Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo February 13, 2014

Turkey: A Journalist Deported


Turkey Under Protest

When protests flooded Turkey, they revealed deep problems. Police brutality, authoritarianism, and a...

Media file: dsc_1596.jpg
The newsroom of Today's Zaman, with Mahir Zeynalov's empty desk in the foreground. Image by Jenna Krajeski. Turkey, 2013.

In late December, days after Turkish prosecutors launched an investigation into corruption, which included influential businessmen and government officials, Turkish Airlines stopped offering copies of Zaman newspaper and its English-language counterpart, Today's Zaman, on their flights. The newspapers are owned by Feza Media Group, which is affiliated with Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Turkish Islamic cleric who Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused of orchestrating the corruption probe in an attempt to dismantle his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Gulen is at the head of a large, worldwide network of followers, many of whom, after a generation of education within the Gulenist system, have emerged prominent, confident and well-connected. What those followers — most of whom refer to the group as the "Hizmet" (service) movement — would themselves explain as the natural distribution of ambitious and educated people within the Turkish government, judiciary and security forces, Erdogan has labeled a "parallel state." The Zaman papers — once, like Gulen himself, supportive of Erdogan and the AKP — quickly became enemy propaganda.

The Zaman offices are a mirrored box by Istanbul's Ataturk airport. From an adjacent park, lunching reporters can watch Turkish Airlines flights take off, one after another, their red tails slicing through wispy clouds on their way to an ever-growing list of destinations, Zaman newspapers-free. Last Friday, Mahir Zeynalov, a Today's Zaman journalist, arrived at the same airport, with his wife and some luggage to turn himself over to the police. In December, Erdogan filed a lawsuit against Zeynalov for two tweets — one related to the corruption probe and another to Al-Qaeda in Turkey — which the prime minister deemed offensive and false. A few weeks later, for the tweets, the journalist was deported. The authorities also pointed out that Zeynalov had not yet received a new government-issued press card, which he had easily acquired in previous years, but this was widely viewed as an excuse. Deportation procedure requires waiting at home for a police escort, and because Zeynalov and his wife went to the airport by themselves, he had to pay a fine before leaving.

I visited the Today's Zaman office a few days after Zeynalov was deported to meet with Celil Sagir, one of the paper's managing editors. When Sagir arrived in the glass-walled meeting room, he was waving a piece of paper in exasperated triumph. It was a faxed photocopy of Zeynalov's renewed press card. In his other hand, Sagir carried a copy of the day's newspaper, which had been chronicling Zeynalov's deportation in detail; the paper has been running updates on Zeynalov under the headline "Storm of Blatant Lies" on the front page, above the fold. "We encourage other newspapers to cover this issue because it is a press freedom issue," he told me. As for the photocopied press card, he said, "This will be our next story."

Turkey is notoriously oppressive toward its media — the Committee to Protect Journalists awarded it the distinction of most journalists in jail for two years running — but this is the first time in decades that the government has deported a foreign journalist. Between the Gezi Park protests last summer, the corruption scandal and upcoming elections, the case against Zeynalov is seen by critics as another drastic measure by the government to maintain its authority in the face of serious opposition.

"The perception of the government is that Today's Zaman and Mahir Zeynalov and any person who tweets in English is only telling the negative side of Turkey to foreigners," Sagir told me. "They are informers and traitors." Today's Zaman is printed in more than a dozen countries — including in translated versions — and runs a heavily trafficked website; it speaks to an international audience. When the views of Erdogan and the newspaper staff aligned, that wide appeal was a virtue. Since the newspaper has been running stories critical of the government, its link to a Western audience — made infinitely broader by social media, where Zeynalov was vocal — turned into a threat.

Since December 17, when the corruption investigation began, hundreds of police officers and prosecutors have been fired or reassigned, in what is seen as an attempt to halt the corruption probe. But the scandal has not died down. Since then, some voice recordings — believed by some to be pieces of suppressed evidence (although this is unverified) — have emerged on Twitter. One reportedly plots a shady land deal, and another is said to catch Erdogan berating a local news editor for airing the statements of an opposition politician, something the prime minister today acknowledged. A third tape, circulated the night before Sagir and I met, was rumored to be of another editor, this time boasting about his fidelity to governmental censorship, which he proved by not covering the 2011 deaths of 34 Kurdish smugglers, what has become known as the "Roboski massacre." The recording was swiftly removed, and who and what it may or may not imply remains a matter of speculation. Still, the fury around the recording is more evidence of the race, however futile, for control of the message. In this battle, the AKP certainly has the most muscle. "The government has created its own media," Sagir said.

But Today's Zaman is often criticized for its link to the Gulen movement, which observers say strips it of its own objectivity. It's an allegation Sagir is eager to defuse, not just because he wants to represent the newspaper as ethical but because it needs its own identity to survive. The past weeks have marked a turning point in the Gulen movement, which has suffered since December 17 and there is the expectation that the normally secretive members and institution heads may open up in a more satisfying way to a very curious, and at times suspicious, public. On Monday, Sagir offered a reasonable, if vague, explanation: "There is no organic relationship between Today's Zaman and Mr. Gulen," he said."But I can clearly say that we are inspired by the ideas of the Gulen movement. We are a socially conservative newspaper. We respect religions, not just Islam, and universal ethical norms. On the other hand, we are politically progressive, supporting democratization, pluralism, human rights, and a liberal economy. We are the only newspaper that still strongly supports Turkey's EU membership process." But letting me into the newspaper office was itself an act of opening up.

Sagir took me upstairs to the newsroom, a bright and airy bank of cubicles, where reporters and editors quietly worked at computers. Like the meeting rooms downstairs, the walls of the newsroom were floor-to-ceiling glass; there was an outside view from the inner stairwell. The rooms were gleaming and clean, the mounted TVs off or on mute. Sagir, as a way of defending the paper against the assertion that it is a Gulen mouthpiece, pointed to the diversity of the staff, who come from different countries and ethnic and religious backgrounds. For these foreign employees, though, Zeynalov's deportation was a warning. One editor, a tall Californian, joked that since the corruption scandal broke, "My work hours are much longer." His laughter grew decidedly more rueful when talking about Zeynalov's deportation. "It's not a surprise," he said. "But it's a bit too much."

The Californian had been living in Turkey for seven years, which gave him some perspective on the country's media landscape and the perception of Turkey abroad. "You have to read several newspapers to get the whole idea," he told me, referring to both Turkish and Western publications. "The Western media in general does not do a good job of portraying Turkey," he said, particularly regarding the division between religious and secular people. "It's not the Turkey I live in, and it's not the Turkey I know."

After Zeynalov's deportation, "You don't feel safe or secure," another editor, a Turkish-Canadian, told me. "That this could happen to someone who just pointed to stories [on Twitter]." She worried about self-censorship, which she had already seen from some of her contributors. "The writers are cautious themselves," she said. "It's their name, their byline. They are very aware of the implications of what they say."

On Zeynalov's empty desk, a stack of books ranged from Islamic history to David Balducci, the work library of an intellectually curious person who probably gets free review copies. A standing desk calendar featured a photo of a popular milk pudding made with chicken breast. A piece of Today's Zaman stationary taped to the cubicle wall was a broad to-do list; at the top was "tweet."

Nearby, another Azeri journalist, a young woman, lamented Erdogan's behavior toward the journalists of her country. "Erdogan is always saying there is a kinship between Azerbaijan and Turkey," she told me. "This is a real insult to that kinship."

Freedom of expression in Azerbaijan is also severely limited — "It's not easier there," she said — and the Committee to Protect Journalists is very critical in its assessment of that country, too. Zeynalov has said that he will move somewhere else, maybe New York. Still, even given the records of both countries, for the Azeri journalist, her colleague's deportation was of a different magnitude, a sure step in the wrong direction for a nation that had once seemed to be developing its democracy. "I don't think Azerbaijan would do the same thing to a Turkish journalist," she said.

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues