in decline but it’s not just about this government. The problems are deeper rooted.”

Beugel agreed, and indeed placed the way she phrased her question in a wider context of the Greek media landscape, in which media don’t dedicate a lot of space to the illegal turning away of refugees to Turkey. “Mitsotakis’ denial keeps defining the journalistic narrative and I wanted to break that,” Beugel said. “I knew I would have a big audience at this press conference and that Greek pro-government media couldn’t ignore what I said and what then happened.”

Beugel recalls when she first started as an aspiring journalist in Greece 40 years ago. There was a lot of hope for the future, following the end of the Greek junta, a military dictatorship that lasted from 1967 to 1974.

“But now, the press is mostly in the hands of tycoons who are not in media for the sake of good journalism. Public TV works for the government in power, and has been underfunded,” she said.

Ownership is a problem, but ECPMF’s Kotsifos also highlighted a lack of self-regulation in the press, a lack of finances for independent journalism and for proper working conditions, and a growing distrust in the media because of rising polarisation.

“This leads to hate rhetoric against journalists and sometimes to physical violence,” said Kotsifos.

To break this cycle and encourage a freer press, the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a project that has monitored violations of media freedom across the EU since March 2020, and the ECPMF are conducting a fact finding mission in Greece this month.

The mission was considered necessary because of several worrying “signals”, the worst being earlier this year when crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz was fatally shot outside his house in Athens. Other incidents include surveillance by the Intelligence Service of Stavros Malichoudis, who reports about migration and refugees.

New legislation is of concern too, most notably the proposed introduction of fines and jail sentences for journalists found guilty of publishing “fake news”, which would, MFRR said,”undermine the freedom of the press and have a chilling effect at a time when independent journalism is already under pressure in Greece”. SLAPP lawsuits, in which journalists are bombarded with legal cases to drain them financially and stifle their work, are also a huge point of concern (as reported here by Index).

Today Beugel is in Amsterdam waiting until the commotion “blows over”. She said: “I want to return as soon as possible. I miss my dogs, who are luckily taken care of by a friend. I miss my friends, my house, my work. This situation is hard, but I know there is not only rejection, but support for my work in Greece as well.”

Journalists covering refugee crisis attacked by Hungarian police

At least eight journalists were beaten and three detained as they covered a clash between refugees and the Hungarian police at the border with Serbia on 16 September.

Among those attacked were Swedish photographer Meli Petersson Ellafi, Jordan Davis, a journalist at Swiss RTS, and an entire film crew working for Radio Television of Serbia. They were covering events at the Horgoš-Röszke highway border crossing, which the Hungarian authorities had blocked the day before, leaving around 2,000 refugees stranded on the Serbian side.

On 16 September, at around 2:30 PM local time, refugees attempted to break through a gate into Hungary. While most were protesting peacefully, a small number threw stones and bottles across the fence at the Hungarian riot police. The police responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons.

“At some point, the riot police retreated from the fence and the refugees managed to open the gate,” Timea Becková, who works for Slovakian newspaper Denník N, recalls. Confusion followed, with many refugees thinking the Hungarian authorities would let them in, so they walked towards the riot police on the Hungarian side. Several dozen journalists on the Serbian side followed the crowd.

At around 5:30 PM, TEK, the Hungarian anti-terror SWAT unit, equipped with sidearms, helmets and face masks, started pushing the refugees back towards Serbia.

“As I was moving backwards, I stopped for a moment to help an old man who fell and risked being trodden by riot police, which is when an officer hit me with a baton,” Becková said. She repeatedly told police in Hungarian that she is a journalist, but it made no difference.

“Suddenly the TEK guys, not the riot police, started running towards us — it was mayhem,” says Warren Richardson, an Australian photographer. Despite having two cameras, he was grabbed from behind by an officer.

“Clearly he was there to beat, not to ask questions,” Richardson told Index on Censorship, adding that he was standing on ‘no mans’ land’ between Serbia and Hungary. “From there they beat me into Hungary, then took me from the border to the police station illegally. They kidnapped me.”

“Law enforcement lost control of the situation,” Becková said. While she doesn’t hold a grudge against TEK, she says the events that followed were outrageous. She was forcefully brought back to the Hungarian side — with her hands tied tightly with a plastic wrap — where she was thrown to the ground.

She was later handed over to the regular police along with Richardson, who was kicked in the head and chest, and the Polish journalist, Jacek Tacik, who suffered a head wound. They were taken to a police station in Szeged along with a number of detained refugees.

There they were questioned on suspicion of having crossed the border illegally. In addition, Becková was accused of inciting rebellion and Tacik was told he had assaulted a policeman. However, this accusation did not emerge again during his interrogation, he told Index.

During questioning, Richardson refused to cooperate. “I stood up for myself. They were making up laws. They never took my name, personal address or fingerprints,” he said.

After interrogations that lasted up to 13 hours, the journalists were released and the charges were dropped.

In a statement, the Hungarian police denied beating the journalists. “The police — in accordance with the law — used necessary and proportional force against the members of an aggressive group that was using instruments that could cause serious harm to the police protecting the border of Hungary and the European Union. The media workers stayed at their own risk in an area where the police — after a proper warning — used coercive instruments.”

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said it was a surprise to find journalists among the chaos. He said that in situations like this, the safety of journalists cannot be guaranteed, therefore they should stay away. A policeman is not in the position to judge who is a troublemaker and who represents the media, he added.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) has denounced the attack. “It is incomprehensible to see an EU country like Hungary constantly violating press freedom and human rights. The European Commission and international institutions must take action against these serious violations,” EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard said.

“It is a prerequisite for EU member states to respect the EU Charter on fundamental rights which sets out standards on media freedom and freedom of expression.”

The incident was also condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We are appalled by the police violence against journalists covering this world story,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The Hungarian government must make a clear and unequivocal statement that it will not tolerate such behavior.”


Mapping Media Freedom

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This article was published on 16 September 2015 at indexoncensorship.org

Escape from Eritrea: Ismail Einashe

This article is part of the spring 2014 issue of Index on Censorship magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

This article is part of the spring 2014 issue of Index on Censorship magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

In conjunction with the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2015, we will be publishing a series of articles that complement many of the upcoming debates and discussions. We are offering these articles from Index on Censorship magazine for free (normally they are held within our paid-for archive) as part of our partnership with the festival. Below is and article by Ismail Einashe on television journalist Temesghan Debesai’s escape from Eritrea, taken from the spring 2014 issue. This article is a great starting point for those planning to attend the A New Home: Asylum, Immigration and Exile in Today’s Britain session at the festival.

Index on Censorship is a global quarterly magazine with reporters and contributing editors around the world. Founded in 1972, it promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression. 

Television journalist Temesghen Debesai had waited years for an opportunity to make his escape, so when the Eritrean ministry of information sent him on a journalism training course in Bahrain he was delighted, but fearful too. On arrival in Bahrain, he quietly evaded the state officials who were following him and got in touch with Reporters Sans Frontières. Shortly after he met officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who verified his details. He then went into hiding for two months so the Eritrean officials in Bahrain could not catch up with him and eventually escaped to Britain.

Debesai told no one of his plans, not even his family. He was concerned he was being watched. He says a “state of paranoia was everywhere” and there was no freedom of expression. Life in Eritrea, he explains, had become a “psychological prison”.

After graduating top of his class from Eritrea’s Asmara University, Debesai became a well-known TV journalist for state-run news agency Erina Update. But from 2001, the real crackdown began and independent newspapers such as Setit, Tsigenai, and Keste Debena, were shut down. In raids journalists from these papers were arrested en masse. He suspects many of those arrested were tortured or killed, and many were never heard of again. No independent domestic news agency has operated in Eritrea since 2001, the same year the country’s last accredited foreign reporter was expelled.

The authorities became fearful of internal dissent. Debesai noticed this at close hand having interviewed President Afwerki on several occasions. He describes these interviews as propaganda exercises because all questions were pre-agreed with the minister of information. As the situation worsened in Eritrea, the post-liberation haze of euphoria began to fade. Eritrea went into lock-down. Its borders were closed, communication with the outside world was forbidden, travel abroad without state approval was not allowed. Men and women between the ages of 18 and 40 could be called up for indefinite national service. A shoot-to-kill policy was put in operation for anyone crossing the border into Ethiopia.

Debesai felt he had no other choice but to leave Eritrea. As a well-known TV journalist he could not risk walking across into Sudan or Ethiopia, so he waited until he got the chance to leave for Bahrain.

Eritrea was once a colony of Italy. It had come under British administrative control in 1941, before the United Nations federated Eritrea to Ethiopia in 1952. Nine years later Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea, sparking Africa’s longest war. This long bitter war glued the Eritrean people to their struggle for independence from Ethiopia. Debesai, whose family went into exile to Saudi Arabia during the 1970s, returned to Eritrea as a teenager in 1992, a year after the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front captured the capital Asmara.

Free thinking: Reading list for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2015

Free Thinking! A unique partnership in 2015, Cambridge Festival of Ideas are working with Index on Censorship to offer in-depth articles and follow-up pieces from leading artists, writers and activists on all of our headline events.

Drawing out the dark side: Martin Rowson

Thoughts policed: Max Wind-Cowie

Deliberately lewd: Erica Jong

My book and the school library: Norma Klein

Future imperfect: Jason DaPonte

The politics of terror: Conor Gearty

Moving towards inequality: Jemimah Steinfeld and Hannah Leung

Escape from Eritrea: Ismail Einashe

Defending the right to be offended: Samira Ahmed

How technology is helping African journalists investigate: Raymond Joseph

24 Oct: Can writers and artists ever be terrorists?

25 Oct: Question Everything – Cambridge Festival of Ideas

Full Free Thinking! reading list

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For Debesai returning to Asmara had been a “personal choice”. He wanted to be a part of rebuilding his nation after a 30-year conflict, and besides, he says, life in post-war Asmara was “socially free”, a welcome antidote to conservative Saudi life. Those heady days were electric, he says. An air of “patriotic nationalism” pervaded the country. Women danced in the streets for days welcoming back EPLF fighters. Asmara had remained largely unscathed during the war thanks to its high mountain elevation. Much of its beautiful 1930s Italian modernist architecture was intact, something Debesai was delighted to see.

But those early signs of hope that greeted independence quickly soured. By 1993 Eritreans overwhelmingly voted for independence, and since then Eritrea has been run by President Isaias Afwerki, the former rebel leader of the EPLF. Not a single election has been held since the country gained independence, and today Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive and secretive states. There are no opposition parties and no independent media. No independent public gatherings or civil society organisations are permitted. Amnesty International estimates there are 10,000 prisoners of conscience in Eritrea, who include journalists, critics, dissidents, as well as men and women who have evaded conscription. Eritrea is ranked the worst country for press freedoms in the world by Reporters Sans Frontières.

The only way for the vast majority of Eritreans to flee their isolated, closed-off country is on foot. They walk over the border to Sudan and Ethiopia. The United Nations says there are 216,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan. By the end of October 2014, Sudan alone was home to 106,859 Eritrean refugees in camps at Gaderef and Kassala in the eastern, arid region of the country.

In Ethiopia, Eritrean refugees are found mostly in four refugee camps in the Tigray region, and two in the Afar region in north-eastern Ethiopia.

During the first 10 months of 2014, 36,678 Eritreans sought refuge across Europe, compared to 12,960 during the same period in 2013. Most asylum requests were to Sweden (9,531), Germany (9,362) and Switzerland (5,652). The UN says the majority of these Eritrean refugees have arrived by boat across the Mediterranean. The majority of them are young men, who have been forced into military conscription. All conscripts are forced to go to Sawa, a desert town and home to a military camp, or what Human Rights Watch has called an open-air prison. Many young men see no way out but to leave Eritrea. For them, leaving on a perilous journey for a life outside their home country is better than staying put. The Eritrean refugee crisis in Europe took a sharp upward turn in 2014, as the UNHCR numbers show. And tragedies, like the drowning of hundreds of Eritrean refugees off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013, demonstrate the perils of the journey west and how desperate these people are.

Even when Eritrean refugees go no further than Sudan and Ethiopia, they face a grim situation. According to Lul Seyoum, director of International Centre for Eritrean Refugees and Asylum Seekers (ICERAS), Eritrean refugees in a number of camps inside Sudan and Ethiopia face trafficking, and other gross human rights violations. They are afraid to speak and meet with each other. She said, that though information is hard to get out, many Eritreans find themselves in tough situations in these isolated camps, and the situation has worsened since Sudan and Eritrea became closer politically.

Eritrea had a hostile relationship with Sudan during the 1990s. It supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, much to the anger of President Al Bashir who was locked in a bitter war with the people of now-independent South Sudan. Today tensions have eased considerably, and President Afwerki has much friendly relations with Sudan to the detriment of then tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees in Sudan.

A former Eritrean ministry of education official, who is a refugee now based in the UK and who does not want to be named because of safety fears, believes there’s no freedom of expression for Eritreans in Ethopian camps, such as Shimelba.

The official says in 2013 a group of Eritrean refugees came together at a camp to express their views on the boat sinking near Lampedusa and they were abused by the Ethiopian authorities who then fired at them with live bullets.

Seyoum believes that the movement of Eritreans in camps in Ethiopia is restricted. “The Ethiopian government does not allow them to leave the camps without permission,” she says. Even for those who get permission to leave very few end up in Ethiopia, instead through corrupt mechanisms are trafficked to Sudan. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of Eritreans have been enslaved in torture camps in Sudan and Egypt over the past 10 years, many enduring violence and rape at their hands of their traffickers in collusion with state authorities.

Even when Eritreans make it to the West, they are still afraid to speak publicly and many are fearful for their families back home. Now based in London, Debesai is a TV presenter at Sports News Africa. As an exile who has taken a stance against the regime of President Afewerki, he has faced harassment and threats. He is harassed over social media, on Twitter and Facebook. Over coffee, he shows me a tweet he’s just received from Tesfa News, a so-called “independent online magazine”, in which they accuse him of being a “backstabber” against the government and people of Eritrea. Others face similar threats, including the former education ministry official.

For this piece, a number of Eritreans said they did not want to be interviewed because they were afraid of the consequences. But Debesai said: “It takes time to overcome the past, so that even for those in exile in the West the imprisonment continues.” He adds: “These refugees come out of a physical prison and go into psychological imprisonment.”

© Ismail Einashe and Index on Censorship

Ismail Einashe is a journalist and a researcher, based in London. He tweets@IsmailEinashe

Join us on 25 October at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2015 for Question Everything an unconventional, unwieldy and disruptive day of talks, art and ideas featuring a broad range of speakers drawn from popular culture, the arts and academia. Moderated by Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg.

This article is part of the spring 2014 issue of Index on Censorship magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.