Sunday, April 1, 2012

Three Women Journalists on the Outside Tell Their Stories

Three Women Journalists on the Outside Tell Their Stories by Nilay Vardar[1]

Kepenek, Demir and Bozkurt, three female journalists that were arrested as part of the investigation known as the “KCK Operation” have been released from custody, and are here to share their thoughts on the uneasy state of affairs in Turkey.

At present 105 journalists, and 35 members of the press are under arrest in Turkey. 100 of these are members of the Kurdish media. During KCK’s “journalist campaign” 35 people were arrested in one day.

Arzu Demir, Evrim Kepenek and Hatice Bozkurt were arrested during this operation, and were recently released. Nearly three months have passed; what were the charges brought against them, how were they involved in the media, how do they feel today?

Three women journalists on the outside tell their stories. All three emphatically express the conviction that they “feel responsible to the journalists who are [still] inside.”

She Had Been Monitored Since She Started Working at DIHA

Evrim Kepenek has been an amateur reporter since elementary school. Due to her devotion to working as a reporter, she has yet to find time to complete her degree in International Relations at Bilgi University. She has been a contributor to the daily newspapers Cumhuriyet, Taraf, Birgün, and to the news blog Bianet.

For the past two years Kepenek has been working at DIHA. During her time under arrest, she was made aware that her activities and telephone conversations had been monitored subsequent to her starting to work at the agency. When she went to Van to report on the 2011 earthquake, she was told by colleagues, “You are from Rize, you won’t be able to endure the cold in Van”. She was able to withstand the cold, but one morning she was arrested in front of the tent reserved for the press. Her friends from the Black Sea region protested in front of the police department, holding up signs that said “Evrim is the brotherhood of nations.” In the news, the press tent in which Evrim Kepenek was staying was characterized as the “terrorist tent;” and on Facebook she was referred to as “PKK supporter from Hemşin.”

“I am going, I am coming”
 [Cideyurum, Celiyirum]

During her interrogation at the local police station, they didn’t believe that Evrim Kepenek was from Rize. They kept asking her why she was involved with DIHA. Saying,“My family has been in Rize for several generations,” was not enough, but they finally believed her when she spoke the words, “I am going, I am coming,” with an accent characteristic of the Black Sea region. Although she was unable to convince the interrogating officers in Van why she was involved in a politically controversial organization, she describes her reasons in the following way. “My whole life I never belonged to any group. For me, photographing and reporting a newsworthy event, whether it be attended by Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian, Laz, Circassian people is more important than any form of political rhetoric. Sometimes when I go to press conferences, I find that I am the only reporter there. If we aren’t there to represent the press, there may not be a place for us there the next time around.”

“They told me to get married and have kids”

Among the questions asked to Kepenek during her interrogation was one about a sit-in protest concerning the October 2011 assault on Turkish military forces in Cukurca. During the protest in the Taksim neighborhood of Istanbul that was attended by members of the BDP, Kepenek was photographed among other members of the press with her camera. “They showed me a picture of myself with my camera. What could I say, the deputies of the BDP were there, thousands of people are participating in a sit-in, and I was reporting the news. What if they had taken my picture without my camera or what if it had not been visible in the frame, what would have happened then? It’s a scary thought, but I am certain there are such photos of me as well, and when the time comes they will be brought up.”

Kepenek doesn’t know why she was released from custody. “They probably couldn’t find a suitable role for me in this narrative.” “At the police department [in Van] they told me that their expectation of me for the future was to stop working at DIHA; go get married, have kids and stop doing this kind of work.” They also said, “There can’t be any traitors from Rize, can there be?”

After her release, she was shocked to see the reports in the papers. “I was afraid of myself, I thought, ‘what did we do here?’ What was really strange is that I am constantly brushing elbows with reporters who work at those organizations. I was afraid that when I returned home to Rize, I would be chastised for all of this. But my family was always at my side; my father even wrote a press statement that he would read if I were to be arrested. It would read, “When my daughter was young I taught her humanity, and now she is working in a humane capacity at DIHA. What is wrong with that, Mr. Prime Minister?”

With the excitement of the news you forget, but then when you come home...”

“I am uneasy,” Kepenek says.

“With the excitement of the news you forget everything, but then when you come home at night, the reality of being followed, of your conversations being monitored, and the fear of the possibility of being arrested again affects your mental state. It’s a far shot, but I’ve even considered this: Somewhere a bomb will go off, they have a sample of my hair, and I will be blamed with the bombing.”

“I don’t do anything except report news, but the fact that the [Turkish] government is unsettled by an individual such as myself is truly unsettling. But whatever happens, how could I give up my vocation after having dedicated so many years to it?”

“The price of solidarity with the Kurdish media”

Arzu Demir got her degree in environmental engineering from Yıldız Technical University in Istanbul. She has been a journalist for 13 years; and has never practiced as an engineer.

She has worked at Özgür Radyo, Özgür Gündem and Demokrat Radyo; for the past five years she has been reporting for the Fırat News Agency; and she has been working as a reporter-editor at Etkin News Agency for the past one year.

Demir who was born on the Marmara Adası says, “Before starting college [in Istanbul] I had no idea what was going on in the world. After that I started to worry about the world, and journalism became my way of conveying communicating this.”

Demir explains her arrest in the following way, “They called to account those of us who showed solidarity with the Kurdish media.”

“I share news with ANF and ROJ, and I have a socialist identity. I have always cooperated with the Kurdish media, and I was called to account for this [by the authorities that arrested me] by their making a connection between me and a [terrorist] organization.”

“During my interrogation at police headquarters, which was called a ‘conversation,’ the first thing I was told was that I was responsible for setting a fire truck in Tarlabaşı on fire. With this, I saw the scale of the conspiracy they were capable of contriving. Nobody inquired into this accusation at the office of the public prosecutor. It was clear that the aim of this accusation was to intimidate.”

“An explosive bit of news”

Demir says that at the prosecutor’s office she wasn’t asked about anything other than what was reported on the news, and that she interpreted this as “the interrogation of journalism itself.”

“They asked me about my interview with the Middle East expert Haluk Gerger. I say, ‘Yes, I did the interview. My name is on it.’ According to the fiction they have created we were taking order from KCK, and reporting on what they told us to. I have interviewed those on the radical right as well as those on the left, I have interviewed Hezbollah supporters. They chose to focus on the one interview that suited their needs.”

A tragicomic situation took place while Demir’s phone was being tapped; As Demir was talking to DIHA reporter Çağdaş Kaplan about a news item that turned out to be false, she made a joke that she was going to “blow up” a big story.

At the prosecutor’s office she was “What bomb were you going to blow up?”

In her own words, Demir was released “by chance,” but her colleague Kaplan was arrested. That’s why “I feel responsible to those who are still inside. There should not be any cause to assume that I am not culpable or that my colleague is.”

“She will take those that labeled her a terrorist to the European Court Human Court”

While the [journalists] were in custody, fellow journalists protested for their release, but there were some who published editorials and news stories that questions the [arrested journalists’] competence as journalists and labelled them ‘terrorists.’ Demir tried to bring a suit against these persons and institutions, but her claims were not considered within the scope of hindering freedom of expression.

When Demir exhausts domestic legal recourse, she will go to the European Court of Human Rights. “I want this to be a precedent,” she says. “If, while I am being held in custody with no explanation, another journalist who writes for a pro-government newspaper labels me a ‘terrorist’ and shows me as a target, who is responsible for my safety?”

“I was shaken, but it strengthened my resolve”

Demir says that she feels well. She says, “Neither of us is brave or heroic, of course we experience anxiety and fear. I may be watched and listened to, but I am not doing anything that is against the law.”

“Being arrested was devastating for me. The government reminded me that it was there. But this strengthened my resolve, renewed my desire to continue. I feel good; even when I am old and walking around with a cane, I will continue to be a journalist.”

“I can’t imagine journalism independently of the Kurdish reality”

Hatice Bozkurt never completed her Tourism degree at Van Yüzüncü Yıl University [in Van]. She was imprisoned for five years due to political reasons. As soon as she was released she began working as a reporter for Özgür Gündem; she has yet to complete her first year on the job. While under arrest, Bozkurt was only asked where she had met her colleagues on the paper. She was the first to be released from custody. Later she was arrested again in connection with the explosives found in the Başakşehir [district of Istanbul]. She was released from custody once again. She describes her reasons for going into journalism after spending five years in prison in the following terms:

“Everyone expresses their stance in life in a different manner. Some go into politics, others make art. I had written for newspapers here and there in the past, and now it has become the way I express my stand.”

She explains that her latest arrest cannot be considered as unrelated to ‘the whole.’ “They want to give the message that we weren’t sufficiently rehabilitated in prison,” she says. “If I had not been a journalist but had been a lawyer or an artist instead I would still be under pressure.” She continues, “At this time, legally speaking, many modes of self-expression are being equated with terrorism and associated with criminality.”

Bozkurt says that she “can’t imagine a journalism independent of her political convictions.” She explains, “I can’t be a reporter from a neutral point outside of the reality of the Kurdish community. I have a moral and historical obligation to this community.”

“[The scandal at] Pozantı [Juvenile Detention Center] should be exposed at all cost”

Showing us photographs of Özgür Gündem reporters and workers who were killed in the news room, Bozkurt says, “We have inherited the past of a newspaper that was published with the help of murdered journalists.”

“In the 90s, [these journalists] exposed the cruelty and oppression wrought on Kurdish communities [in Turkey], and they paid for this with their lives. Today those who expose the Roboski Massacre# and the Pozantı Scandal# are being arrested; nothing has changed. If there were no free press, how would these events come to light?”

Bozkurt says that in spite of the fact that she is a newby, “my interest in reporting is catching, and now has turned into a full-blown habit.”

“After the arrest many people came to [Özgür Gündem] to give us their support. An old woman asked insistently how she could help. In the end, she decided to subscribe to the paper, saying, ‘I am illiterate, but I’d like to have the paper around the house.’”

Bozkurt says, “Being afraid is a very human reaction. But even if I were to be arrested ten times, exposing the realities such as the violence at Pozantı would be worth it.”

[1] This is the English translation of the article originally published in Turkish on Bianet on March 8, 2012 and can be accessed here.