STEVE SWEENEY reports on Yusuf Karatas’s arrest and the clampdown on Turkish media
JOURNALISTS in Turkey are some of the most courageous people I know.
They work in conditions where they face daily threats and intimidation from the Turkish state and the constant fear of arrest.
Newsrooms are often raided, equipment seized or destroyed and staff arrested and physically attacked by the authorities.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is more afraid of a pen and a camera than he is of a bullet or a bomb.
In 2016 he advocated a change in the definition of a terrorist to include MPs, civil society campaigners and journalists.
“It’s not only the person who pulls the trigger, but those who made that possible who should also be defined as terrorists,” he said.
The country is ranked 155 in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index and a third of the world’s total jailed journalists are in Turkish prisons.
Most of them are held on trumped-up charges of terrorism, including respected investigative journalist Ahmet Sik whose book the Imam’s Army exposed the extent of the Gulenist movement’s infiltration of key parts of the Turkish state.
Former editor of the Cumhuriyet newspaper Can Dundar was jailed in absentia over the publication of a story linking the government with the supply of arms to Isis fighters in Syria.
Both Sik and Dundar are accused of terrorism; the latter was charged with revealing state secrets and trying to bring down the government.
Bizarrely in Sik’s case, he was initially accused of supporting a range of organisations, including both the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Gulenist organisation, which the state frequently refers to as the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (Feto).
My friend and comrade Fatih Polat faces prosecution and a lengthy criminal trial for insulting the brutal and authoritarian Erdogan after questioning him over his family’s business dealings following revelations in the Malta Files — I’ll be writing more on this in next week’s Star.
Attacks on the Evrensel newspaper are intensifying. Last year I attended the trial of two of its reporters who faced lengthy prison sentences after they were arrested when they covered a pro-Kurdish demonstration in the southern Turkish city of Mersin.
Their trial was absurd and the only evidence against them was the sharing of a Facebook post, a press release about the demonstration and a fake one dollar note found in one of the reporter’s bedrooms.
The journalists’ defence lawyer Tugay Bek was arrested days before the trial and held in jail, where he was tortured and beaten.
Bek is currently representing another Evrensel journalist, Yusuf Karatas, who was arrested in the city of Diyarbakir in the the largely Kurdish south-east of Turkey. His detention came after he had given evidence as part of government investigations into the Democratic Society Congress (DTK).
The DTK was a legitimate organisation made up of pro-Kurdish organisations and is seen as laying the foundations for the development of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
Karatas was quizzed over his attendance at the Mesopotamia Seasonal Agricultural Workers Assembly, which was part of the DTK’s Commission for Labour, Migration and Poverty held in Urfa province four years ago.
The assembly, which brought together trade unions and other organisations discussed the issue of workers’ rights. It is now considered a terror activity.
He was also questioned over his attendance at a demonstration over the 2011 Roboski Massacre when the Turkish state bombed and killed 34 innocent Kurdish villagers.
Bek said Karatas’s arrest is politically motivated and the Turkish authorities had spied on him between 2009 and 2013 where they monitored his whereabouts and tapped his phone, listening to his conversations.
Bek also confirmed that the DTK was recognised as a legitimate organisation and had been visited by senior government ministers from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during that time.
Karatas is also a member of the Labour Party of Turkey which released a statement demanding his release.
General secretary Selma Gurkan said: “We will not accept this illegal process against our party member Yusuf Karatas.
“We will continue to struggle against all illegality, arbitrary arrests and attempts to criminalise innocent people.”
Karatas denies charges of terrorism and in a defiant message from his prison cell said: “It doesn’t matter whether we are inside or outside, we will continue to speak the truth.”
In a letter sent to the Evrensel newspaper Karatas wrote: “Dear friends, the gloomy regime hanging over the country desires to take our future hostage. To this end, it is seeking to repress and silence all the people that line up with labour, peace, democracy and freedom.
“Yet, we will not keep quiet, no matter whether we are behind bars or outside. We will keep telling and writing the truth, and shouting out the justice demand.
“Besides, we made a promise to [Evrensel photographer] Metin Goktepe [who was killed in police custody in 1996]. This heart will not keep silent! Greetings and love to all.”
His arrest has caused an international outcry and this week saw the launch of the Freedom for Yusuf Karatas campaign in Britain.
Initiated by Solidarity with the People of Turkey (Spot) and backed by a growing number of trade unions, the campaign is demanding the immediate release of Karatas and all journalists jailed for simply doing their job.
You can sign Spot’s statement demanding Yusuf Karatas’s release at spotturkey.org.uk. Further details and updates on the case can also been seen at evrensel.net/daily. Steve Sweeney is a Morning Star reporter.