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Time to say ‘enough is enough’ for Turkey’s journalists

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Tunca Öğreten

The veteran journalists of Babiali — a word which was once synonymous with ‘mainstream media’ after the Istanbul neighborhood of the same name which was home to most of the main offices of the country’s newspapers — used to meet at taverns or bars after work. Unlike them, we as today’s journalists often come together at the Courthouse. But one thing that brings us closer is when justice reporters dispense with their usual routine to cover the cases against journalists and academics.

It was Jan. 10, a bitterly cold and rainy Thursday morning.

Just two days previously, I had gone to court for another session in a case where I am facing 19.5 years in jail for reporting on the leaked emails of Energy Minister Berat Albayrak. During the case, I have said to myself many times “Hopefully, the final sentence will match the one year I have already spent in prison”.

A day later, I was heading to the courthouse again. As a person who makes it to every appointment at the last minute (if I’m not actually late), I got to the hearing just a few minutes before it started.

At the gate, I came across people who are routinely on trial or are routinely supporting journalists on trial – Erol Önderoğlu of Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) , Canan Coşkun of Medyascope, Cansu Pişkin of Evrensel, Tansu Pişkin of Bianet and some other journalists.

We embraced each other, making jokes. Every one of us has turned into a kind of “sweet terrorist” in the eyes of the other. We mock each other with our “crimes,” waiting for the start of the hearing in fun.

The veteran journalists of Babiali — a word which was once synonymous with “mainstream media” after the Istanbul neighborhood of the same name which was home to most of the main offices of the country’s newspapers — used to meet at taverns or bars after work. Unlike them, we as today’s journalists often come together at the Courthouse.

But one thing that brings us closer is when crime reporters dispense with their normal news to cover the cases against journalists and academics.

At one point, I received a text message from a journalist friend who was standing trial in another lawsuit, apologizing for failing to show up because supporting someone from their newspaper who was standing trial in another courthouse at the same time was a priority. I once again understood that we cannot cope with the trials of our colleagues. What’s even worse is that I have found that I have gotten used to this situation. But this sense of awareness did not last long.

In any case, my hearing was about to begin after a half-hour delay; the usher politely invited us all into the hearing hall, and we took our seats.

As a journalist who stood trial the previous day for aiding two totally separate organizations without being member of either of them and revealing state secrets depending on the circumstances (what on earth does “depending on the circumstances” actually mean?) my “crime” today is insulting the president.

Still, I am really experienced on this issue. I am standing trial because author Perihan Mağden likened President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to a “cornered tiger” in an interview conducted by me.

Yes, it is true. Both Mağden and I faced trials for “insulting the president” because of her specific comparison.

It is the final hearing. The woman judge, who proved that the indictment and the reasons for the trial are so absurd that hasn’t able to give me a 2.5-year sentence, asks for my concluding remarks.

 “Your Honor, as I repeated I don’t know how many times in previous hearings, you can utilize animal names such as ‘bear,’ ‘donkey’ or ‘ox’ in a bid to insult someone, but I have never before witnessed the use of ‘tiger’ for such a purpose. We are used to praising the people we like with words like ‘my lion’ or ‘my tiger.’”

Of course, the judge is fully aware that the allegory used in the interview is not insulting. Still, she listens to me with a smile of despair on her face. And I know very well what the meaning of the smile of despair means on the face of a judge. It’s just like saying, “I should not sentence you, but if I don’t… Well, you know; don’t make me speak about it!”

She orders a break to think about her decision. Actually, what she will think about is not the verdict. In journalists’ trials, every verdict is decided even before the indictment is prepared. I know that the sole reason for the break is to fulfill procedures, but I do not want to be that merciless toward judges. They might be struggling with their conscience there. Now, you could counter, “If they’re afraid, they shouldn’t be in that profession.” That’s true, but I can’t help feel merciful toward my hangman. Who knows, maybe someday those who say “enough is enough” at the end of this soul-searching will become judges and prosecutors.

Meanwhile, we’re at the door to the courtroom, horsing around. Being the subjects of a sad picture has made us all impudent too. We can’t help but mock the details of the plot against us. We’ve also become addicted to lawsuits. As we wait, I joke with the others: “You’ll see. The judge will acquit me.” They object, but then I take my nonchalance to new highs, betting them a rakı night out that I won’t be convicted.

The usher calls us back into the hearing hall. The judge shoots another desperate smile my way. First, she sentences me to a year and several months in prison but then reduces it to 11 months, before commuting it to a fine of 7,000 Turkish Liras (roughly $1,340). Well, it’s good, I tell myself. The fine looks small in my eyes. If I wouldn’t be ashamed to do so, I would shout “That didn’t hurt” in the judge’s face.

I exit the hearing room, telling the judge to “take it easy.”

“Did you see it? That’s basically an acquittal,” I tell the guys. All agree, with high fives flying around the courthouse. Still, technically, I lost the bet on the rakı night, making it 7,000 liras — plus the bill for a 100 cl of rakı and mezes.

I once again understand how costly it is to be a journalist in Turkey. You earn a little money and have to pay several times that amount in the form of a fine. But in that, avoiding a jail sentence feels like an acquittal.

I leave my colleagues, who will attend the hearings of others, at the courthouse. When I am one on one with just myself, I realize the insanity I live in.

Yes, this is insane.

The insanity is not the situation of a judiciary that is guided by the government or fears it, or the “colleagues” who use their official yellow press cards – as if they were loyalty cards for airlines – to get on the planes of government officials.

The real insanity is that we consider the fines and sentences as normal; we have embraced this situation. We have started thinking that a release after a year of arrest is justice and that sentences that match the duration of arrest is an acquittal.

There is this one-man rule, its hitman media and a judiciary stuck between its jaws. They have transported us back to the pre-republican era’s teachers, with their frowning faces, turbans, religious gowns and sticks in their hands.

Because of that, we have begun saying “all right” to each slap as we turn the other cheek. Arrest pending trial? It’s all right. Standing trial for making propaganda for an organization due to a news report? It’s all right. Standing trial for “revealing state secrets” when reporting on the blunders of the government? It’s all right.

It’s time we said “enough is enough” When we write, criticize, say “this can’t be” in a low tone and try to make a living on funds from abroad, we are doing nothing but normalizing the verdicts in trials in which those foreign funds allow us to receive legal aid. What’s more, we’re simply approving the decisions as if they were just.

Maybe we do not like this theater play, but we keep on buying tickets for the front row. In such a fashion, the tour keeps traveling from one city to another.

It’s time to say “enough is enough!” Come on!

This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.