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Interview ‘No journalist is free until we are all free’

Kurdish journalist SEDA TASKIN, who is facing seven years in prison, tells Steve Sweeney why she is appealing to Jeremy Corbyn to be the ‘the voice of imprisoned journalists’

A KURDISH journalist facing more than seven years in prison has appealed to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to “be the voice of every single imprisoned and downtrodden journalist.”

Seda Taskin, a journalist for the Mesopotamia News Agency, will appear by video link at a court hearing in Erzurum tomorrow where she will appeal her sentence totalling 7.6 years on on charges of “terrorist propaganda” and “aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation without being a member.”

Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists with a third of the global total. It is difficult to get the exact figures with Turkey’s authoritarian president insisting nobody is jailed because of journalism and that they are all “terrorists” — the catch-all phrase used against all those who oppose his rule.

Recent figures suggest that there are at least 170 journalists behind bars. More than 10,000 have been blacklisted while hundreds of media organisations have been shut down by presidential decree. Turkey’s journalists’ unions warn the country is like “an open prison.”

If the court rejects her appeal tomorrow she will be jailed and because her sentences are each less than five years, she cannot apply to the Supreme Court of Appeals.

Taskin stressed the importance of international solidarity and called on Corbyn and all Morning Star readers and supporters to raise their voices for press freedom and for all those jailed in Turkey.

“No journalist is free until we all are free,” she said.

Seda Taskin spoke to the Star ahead of tomorrow’s hearing.

Taskin has worked as a journalist for the Mesopotamia News Agency for the past four years — although she explains that one of those years was spent in prison.

Originally from Dersim in the largely Kurdish south-east of Turkey, Taskin grew up in the capital Ankara.

“Growing up in a country where violations of rights and the killing of people is normalised means you have to face this as a child and grow up fast,” she explains.

The Dersim Massacre of the 1930s, which followed the resistance led by Kurdish Alevi Seyit Reza, saw tens of thousands killed and many more displaced, however Taskin says this history was not taught in schools.

“They completely ignored the existence of the Kurds — it was a deliberate policy and it affected me,” she said, which is what motivated her to become a journalist. 

“To write the truth, the facts. I thought I had to verbalise the pain of the oppressed, I had to talk about the violations of rights. Because no-one else did. I love what I do. I love journalism,” Taskin tells me.

She initially worked as a reporter for the Mesopotamia News Agency in Ankara before being sent to Van province.

“It turned out that being a journalist there was harder than it is in Ankara,” she says, explaining that there are intense violations of rights and pressure from the Turkish authorities — something I have witnessed myself seeing people beaten by police merely for wearing Kurdish colours.

Taskin soon left Van for Mus, where she attracted the attention of the local authorities who accosted her while shopping, demanding information about her claiming they had received a “tip-off.”

After searching her in a changing room of the clothes shop and taking her name she was carted off to the police station. There she was subjected to humiliation, including a forced strip search and the confiscation of her phone, cameras and other equipment.

“I did not accept it so the male police came on to me telling me they will undress me themselves. They claimed I was not a journalist but I had a press card from the journalists’ association on me and my cameras,” she says.

“I was subjected to psychological and physical torture for four days while in custody. They made me listen to some military anthems while doing so,” she says.

Taskin says she was denied seeing her lawyers for two days due to a confidentiality order and even then only had access for a few minutes. She was strip-searched again after the interview with police claiming she was “leaking information” to the outside.

At the December 2017 court hearing, police demanded she be jailed. However, she was initially released under a judicial control order. Prosecutors challenged the decision and she was arrested again in Ankara in January 2018 despite complying with the judicial control order.
The evidence used against her was flimsy and included her journalistic work. Prosecutors said the fact she had visited the home of a 78-year-old woman who is in prison and recorded an interview was evidence that she was a “terrorist.”

“I was just visiting a news source,” she explains. “The fact that I visited two children whose parents are in prison was considered a crime as well. I didn’t get to write this story, but they presented it as evidence because I might have written it in the future.

“That is like arresting someone in case they turn out to be a murderer, before they murder someone. Like in the film Minority Report. “

Photographs she shared on Journalists’ Day were also used as evidence, including one of a microphone with the DiHA news agency logo on it — the organisation is one of the hundreds shut down in Turkey by Erdogan.

“I retweeted a Twitter post of my friend. He was referred to court for what he wrote in the tweet, and was acquitted. I was arrested because I retweeted what he wrote. 

“As an opposition journalist I was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison … which is what usually happens in Turkey to opposition journalists.”

She received three years and four months for spreading “propaganda” and four years and two months for “aiding a terror group without being a member.” 

“But we know why these things happen and we know what it means to be a journalist in Turkey. And we know that these things cannot stop us from doing our job,” she says defiantly.

One of the more absurd charges was that her name — Seda — which she has used since childhood was in fact a “terrorist code name.”

“I told them to look at the logs for my letters, which were addressed to my name, Seda Taskin.  My family, relatives, friends all call me Seda. I told themselves they can summon my primary school teachers to court. They knew it was not a code name.  

“But they needed it as evidence of their charge of ‘membership of an illegal organisation.’ I have a number of absurd claims like this in my file.

“It was my first time in prison. I didn’t know what to expect. I was put in a tiny cell with no windows. It was the stuffiest and smelliest place I’ve ever been. 

“I thought about my colleagues who have been here before I was. They have been through what I was going through. That gave me strength,” she says.

The prison authorities confiscated most of her clothes because the colours were banned. It was January, cold and she had left everyone behind.

“But the feeling of loneliness only lasted until I arrived at the doors of the cell. People welcomed me with smiling faces. At that point, I realised that there was another life, a new life in there and my job was only beginning there and then. There were a lot of things to do in the place called prison,” she explains.

“Everyone had their stories, all of which were different from one another. I continued my work as a journalist in there. I did not have a camera, but I had a pen. And journalism was not limited with space. I made that my motto. 

“I wrote a lot. I tried to make the best of that time. It was not easy, but who said journalism was easy, right? Where we are is of no importance if violations continue, but I don’t want any of my colleagues to be where I have been.”

Taskin says journalists must stick to the facts, be ethical in their reporting.

“Journalism is the memory of the peoples,” she says, warning that her arrest was “a political decision.

“It has nothing to do with law — they are annihilating democracy in Turkey, which has become the jailer of journalists and where the fear of prosecutions and threat of prison has had a frightening effect on the media.

“Free press is a must in a pluralistic society. It is not just the journalists that are being judged here, they are depriving the people of their right to receive information as well,” she explains.

“There is great pressure on the Kurdish media. And it is not new. It is a state policy. There are very few media outlets that reflect the facts. Mesopotamia News Agency is one of them.

“We are being targeted for mentioning the oppressed. But we never gave up and we never will.”

Taskin says in a country where the rule of law applies she should be acquitted in tomorrow’s hearing, but it is impossible for her to guess what will happen.

“Whatever happens, I will continue to do my job. As I mentioned before, journalism is not limited by space,” she says.

“International solidarity is incredibly important. Our struggle is a global struggle. The more public opinion we create, the more pressure there is on them. 

“More than anything else, this solidarity brings power to us. No journalist is free until we all are free.” 

In an appeal to Morning Star readers and supporters — and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — she says: “I am embracing you all with love.”

“We are calling on them to be the voice of every single imprisoned and downtrodden journalist. We can overcome this obstacle and the crushing of the freedom of press with strong solidarity.

“We are calling on you all for solidarity.”

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