No future without the past

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”100439″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]When in 2014 sociologist Azat Gündoğan and his wife – both Western-educated professors of Kurdish origin from Turkey – made the decision to move home, they felt excited. The couple had accepted teaching jobs at Mardin Artuklu University – a university created in Turkey’s south-east region, in the city of Mardin, as part of the  so-called Kurdish Opening in 2007 – and were looking forward to reuniting with their families, friends and their people.

“When we decided to go back, we knew that we would find great colleagues there. We were so excited to do our research there, bring our experience of alternative world to generally first generation Kurdish students. It was a good thing to do, plus as a family, we would be together,” he recalls.

Little did they know that their euphoria would be short lived, and that it would take something as benevolent  as a 2016 peace petition to crush the foundations of Kurdish academia in Turkey.

A small window for Kurdish Academia

For decades, the Turkish state dismissed its 12 million-strong Kurdish minority and their right to education in their native language, let alone Kurdish studies. After being prohibited during the 1990s because the Turkish state saw it as an element of separatism, the Kurdish language resurfaced in public life as Turkey attempted to enter the European Union in the 2000s. The government initiated the Kurdish Opening, a multi-tiered policy approach intended to resolve tensions with the Kurdish minority.

“Unfortunately, in Turkey, like with any other minority, when it comes to Kurdish professors, associate professors, or researchers, it was not an environment where people could openly declare their [ethnic] identity, in academia they would try to cover it to the possible extent, wouldn’t ever try to come forward with their Kurdish identity prior to the Kurdish Opening,” says Ali Akel, freelance journalist and former Washington correspondent for Yeni Şafak newspaper, adding that not a single university taught Kurdish studies prior to the Kurdish Opening, and when there were attempts to do so, the Turkish government shut them down for various technical excuses.

However, during the Kurdish Opening, “Kurdish academics did demonstrate courage to make their positions known,” he says.

Gündoğan recalls that in 2007 the AKP opened a number of universities across the country. One of them, the Mardin Artuklu University, became the cradle of Kurdology. In 2009, Turkey’s Board of Higher Education allowed this university to set up a Department of Living Languages, including Kurdish. The university invited Kurdish scholars from abroad to help. The department was not only to research Kurdish language, history and culture, but also train professors and scholars to teach future generations. In 2009 the head of the board, Yusuf Ziya Özcan said, “This is the model we will use if other universities want to serve citizens who speak different languages,” and then president Abdullah Gül spoke on TV about the importance for the Kurdish minority to use its own language.  

Yet many of the efforts were just on paper, Akel says, reminding of an example from 2015, when the Turkish Ministry of Education published the names of the teachers certified for various disciplines.

“How many people do you think there were for the Kurdish language? Just one,” he stressed. “This shows the attitude.”

The Gündoğans, encouraged  by the Kurdish Opening, returned home and started teaching at Mardin Artuklu University. But, he says, they felt that things were quickly deteriorating.

“There were local changes: the Kurdish peace process was halted, plus the refugee crisis, and the electoral victory of the HDP [a pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party]. And we witnessed the local reflections of these developments. While for the Turkish academia, in general, the turning point was the peace petition, by then in the Kurdish academia we had already started to experience oppression, and the changing attitudes at the university,” Gündoğan says.

In 2015, the liberal rector of the university was replaced by an Erdoğan-backer, and once appointed the new rector terminated contracts with 13 foreign professors. Other professors protested and started organizing to create a collective titled “Independent University Platform” on campus as an alternative academic community, he recalls.

But while Kurdish scholars were fighting to preserve what little was created during the Kurdish Opening window, Turkey was hit by a larger academia crisis.

When calling for peace is a threat to the state

The fledgling process came to the complete halt in February 2016 when numerous members of the Turkish academic circles started circulating a document that became known as a “peace petition.” The document meant as a benevolent appeal to the conscience of the Turkish state and citizenry and calling for the immediate end to hostilities against the civilians in the majority-Kurdish regions of south-eastern Turkey was initially signed by 1,128 academics, reversed the tentative progress of the Kurdish Opening and erased all of its humble gains.

However, Gündoğan considers himself and his wife “the lucky ones” in this entire ordeal: “Our colleagues, their careers are finished. One of them, in Ankara, committed suicide. Others lost jobs. Some are jailed.”

He calls this “the very turning point for the Turkish academia” as it relates to the state’s reaction: “They react only whenever they [the state] feel that there is a point of articulation between the Kurds and the Turks, and alliance that would create a danger, a risk, that would offset the official discourse.”

In his opinion, this was the exact such moment, “Because that initiative didn’t come from the Kurds per se. If it did, as was the case a ton of times in the past, the state could contain it easily, by violence, by marginalisation, by stigmatisation, by oppression.” However, this time, the movement  came from academics at the most established and prestigious universities, and they started demanding peace, and the peaceful nature of these demands coming from the most established segments of the society, the academia, was exactly what scared and angered the state, Gündoğan concludes.

Akel agrees, considering the leading role played by the Turkish, rather than Kurdish academia in circulating the peace petition.

Among those who signed the petition, be it from abroad, or from Turkish universities such as Boğaziçi, Galatasaray, Gazi or ODTÜ (Middle East Technical University) “there were Kurds, of course, academics of Kurdish origin,” and in large numbers, according to Akel, which led the government to label the entire initiative as the pro-PKK propaganda and sue many of the signatories, even before the orchestrated crackdown began.

Akel, speaking of the government reaction, says, “I believe, the number of the removed [from university jobs] was 5,200 and growing. It was no longer about those who merely opposed the government, but not actively being on the side of the government was enough.”

Rosa Burç, an ethnically Kurdish academic from Turkey, a political scientist at the University of Bonn, speaking of the scope of the government retaliation and university expulsions in the aftermath of the peace petition, calls it a “witch hunt”: “According to the Turkish state, the [petition] didn’t condemn the terrorists’ actions. So, thus, a whole witch hunt against all kinds of thinkers- academics, writers, journalists, and not just Kurdish, but also non-Kurdish people started there.”

The return of the 1990s

Two years after the peace petition, things are further deteriorating, Gündoğan says. And according to Burç, the charges against the academics were never dropped, and an increasing number of them are losing jobs.

The ban of the word ‘Kurdistan’ in the parliament happened a few months ago. And then a few weeks ago, they changed it so now you can’t even mention the Kurdish region. This is also reflected in the academia. For example, a Ph.D. student,  defending their thesis, using the word ‘Kurdistan’, or anything related to the Kurdish realities. A few of my friends told me that the reviewing committees advise the students to change and remove those words.  The general conclusion is that either one has to leave the country to do it, or just stop their Ph.D. thesis. Or they have to adjust to the new standards in the academia,” she says.

She adds, however, that in future there will be research, and “anything that is related to the issue of autonomy, the issue of communalism in the Kurdish areas, the Kurdish identity, since they are considered a threat to the current Turkish government narrative,” will remain banned topics for academics. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1526917973893-b1ee57cb-d4ac-6″ taxonomies=”8843, 55″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Mapping Media Freedom: A disastrous week for Turkish journalism

Words by Ianka Bhatia and Henrik Choy

Turkey has faced severe turmoil since last Friday’s attempted military coup. While it was ultimately thwarted, 290 people were left dead as of 18 July with many more injured. In response, the government has since cracked down on dissent and suspended the European Convention on Human Rights, with more than 50,000 people rounded up, sacked or suspended from their jobs.

In addition, the country has seen an increase in violations against media workers, with journalists murdered, held hostage, arrested and physically attacked, as well as having equipment confiscated or destroyed. These violations have raised concerns from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović, has said: “Fully recognising the difficult times that Turkey is going through, the authorities need to ensure media freedom offline and online in line with their international commitments.”

Worries over these freedoms have only increased since President Erdogan announced on Wednesday that Turkey would be in a state of emergency for the next three months, enabling the government to initiate arrests and investigations in response to the failed coup. 

Here are five reports from Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project that give us most cause for concern.

Journalist killed by pro-coup soldiers

15 July, 2016: Mustafa Cambaz, a photojournalist for the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, was shot and killed by soldiers during the failed coup attempt. Earlier that day, he had tweeted: “We are taking the streets following our commander-in-chief Erdogan’s call and order”. The Committee to Protect Journalists was quick to condemn the attack, with the Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator Nina Ognianova calling on “Turkish authorities to punish those responsible for killing Mustafa Cambaz to the full extent of the law”.

Military raids TV channels

15 July, 2016: Renegade members of the Turkish military seized control of several media outlets and studios throughout Turkey, taking hostages and disrupting broadcasts. In Istanbul, soldiers gained control over the Dogan Media Center, which contains multiple news outlets including Hurriyet newspaper, the English-language Hurriyet Daily News and television stations CNN Turk and Kanal D.

Hostages were also taken in Ankara, where a news anchor for state broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television was forced to read a televised statement announcing the coup attempt at gunpoint. All hostages were eventually released and broadcasting resumed as normal by the morning of 16 July.

Regulatory body blocks access to news websites

17 July: Turkey’s telecommunications regulatory body, TIB, blocked access to five websites including media outlets Gazetport, Haberdar, Medyascope, ABC Gazetesi, and Can Erzincan TV. Twenty more were blocked two days later following approval from a judge.

Release of list of journalists to be detained

18 July: A pro-government Twitter user released a list of journalists who were accused of involvement in the coup and therefore subject to arrest. Journalists from both state and privately run media outlets were included on the list, which was circulated via social media at a time when public authority figures began to take measures to shut down websites that were critical of the government.

Accreditation of 34 journalists taken away

19 July: At least 34 journalists had their press credentials revoked in the aftermath of the coup. The decertifications impacted journalists from a variety of media outlets, including the daily newspaper Meydan, the liberal Taraf, Nokta magazine and Irmak TV. The Directorate General of Press and Information of Turkey stated the decertifications were done for the sake of national security in the aftermath of the coup.  

Mapping Media Freedom logged a number of threats to press freedom from Turkey over the past seven days. Here are the rest of the reports:

15 July: One hour after the first reports of the coup attempt, social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, were blocked. Access was eventually restored.

15 July:  A photographer for Hurriyet, Selcuk Samiloglu, was physically attacked by a group of men while attempting to cover clashes on the Bosphorus Bridge.

15 July: CNN Turk cameraman Ahmet Akpolat was restrained by the neck and verbally threatened by military personnel when he refused to comply with a demand to hand over a tape during a raid of the Dogan TV building in Istanbul. His camera was broken.

15 July: Three CNN Turk reporters — Goksel Goksu, Fulya Ozturk and cameraman Onur Ozel  were beaten and their equipment damaged when they tried to film developments in Taksim Square.

18 July: Several Turkish TV channels, including Halk TV, IMC TV and Hayatin Sesi TV, were temporarily blocked.

19 July: The office of Istanbul newspaper Gazetem Istanbul was vandalised by several dozen men claiming the publication had supported the failed coup.

19 July: Valentin Trushnin, a reporter for Russian TV channel REN, was revealed to be on Turkey’s “banned foreigners list” when he was taken into custody at Ataturk Airport.   

19 July: Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council canceled broadcasting licenses for 24 TV channels and radio stations due to their alleged ties to the Gülen movement.

20 July: Local police barred LeMan, a satirical Turkish magazine, from printing and distributing its newest issue, a special edition on the failed coup.

20 July: Access to Wikileaks was blocked after it released 30,000 emails from President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

20 July: The office of Meydan was searched and editor-in-chief Levent Kenez and editorial manager Gulizar Baki were arrested. They have since been released. 

21 July: Ozgur Dusunce (Free Thought) newspaper columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz and his wife Sibel Hurtas were arrested upon arrival at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Hurtas has since been released.

Mapping Media Freedom

Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at

Mapping Media Freedom: Week in focus

Each week, Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project verifies threats, violations and limitations faced by the media throughout the European Union and neighbouring countries. Here are just five reports from 9-16 February that give us cause for concern.

1. Ireland: Reporters receive death threats amid Dublin’s gangland feud

It was reported on 11 February that a number of journalists have been threatened by criminal gangs in Dublin stemming from their reporting of a current gangland feud in the city that saw two murders in the space of four days earlier this month. Police informed Independent News and Media, which owns the Irish Independent newspaper, that the safety of two reporters — a man and a woman — was at risk.

Irish secretary for the National Union of Journalists Seamus Dooley said he was “gravely concerned” by the threats. “Journalists and media organisations will not be intimidated by such threats, which have no place in a democratic society,” he said.

The death threats come almost 20 years after the high-profile murder of journalist Veronica Guerin, who dared to investigate organised crime in Dublin. “Successive governments have let down the memory of Veronica … by failing to provide the resources required to beat the gangs,” said Jimmy Guerin, brother of Veronica.

2. Romania: Journalist faces campaign of cyberbullying and online threats

Boróka Parászka, an ethnic Hungarian publicist and editor working at the public radio in Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureş area, has become the victim of cyberbullying and online abuse. On 10 February, an online petition was published entitled We Are Sick and Tired of Parászka, which appealed to media outlets not to publish or broadcast any of the journalist’s “left-liberal” work. It claims her pieces are “subversive” (felforgató), that she aggressively attacks everything “Hungarian” and she “undermines the community interests”.

In the wake of the petition, derogatory messages were sent to Parászka via Facebook, including anti-Semitic slurs, sexual comments and threats of violence.

On the day the petition went live, the Hungarian Journalist’s Association of Romania issued a reminder that the Romanian constitution guarantees freedom of thought and expression, provisions that need to be emphasised when it comes to journalists.

3. Romania: Draft defamation law passes first vote

A draft defamation law has passed a legal committee vote in Romania. If adopted, those found guilty of defamation could be fined up to RON 100,000 (€22,000). The law would be equally applicable to reports in the media as to messages posted on Facebook.

Liviu Dragnea, leader of the Social Democratic Party, the largest party in the Romanian parliament, said a Department for Promoting Human Dignity and Tolerance will be established to prevent and penalise defamation, defined as “the act or statement by which a person is put in a position of inferiority on the grounds of belonging to a social group”.

Some Romanian journalists have criticised the draft law as a means to protect politicians from criticism. “This law aims to protect the politicians from being criticised for their actions,” TV producer Radu Banciu said. “In the name of defending tolerance of group differences, they just want to control not only the mass media but also Facebook and other social media.”

4. Greece: New media law limits national TV channels

Controversial new legislation regarding TV channels was passed in the Greek Parliament late on 11 February in a narrow vote. While there are currently seven national TV stations, the new law will allow licences for just four.

The law has angered many. “You are choosing the path of authoritarian practices, which alienate the country from the European principles of justice,” New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis told MPs. The Association of Private TV Channels (EITISEE) has also accused the government of performing a “sleight of hand” by basing its decision to launch a tender for just four TV licenses on a study that contains calculations that are incorrect.

5. Turkey: Molotov cocktails thrown and shots fired at newspaper headquarters

On 11 February, a group of 3-4 masked assailants opened fire and threw molotov cocktails at the headquarters of newspapers Yeni Safak and Yeni Akit, in Istanbul.

While there were no casualties, a fire broke out in front of the building and some vehicles were damaged. Firefighters rushed to the scene as police cordoned off the area. Tight security measures were put in place around the building.

The United States Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, and his German counterpart Martin Erdmann have condemned the attack. “No violence against journalists is acceptable. Free and polyphonic press is essential to a democratic society,” said Bass.

This article was originally published on Index on Censorship.

Mapping Media Freedom

Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at