Western Silence on Turkey

by David Barchard
published in MER121

About July 20, 1983, a BBC television news crew filming outside Istanbul’s Metris prison found itself confronted by difficulties which, one of the crew said, he had never experienced even in the Soviet Union. During a subsequent flurry of messages between the crew, the British Embassy in Ankara, and the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the crew learned that they were supposed to work with a Turkish plainclothes policeman permanently at their side (or if they wished, following at a distance). The Foreign Ministry also indicated that the crew might have had an easier time had they not chosen to be accompanied by the present writer, the Ankara stringer for the BBC as well as for other newspapers and broadcasting organizations. The message was duly relayed to the crew.

All of this might raise an eyebrow as it took place in a country whose return to parliamentary democracy was being toasted in public a week later by the British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. The real irony of the situation, however, is that unknown to everyone except presumably Turkish officialdom at the time, on the other side of the wall which the BBC TV crew was trying to film, a hunger strike among more than 2,000 political prisoners was entering its second week. So efficiently controlled is the flow of information in Turkey that it was to be more than another ten days before the first news of the strike leaked out, possibly explaining the anxiety of the authorities about a visiting television crew.

Discussion of the press situation here today has passed the point when it is possible simply to look at the problems of the Turkish press. One has also to examine why it is that the Western media give disproportionately little of their space to a European country where there are between 18,000 and 30,000 political prisoners; where trade unionists are tortured and go on trial for their lives; where peace activists face jail terms of up to 15 years; and where (pace a thousand diplomatic politenesses) no genuine effort is made to combat or punish torture even though the government itself last year admitted to 15 deaths under torture.

It is true that the column inches of the world’s press are not infinite. Nevertheless, events in Turkey ought to have more relevance to European public opinion. The same international treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, protect the individual in Turkey as they do in Britain or Sweden. If they can be flouted in one country, they can be flouted in all of them. If, moreover, some Western European officials have played a part in blunting their countries’ perceptions of violations of human rights in one country (and so perhaps been a factor in permitting torture and injustice to continue) then they have actually interfered in the mechanisms which guarantee human rights and the rule of law throughout Europe as a whole.

This summer it had become clear that Turkey is not, as is still being promised, about to return to normal parliamentary democracy. As this realization has become widespread, the government has had to make increasing use of surveillance and intimidation to prevent uninhibited discussion from taking place and turning into effective political opposition. Let us first look at the Turkish press in August.

On August 11, 1983, martial law authorities in Istanbul ordered the banning of the conservative daily newspaper Tercüman. It did not reappear until September 3. Three days later, on August 14, the center right newspaper Milliyet was also banned. It was allowed to return to the newsstands on August 27. Around the same time, Turkey’s largest-selling weekly, Nokta, was also banned.

The reasons why the martial law authorities acted are generally known. In the case of Tercüman, its leading columnist, Nazlı Ilıcak, had written an article in rather philosophical terms, quoting John Stuart Mill and other philosophers to the effect that free government was better than tyranny. She also suggested that military regimes were in the “second league” of world nations. She will now face prosecution for having allegedly insulted Turkey’s military rulers. The authorities are demanding a sentence of between two and eight years. It is to be expected that eventually Ilıcak will be convicted and that she will serve a sentence, probably of more than a year. If she is lucky, she will enjoy open prison conditions. That is to say, she will be allowed out between the hours of seven in the morning and seven in the evening. Ilıcak, a staunch conservative, is already familiar with prison. Last year she served several months on an earlier conviction.

Milliyet was shut down because one of its authors, Metin Toker, had written some polite but forceful criticism of the workings of Turkey’s new political system. Himself once a nominated senator who defended Turkey after the coup in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, he now believes that the country faces possible expulsion from it because of the way in which its new political system works. For saying this, he faces a jail sentence of a year if convicted. Nokta’s offence was to have published an interview with the chairman of the Correct Way Party, Yıldırım Avcı. Avcı’s party was one of 12 out of the 15 parties founded in Turkey since May to have been prevented from standing in the November general elections. His party had actually organized in each of Turkey’s 67 provinces, but was prevented from contesting the general elections because the ruling National Security Council would not endorse more than 25 founder members for the party, and had insisted that only parties with 30 approved founders would be allowed to contest the elections. Avcı’s remarks to Nokta were restrained under the circumstances. Nonetheless, he too may face prosecution if his immunity as a member of the Consultative Assembly set up by the generals in 1980 is lifted.

On August 26, Oktay Akbal, a columnist of the left-of-center daily Cumhuriyet, actually went into prison. His offense was to have written an article on the eve of last year’s constitutional referendum from which it could be deduced that he wanted his readers to vote against it. Like Ilıcak, he was permitted open prison conditions, which seems something of an admission by the authorities that his “offense” does not merit the punishment inflicted on him.

Statement Ignored

None of the four events described above attracted much indignation in the outside world. There was remarkably little interest too in events which finally dashed hopes that free center-left and center-right parties would be allowed to contest the general elections on November 6.

When Süleyman Demirel, a man who has been prime minister of Turkey six times since 1965 and is currently banished along with 15 other politicians, issued a declaration with his fellow detainees denouncing the elections as a fraud and accusing the West of “applauding Evren until its hands are red,” his statement was unaccountably ignored by the world’s radios. Though his critics might blame Demirel for some of the events of Turkish history over the last 15 years, he has a strong claim to be regarded as the doyen of European conservatives. Yet the only repercussions of his remarkable statement (published in the London Times) was that visits by relatives of the detainees were suspended for a few days and prosecutors got to work inquiring how the statement could have been drafted and smuggled out from detention.

The other major news surprise in August 1983 in Turkey went completely unreported. Round about August 5, just as the hunger strike mentioned at the beginning of this article was getting into its fifth week and substantial international attention was being attracted, the authorities moved against the strikers. Writing a month later, the matter is still surrounded by so much fear and secrecy that it is impossible to be sure exactly what happened.

Reports trickling out from the prisons, however, say that the authorities found a swift and effective remedy. In each compound, they selected a batch of five or six prisoners who had been on strike for four weeks. These they flogged and tortured in front of the others, warning that this treatment would continue, until the strike ended.

Thus the strike was almost immediately stopped. Turkey was spared massive unfavorable publicity. The prisoners, however, gained nothing. During the following month all prison governors were changed and replaced by harsher officials. Insults, beating, the use of water hoses became more, not less, common. To humiliate prisoners, they were stripped before being allowed to see their families and lawyers. Prisoners appeared cowering naked in front of their visitors and on at least one occasion, when four prisoners complained to their visitors of torture, they were beaten on the spot.

Even the fact that there had been a hunger strike is virtually unknown to the Turkish public (one newspaper once published a petition from relatives of the strikers to President Evren, a petition which like all other recent petitions of this kind about torture from human rights groups went unanswered). This present account, being written a month later, is the first explanation of why the strike ended to appear in the Western press. Even at this point the key names and details are still unknown.

For example, did any of the prisoners die in the hunger strike? Two names were given but they were evidently names of parents given by mistake. Some reliable sources claim that up to six prisoners died. Others say that none did. At this point no one really knows, though many prisoners were undoubtedly taken to the hospital, for instance, Yalgın Küçük, an economist who is serving an eight-year prison sentence for a book of reprinted newspaper articles.

Only Natural

There is little hope of meaningful reporting under these conditions. What the press and public of Western Europe and the US have a right to expect, however, is that they should not be willfully misinformed by their own officials. In some countries, for instance, Afghanistan and Poland, Western diplomats are a major source of news for the Western media. In Turkey, too, they are to be found briefing Western journalists arriving on visits. A sixteenth-century English writer once wrote (as diplomats are fond of pointing out) that “a diplomat is a man sent abroad to lie for his country.” The diplomat-cynic who said that the “for” should have been “to” may not have been far wide of the mark as far as Turkey is concerned. Western diplomats, even from neutral Scandinavia, seem consistently concerned to soften or blunt the perceptions of the Western media and public opinion about human rights in Turkey.

Let us take some examples: The trial of 52 trade unionists on charges of trying to overthrow the constitution, with a death penalty dangling before them and restricted rights of defense even by Turkish martial law standards, becomes “harsh by our standards but a fair trial in Turkish terms.” Their leader is dismissed as “a very unpleasant man.” A young diplomat following the trial of 30 members of the Turkish Peace Association after they have spent ten months in prison tells the press, “I was struck by the very gentlemanly and civilized atmosphere in the courtroom.”

Harsh language is usually reserved by diplomats for domestic opposition politicians or journalists writing about human rights. Amnesty International is dismissed with scorn. When a group of British members of Parliament and a former minister visited Ankara recently, a British Embassy official commented afterwards to the press, “It was perfectly obvious what their political views were.” The same MPs say that when they asked why British journalists in Ankara were harassed by the presence of policemen outside their homes and following them in the street, they were told by British officials, “In Britain we bug the telephones of traitors and it is only to be expected that the Turkish government does the same sort of thing to foreign journalists who are critical of it.” So much for press freedom.

The present writer well remembers in the spring of 1981 ringing the Danish Embassy in Ankara to ask for details of its government’s decision to prosecute Turkey at the European Commission on Human Rights. “No comment,” snapped the charge d’affaires. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I just want an outline of what the Danish government is doing and why it is.”

“Then you should ring Copenhagen,” said the charge d’affaires and rang off.

It should be a source of real shame for the European and American press that its correspondents remain so dependent on the opinions of men who, to be fair to them, are not paid to be impartial or candid. Why is so little research done and why are published stories not followed up? The torturing of the social democratic former mayor of Istanbul, Ahmet Isvan, and the government’s cover-up of it, for example, are a matter of the record. Yet only one Western journalist other than myself has ever bothered to interview him. Instead we get “in-depth” reporting in papers like the Washington Post which begins with a glowing character sketch of the Turkish ambassador in Washington and carries on with the facile claim that the majority of Turks will be quite happy to see the political parties, for which about 90 percent of them voted at the last general elections, wiped out.

No wonder flogged hunger strikers, jailed trade unionists, beaten-up UPI reporters, tortured mayors, banished prime ministers, and vetoed political parties somehow get squeezed out of the picture.

What the Western world in fact is given too often is the diplomats’ picture with a few polite omissions, the cocktail party face of military rule.

Meanwhile, however, the diplomats have their own problems, quite apart from those of lulling public opinion to sleep. Authoritarianism and militant irrationality make for recurrent administrative hiccups. There have been plenty.

In the past 12 months, the British Embassy in Ankara has had to intervene to protect the British Institute of Archaeology which, ten years earlier, had published a guidebook to Ankara whose maps of Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor showed a region called “Armenia.” The American Library in Ankara faced a similar problem when a reader complained about unwelcome geographical expressions in two of its atlases. The US ambassador recommended that the books should be withdrawn immediately. His officials resisted. A decision by Washington eventually ruled that the Readers Digest atlas and the National Geographic atlas could remain on the shelves. Meanwhile in Istanbul, the deputy manager of Lufthansa briefly stood trial for possession of an ancient globe on which “Armenia,” “Pontus” and “Kurdistan” were marked.

Travelers, too, had censorship problems. Five Britons traveling in eastern Turkey were held for five days in Adıyaman and Sivas after a farmer had denounced them for photographing old buildings where massacres of Armenians (absolutely unbeknown to them) had once taken place. A fellow of an Oxford College was startled in Tunceli when police and gendarmes with floodlights staged a raid on his hotel bedroom. He had been looking at too many medieval castles. A visiting fellow of another Oxford college was detained for several hours in Ankara for making notes into a pocket cassette recorder while looking at the citadel.

These examples, shocking or hilarious as you will, could be multiplied. There was the Foreign and Common Office secretary called Gillian, for instance, who had some difficulty getting into Turkey because police thought she might be an Armenian.

The point is: what happens in Turkey happens in some sense in Europe. If there is a conspiracy of silence to hide the appalling misuse of authority in Turkey, the effects will spill through into Europe in a variety of ways. If we value our own liberties, we should value those of the Turks as well.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Index on Censorship 12/6 (1983). We gratefully acknowledge permission of the author and publisher to publish it here.

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