Imagine that in Poland or Nicaragua a local national who had worked several years for an American news agency was invited abroad by his employer. Imagine that when he went for a passport, he was blindfolded and beaten by local police who screamed that his work for the American news agency was unpatriotic. Suppose further that after this, high government officials pledged repeatedly to grant the journalist a passport and to investigate the beating, and that the country’s ambassador in Washington had promised this in writing to a US congressman. If, after all this, the authorities forbade the journalist from leaving and brought criminal charges against him of slandering the state, one could easily imagine the uproar that would result here.
This is exactly what happened to Ismet Imset, United Press International’s correspondent in Turkey. He was beaten up by Turkish police on March 16 when he applied for a passport at Istanbul’s Gayrettepe Police Center. He immediately filed an official complaint, and his case was discussed during US congressional hearings in April on human rights in Turkey. The hearings were related to a $930 million US aid package to the Turkish junta. Over the course of the hearings, Turkish officials pledged no less than 13 times that Imset would be allowed to leave the country.
In Ankara, though, his complaint had infuriated Turkish authorities, who regard such conduct as unpatriotic. After the aid-related hearings, at the end of April, the minister of interior slapped a sudden ban on Imset’s travel documents. The official excuse was a five-year-old dormant court case from Ismet’s student days: A friend picked up for writing slogans had denounced him as an accomplice; after two weeks of torture, Imset took responsibility for a pistol allegedly found in a friend’s apartment. Because of the nasty, though typical, details of electric shock torture, the Turkish authorities had seemed content to ignore the case, and until the end of April they maintained it would not affect Imset’s ability to leave the country.
Imset learned of his travel ban from a visiting British journalist, and he has never been allowed to see the document. The night he was told of it, plainclothes police surrounded his house. He was followed in the streets and harassed at checkpoints. The US Embassy ran two security checks on Imset and found him entirely clean: His problems were not his 1978 court case but his articles about human rights violations and his complaint at being beaten up. Nevertheless, Western attention to his case, both official and press, began to diminish. In early summer, Turkish authorities brought new charges against Imset of “disseminating propaganda in violation of republicanism or democratic principles and in favor of dictatorial government by an individual or a social class.” As of early October, his trial had not been completed. Imset has been told by authorities that even if he is acquitted he faces conscription into the Turkish army. According to persons who have recently spoken with him, Imset fears he may suffer the fate of a friend and fellow critic of the military regime who was hospitalized as a result of “injuries” sustained in basic training.
US officials claim that since Imset is a Turkish citizen they have no grounds to intervene unless requested by UPI. The Turkish Embassy in Washington says it has received no representations from UPI on the matter. UPI did send several officials to Turkey last spring, but it has carried no news of the beating or subsequent developments over its wire. Persons familiar with news agency operations feel that UPI is probably afraid of being banned from Turkey altogether. Imset has told recent visitors that he feels abandoned in his ordeal.
In a country with over 30,000 political prisoners, whose officials have admittedly tortured prisoners to death and which is threatening many trade unionists with the death penalty, the case of Ismet Imset seems quite unexceptional. lt is certainly not likely to disturb Washington’s affection for the junta. lt does, however, shed a critical light on Western media coverage of Turkey. There are presently no US correspondents based in Turkey. Visiting correspondents seldom notice the laws deterring Turks from criticizing the military regime, as they write about how popular the government appears to be. Under these circumstances, the independence and security of a local correspondent should be an important concern for a Western media firm. After the experience of Ismet Imset, who should believe what we read in the US press about Turkey, or wonder why there is so little to read to begin with?
The UN Commission on Human Rights estimates that a minimum of 140,000 civilians have been displaced by the latest fighting in Lebanon, and the total may well be twice that. In the occupied south, Israeli troops seem to have reduced the atrocities committed by Phalangists and Guardians of the Cedar against Palestinians there, but the Israelis themselves continue to round up an average of 50 Palestinians a week for interrogation and detention in the Ansar concentration camp. Concerning the Israeli occupation, we encourage readers to continue raising this matter publicly, especially in connection with US aid to Israel. Concerning the needs of Lebanon’s civilian population, we encourage support for a project of two Lebanese self-help agencies, Amal (Lebanese Association for Popular Action) and Secours Populaire, to establish combined first aid and civil defense centers that will provide for immediate needs in emergencies and training programs in more quiet times. This project is being sponsored in the US by Grassroots International. To learn more about this program, or to receive Grassroots’ newsletter, contact Grassroots.