October 17, 2015

Journalist Kaya says how his life is affected by gov’t pressure on free media

What is it like to work as a journalist in a country where intimidation, oppression and pressure on independent media outlets occur on a daily basis? What do journalists feel when their colleagues are detained, arrested and physically assaulted only for writing reports that are critical of those in power? Can a journalist live their life in a normal way while there is the possibility of being put in jail because of their refusal to submit to the ruling group of their country?

At a time when dozens of journalists are behind bars in Turkey and many more have been sued, Sunday's Zaman spoke with a prominent journalist working for the bestselling Turkish newspaper Zaman, asking him how he lives his everyday life, bearing in mind the situation of the free media in the country. Bayram Kaya, Zaman's security correspondent, who is under investigation for his reports revealing government misconduct, said that for the last two years he has been inseparable from his journalism, thinking about the news in the country for almost 24 hours a day.

“Before Dec. 17 [when a graft scandal implicated senior government members], I used to have a routine life, going to work in the morning and after 6 in the evening I had a private life, a life with my family. However, for the last two years, I cannot spend sufficient time with my family because of the general atmosphere in Turkey of terrorist incidents, operations against police officers or members of the Hizmet movement [also known as the Gülen movement],” Kaya said. He added that these developments psychologically affect journalists as well since following up on these events and investigating their background has become an everyday matter for journalists like him.

On Dec. 17, 2013, an event made headlines across Turkey whose repercussions can still be felt, two years later. A large number of people including four ministers and their sons were implicated in a graft probe that revealed the biggest corruption and bribery scandal in the history of the Turkish Republic. Since the day many of its leading figures were implicated in corruption, the government has adopted practices and a discourse to fight against those who took part in the investigations as well as those who comment on or report these investigations, which has heavily affected the party's prestige.

The Gülen movement, which is inspired by the teachings of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, has been on the receiving end of a large share of the government's unjust actions and was untruthfully accused of planning to overthrow the government by conducting the graft probes. Moreover, a huge number of journalists and individuals representing different segments of society have been targeted by the ruling party's figures over the last two years, with many of them either investigated or arrested by partisan members of the judiciary because of their critical stance against the government.

‘Attempts to silence me will never be successful'

Kaya is one of those journalists who are under constant pressure by the government. There are currently five investigations being carried out against him on the grounds that he allegedly targeted certain individuals and bureaucrats in his columns.

Stating that he is not afraid of investigations even if they reach the level of prosecution, Kaya added, “These attempts to silence us [critical journalists] will never be successful; I will keep writing the truth as long as I am out there.” Kaya describes the government-led investigations, trials and imprisonment of critical journalists as “efforts to break writing pens and efforts to silence tongues that speak.”

In this regard, Kaya gives the examples of journalists Mehmet Baransu, Hidayet Karaca, Gültekin Avcı and Bülent Keneş, all of whom have been arrested after the Dec. 17 graft probes even though these very journalists were praised by the same government prior to the revelation of its alleged dirty secrets. According to a list prepared by the Platform for Solidarity with Arrested Journalists (TGDP), a total of 26 journalists are in prison in Turkey as of Oct. 12, 2015.

Despite the pressure and unlawful practices targeting journalists, Kaya expresses confidence in himself because he believes he is only doing his job. Underlining that he never intends to insult an individual, a bureaucrat or a politician in his reports, Kaya says, “We are only trying to do what our job entails: To reveal negligence and mistakes based on exact information and reliable documents.”

Kaya further notes that in the Turkey of today, journalists who tell the truth are not wanted by the government and that only journalists who are associated with the political elite and write whatever the political power wants are safe. “Both our upbringing and our moral values are against this,” Kaya said, adding: “Have they come to us with offers? Of course they have. They said they could make use of me in pro-government media organs with a much higher salary. However, I am trying to be satisfied with the salary that my newspaper gives me.”

Kaya is worried about his safety amid mounting violence in Turkey

While mentioning the recent twin suicide bombing in Ankara that took the lives of at least 102 people, Kaya said that no one can guarantee that other attacks will not be made against individuals as well. Kaya narrates how he went to have his car checked to see whether there was anything suspicious, such as a bomb attached to the car. He says, “Things can happen, because these days, we are going through a period in Turkey similar to the 1990s, with journalists, outspoken individuals and politicians becoming targets.”

During the 1990s in Turkey, violent incidents were common across the country, with unsolved murders and assassinations of both civilians and public officials. Though the perpetrators of these heinous incidents were never identified, many people believe that rogue elements inside the state hierarchy were involved. The murders of Gen. Eşref Bitlis, journalist Uğur Mumcu and the suspicious deaths of politicians Adnan Kahveci and then-President Turgut Özal are only few examples of those infamous events.

Today, some people compare the current situation in Turkey to the 1990s, accusing the interim government of turning a blind eye to the mounting violence in the country, which was most recently seen in the dreadful Ankara bombings. Moreover, the polarization in society led supporters of the ruling party to attack a daily's headquarters in September and physically assault and hospitalize a journalist in the same month.

When asked about whether he has any fears regarding his safety, Kaya describes a part of his daily life and says: “When I get out of my apartment, I always look at the street in front of the building complex where I live to see if there is a [suspicious] car that might follow me. When I get on the bus, I check who is in front of me and who is sitting behind me. After I exit a metro station, while walking to the office, there is this worry about whether there is someone following me or whether someone is lying in wait at a blind spot. I can't say this is a fear but as a matter of fact I have some anxiety.”

In to a report published by the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) at the end of 2014, Turkey was designated one of the world's 10 worst countries for journalists, with a deteriorating situation in the country for freedom of expression and free media.

Published on Today's Zaman, 17 October 2015, Saturday