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The investigation against Ergün Demir: A poverty suicide in Kocaeli

Photo: İsmail Özgür Zeren
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Recently, the judiciary has taken action against journalists for every news story that may harm the fiction created around Turkey’s economy. Among these sensitive issues are the suicides that occur due to financial difficulties and which are known as “poverty suicides.” According to the data of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the main opposition party – 5 806 people committed suicide in Turkey between 2002 and 2019 due to financial difficulties.

These suicides are observed to have increased in recent years, especially in days when the Turkish lira decreased in value. For example, on August 12, 2018, the dollar rate broke a historical record against the Turkish lira, reaching 7.22 TRY. The government went to great lengths to block any news about that development. Six journalists who covered the issue and 33 social media users who commented on it are still being prosecuted on the grounds of their posts which allegedly contained “statements that cause distrust and create chaos.”

In Turkey, which recorded 3161 suicides in 2018, financial difficulties were the second leading reason for suicide, according to TUIK data. Although the judiciary tried to prevent this from being included in the statistics, one of these people was I.D., who committed suicide in Kocaeli on September 21, 2018, because he could not afford to buy a school uniform for his son. The journalist who covered this father’s suicide faced unprecedented judicial harassment.

Ergün Demir, Editor-in-Chief of the Astakos Haber website based in Kocaeli says that the reason for founding Astakos Haber, at which he has been working for six years, was to do “free journalism”.

Hearing from a source that there was an odd case of suicide in Yukarı Hereke, a poor town far from the city, Demir recounts, “I called the mukhtar of the neighborhood and asked about this suicide. The mukhtar answered, ‘If you don’t come to me, I won’t give you any information.’ I started to feel suspicious at once. Get wind of the news, they say in journalism. I acted on that impulse.”

When Demir went to Yukarı Hereke, which is about 30 kilometers away from the Kocaeli center, and found the mukhtar, something unexpected happened. The mukhtar said that he could get him to meet with H.D., the wife of the father who had committed suicide.

“There were many women in the house. When H.D. agreed to speak to me, two women, the mukhtar and I went into a room. I prepared myself not to hurt H.D. I asked my questions calmly. I didn’t even take out my camera. I pulled out my mobile phone and conducted my interview in the form of questions and answers.”

“Everything stopped,” as the funeral coach arrived at the house, while Ergün was preparing to ask permission for a video recording, he tells us. “H.D. and her children immediately set off for their hometown of Balıkesir with the funeral vehicle. Since the family had left the city, no one except me had a chance to meet with them.”

The father’s suicide, who could not overcome that he was unable to buy pants for his son, was first published by Astakos Haber. The evening it was published, the news story began to spread in waves: “The number of readers was soaring. Local newspapers in the town started using my news story right away. Everyone was talking about this news. I received hundreds of calls in that night.”

As the news spread, so did the pressure, Ergün recalls: 

“When the news websites and newspapers that used my news (and stole it without citing the source) got under pressure, they started calling me and asking if the news was real. They asked for the recording. I replied that I have the recording. Some websites took the news story down, because of the pressure. Some did not.” 

And the Governorate gets involved… 

The night after the news was published, the Kocaeli Governorate made a statement that I.D. had committed suicide not because of financial difficulties but because of psychological reasons. In this statement, Ergün was also accused of publishing fake news. “The Kocaeli Governorate managed the process poorly,” says Ergün. Nevertheless, he explains, the news spread even further:

“The day after, some of the national newspapers covered my news in the headlines. Moreover, they called it special news and published it with the signatures of their reporters! Some of the largest newspapers…”

Demir says he has different rumors that the pressure related to the news had increased:

Photo: İsmail Özgür Zeren

“A friend of mine, a Kocaeli correspondent for a national newspaper, called me at around 06:00 in the morning. He asked for the recording. I asked why. ‘Brother, they are going to fire me and the editor at the headquarters. I heard that the editor-in-chief came and said, ‘Whoever made this news, whoever uploaded it on the website, should better bring me the related recordings by noon, else they should pack their stuff and go home.’ I handed a recording of our talk with H.D. to the reporter, which he sent to the headquarters. This way, they did not lose their jobs.”

Ergün was detained three days after this incident, on Monday, September 24, 2018, after the related recording was published. He says:

“Actually, I was not going to publish this recording. Because it sounded like an overly emotional conversation to me. But I saw that trolls and a part of the press started accusing I.D. of insanity and his wife and me of lying. To get ahead of all this, I published the recording. Believe me, during this time, my phone never stopped ringing. Those who wanted to help called from all over the world. Journalists from at home and from abroad called constantly. I tried to answer their calls as much as possible.”

Demir was called to the police station while he was working in the Doğu Kışla region of Izmit at noon on September 24. He went to give his statement and was detained:

“There I learned that they actually came to pick me up from my home in the morning hours. When they couldn’t find me at home, they called!”

Demir learned that the reason for his detention was recording the interview he had with H.D. without permission. The journalist states that he does not think that it the wife of the father who committed suicide actually filed a complaint against him:

“What I feel is that they took some time to ponder on this matter and decided to advise this course of action to H.D. In fact, recording without permission was not what happened in this situation. After all, I entered the funeral home as a journalist, with a camera bag in my hand. There were three other people besides me. The interview proceeded with questions and answers. I think the law enforcement officers who took my statement were also very embarrassed by this situation, but there was nothing else they could do!”

Demir, who was transferred to the Criminal Judgeship of Peace with a request for arrest from the prosecutor’s office, was released. Later, the matter was brought before a mediator and never turned into a case. As H.D. did not make any demands, the case was dropped. 

However, H.D., the wife of the father who committed suicide, gave some interviews to the progovernment media, in which she said that what was published was not true. Why could she have done this? “I never met with H.D. again. From what I’ve heard, after the funeral, she moved to her brother’s house in Istanbul,” answers Demir.

“Basically, it is a news about a suicide, a news about public order, but when we look at the motive for this suicide, we also see other relations”, says Demir and underscores that the reason this news caused so much uproar was its connection to the economy. 

What did he feel during this whole process, was he afraid? 

“No, I was not afraid. It just made me sad what my then three-year-old son would think if he could not see me at home in the evening. After this news, I have never practiced self-censorship. If I had the same recording and the same news story, I would do it all over again.”