On February 29, 1984, the Ankara correspondent for United Press International, Ismet Imset, was visited just before midnight by an acquaintance from the Security Forces. The visitor warned him that he and his wife (presumably along with their three-year-old child) were about to be taken into detention for interrogation by a special squad of police from Istanbul.
Deliberate intimidation or friendly warning? It hardly matters. Imset and his wife spent the next three days sheltered in the house of the Reuters correspondent. For them, the incident was the climax to a year of terror ever since Imset complained officially and publicly after police in Istanbul beat him up when he applied for a passport to go abroad on work for UPI.
UPI has not insisted that the beating be investigated, and now says that it thinks the incident was not connected with Imset’s work for the agency. This is strange, since during it the police accused Imset of working against Turkey in the foreign press. Stranger still, UPI President Bill Small managed to get the details of the beating up wrong in a letter to International PEN last year; Small described Imset’s ordeal merely as “being held incommunicado by the police for 24 hours.”
UPI has said several times that it does not think Imset is being harassed, even though he has been given warnings by police and diplomats not to run particular stories and he has had to live with plainclothesmen outside his house. The agency has steadfastly refused Imset’s appeals that it publish his story and that it complain to Congress and the State Department. UPI says it is supporting Imset “to the end” but does not think that publicity would do his case any good. UPI is now one of the very few news organizations not to have published Imset’s story.
UPI’s reaction to the latest threat, just last week, was typical. It ignored it for more than 24 hours. Then it told Imset that it would not make a complaint and did not regard the incident as harassment, and advised him what to do if he is arrested. Brooke Kroeger of UPI’s London office told callers she had been in personal contact with Imset when in fact she had not even spoken with him. Vickie Carnegie, the Reuters correspondent who gave Imset and his wife refuge, has written an angry letter to UPI complaining at their failure to act swiftly and promptly on his behalf.
Imset naturally did not cover the recent news of the seven deaths from a hunger strike in a military prison in southeastern Turkey. He believes it was his coverage of human rights stories before March 1983 which led to his being beaten up. UPI says that his problems stem from a minor 1978 court case — Turkish authorities last November, without fresh evidence, upgraded this into a charge carrying a minimum seven-and-a-half year prison sentence. UPI has not protested this either.
The Turkish authorities — who traditionally harass critical local journalists by dangling court cases over their heads — have moved against others as well. In December, Armagan Anar of Agence France Presse was told she could not travel abroad and was facing a court case for remarks made at a women’s meeting in 1976. She had previously held a passport and been allowed to travel abroad twice. This was her first news of the prosecution, and in any case there is no automatic ban on persons facing court cases from traveling, especially when such a long period has elapsed between the court case and the alleged offense.
Obviously, these two cases are a powerful encouragement to other Turks working for the foreign press not to step out of line on issues such as human rights violations. These are not fully reported in the West. The most striking omission comes in this year’s US State Department Report to Congress on Human Rights in Turkey. It does not mention the Imset case — a clear test of how torture allegations are handled — at all.
A year ago, Ismet Imset was trying to get something down about his beating, and to be issued a passport. These goals have now been abandoned in a struggle to live with harassment and to stay out of prison. He could now easily get a sentence of ten years — in my opinion as a direct result of UPI’s inaction over his case. As these lines are being written, Imset and his wife have taken temporary refuge in a colleague’s house while awaiting to see if a second warning that they will be arrested is true. The same cops who beat up Imset a year ago are now said to be hunting him down on faked evidence. Isn’t it a little strange that this can happen to a US news agency employee in a NATO country?
—A Special Correspondent
March 3, 1984