Foreign journalists covering Southeast Turkey are persecuted, but we aren’t the victims

by Fréderike Geerdink   Getty Images  


This week, international media and press freedom organisations have spoken out fiercely against the two year prison sentence that a Turkish court handed to journalist Ayla Albayrak, an experienced member of the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) bureau in Turkey. And indeed, it is outrageous that a journalist is obstructed in carrying out her job. I know all about it, since I was expelled from Turkey two years ago for exactly the same ‘crime’ that Albayrak allegedly committed: ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’. Still, Albayrak and me, and all the others kicked out of the country one way or the other, aren’t the real victims.

The story Ayla Albayrak was convicted for was published in the WSJ in the summer of 2015. It was a report from Silopi, a Kurdish town in the southeast of Turkey, about the early days of the city wars that raged in several Kurdish towns between that summer and the spring of 2016. Albayrak had access to the YPS, the youth group entrenching itself in parts of the city, as well as to the authorities. I know Albayrak from the years we both worked in Turkey and I can safely say: nobody had access like she had.

But is Albayrak the victim here? Was I a victim? Are other foreign journalists who are currently not able to work in Turkey anymore, like David Lepeska, Jiyar Gol, Jake Hanrahan? We are – I know I haven’t got my life back on track yet – but let’s face it, we are in a luxury position. We are out now, we have another place to go, we have governments that are on our side, media supporting us, journalism funds helping us out with financing our procedures against the Turkish state.

The real victims are the people we have been writing about and for whom it is increasingly impossible, or by now outright impossible, to make their voices heard. Foreign journalists who are still in Turkey, are reluctant to travel southeast, rightly worried about ending up in jail as bargaining chip for Erdogan or being put on a plane to their home countries with no way to return. A lack of press freedom is not about the journalists affected, but about the stories not being told anymore.

Because this is, in the end the aim of Erdogan’s crack down on media freedoms: to have no eyes anymore to witness his crimes against Turkish citizens, to have no pens, no cameras anymore to record it all and share it with the world. And he is being terribly succcesful at it.

 So don’t be fooled by the fact that hardly any news is coming out of southeast Turkey, also known as north Kurdistan, anymore. It doesn’t mean all is fine.

Nothing is fine. Round the clock curfews in assorted towns and neighbourhoods are ongoing, torture of civilians hasn’t stopped, the suppression of Kurdish culture is stepped up by appointed trustees replacing prosecuted and jailed elected Kurdish mayors.

How do I know this despite the fact that there no international journalists on the ground anymore (with Mahmut Bozarslan, writing for Al-Monitor, being the exception, but as a local he surely has to be very careful too)? I follow local sources. Unfortunately, they are often not considered reliable sources by international news agencies, papers and TV stations. And of course, the important journalistic principle of ‘one source is no source’ should be obeyed.

But journalism rules designed for (relatively) democratic countries don’t function properly in dictatorships, like Turkey has unfortunately become. Journalism about dictatorships should use all the tools the professional rules allow us to use to get stories out. If a Kurdish news agency reports the torture of civilians in a town, we can use that as a source and find experts who can subject the news to scrutiny: journalists who have worked in the region and know it well (I know a few), academics who have researched the Turkish state’s methods, human rights organisations which have worked in Turkey for long and have investigated and brought to light earlier human rights abuses, local politicians who are still on the ground (although many of them are jailed or in exile).

The last step will make the stories complete: call the Turkish authorities, ask for a comment, then finish your article by adding that the Turkish government declined to comment.

Spread the stories. We foreign journalists, we are fine, we don’t need your attention and comfort – at least, not more than a little bit. Don’t let your lack of journalistic creativity become yet another tool in Erdogan’s hands to keep a whole region and the people we once wrote about in obscurity.