Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
Turkish journalist Nedim Sener, right, speaks with American journalist David Rohde about freedom of the press in Turkey during Wednesday’s morning lecture program in the Amphitheater.
Nedim Şener is looking forward to seeing his wife and 10-year-old daughter when he returns to Turkey. However, his time with his family will be brief; Şener goes to trial in one month and faces seven to 15 years in prison. Held without bail, he will be allowed to see his family for 45 minutes per week.
His crime? Publicly criticizing the Turkish government.
Şener, a prominent Turkish journalist and winner of the International Press Institute’s World Press Freedom Hero award, was joined on the Amphitheater stage Wednesday morning by a translator, Mine Dosluoglu, an interpreter at the International Institute at Buffalo. He was interviewed by David Rohde, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a columnist for Reuters and The Atlantic.
Rohde provided context for the conversation, telling the audience that Turkey imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world. Currently, 49 members of the media are in prison in Turkey, followed by 45 journalists in Iran and 32 in China, he said.
Şener has been charged by the Turkish government under terrorism laws. His hearing will take place in September, with sentencing scheduled to occur by the end of the year.
In 2007, Şener wrote a book investigating the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Dink’s death resulted in huge protests by Turks who objected to what they considered the silence of the government on the persecution of religious minorities. Şener believes that Dink’s death was politically motivated.
“His assassination was the result of politicians using force instead of dialogue,” Şener said through Dosluoglu.
Şener was arrested for the publication of his book, titled The Dink Murder and Intelligence Lies, and was put through a criminal investigation. The Turkish government threatened to sentence him to 32-and-a-half years in prison.
Ogün Samast, the man convicted for the murder, received 22 years in prison.
“Why does the Turkish government consider you more dangerous than a murderer?” Rohde asked Şener.
“I guess Turkey likes murderers better than journalists,” Şener said. “It is only natural, because these assassinations are actually political murders. They are supported by politicians, so they have to be protected against any kind of danger from the law. They are not protecting me, but they are protecting the murderers.”
Because of international pressure from the United States and a number of European countries, Şener was not sent to prison for writing the book. But now Şener is being accused of being involved with Ergenekon, an alleged organization said to harbor terrorists who wish to see the current regime in Turkey overthrown. After being arrested in 2011 for his alleged involvement with the organization, Şener spent one year in jail, and he may have to return at the end of the year if he is found guilty of criminal activity.
“The disappointment is great, because if I was a real terrorist and if I was being tried because of my ideology, I could’ve understood that,” Şener said. “But I’ve written a book … this is the most natural thing for a journalist to do, to write something.”
Şener said that the real conspiracy involves the police investigating Dink’s murder, as they accused Şener of being a terrorist for writing The Dink Murder.
“The judge and the entire judicial system is in it, so there’s no hope that you can get out,” he said. “The whole system works against you.”
Rohde asked Şener why the Turkish government, especially Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, insists on prosecuting journalists and dissidents while claiming to be a democracy.
“They’re establishing a new Turkey,” Şener said, referring to Erdoğan’s party, the Justice and Development Party. “Everything has escalated to a point that, if you don’t like the prime minister, there’s no place for you anymore. Either you love him, or you can’t be there.”
This was especially true for 22 Turkish journalists who were fired and 37 who were forced to resign following their coverage of the Gezi protests, according to a statement by the Turkish Journalists Union. The government put pressure on the news organizations they worked for, Şener said.
He said that one cable news company was so frightened of government shutdown that they aired a documentary about penguins instead.
The protests began over shutting down Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and when the government responded with force, it quickly blossomed into a larger movement that voiced opposition to Turkey’s encroachment on civil liberties, including freedom of speech and assembly.
“This is the biggest event, in terms of governments against people … it has been the biggest uprising in Turkey,” Şener said. “Our prime minister, instead of sitting down and negotiating with the protestors, is sending the police on them and using force against them.”
“It was a great opportunity for the prime minister,” Şener continued. “People going onto the streets and protesting … if he had only listened to them, everything would be resolved within two days. It wouldn’t last two months.”
Rohde asked if Erdoğan had changed since his election in 2002. Many Americans had welcomed him as a modern Islamist, hailing him as a democratic leader in the Middle East.
“His authority as a leader has never been questioned,” Şener said. “When the power of the army was diminished to nothing — now there is no one against Erdoğan, no other power. He is the only one.”
Q: First question from Twitter to Nadim: Did you have a problem leaving Turkey to come here? And let me just add a second piece to that. Would your daughter have been free to come with you?
A: (Translator) He doesn’t have any problem leaving Turkey, because when he was acquitted or released from jail, there wasn’t any ban on his travel. Someone at the American Embassy, when he applied for a 10-year tourist visa, liked him so much and gave an extra five years — a journalist visa. When he said that he doesn’t need extra visas, he said the clerk at the embassy said, “But it’s not a crime to write a book in America. Maybe you would like to stay longer.”
Q: What changes are proposed in the new constitution to protect journalists in freedom of speech?
A: (Translator) In the new constitution, nothing is going to change so much, because the articles in the constitution can say something, give you some rights, but they always end with “but.” The execution will be decided by the laws, so the laws are different because people interpret the laws. It could be condemning you, or it could be really beneficial for you. So the judicial system mindset is very important. If the mindset in the judicial system doesn’t change, it doesn’t matter. The constitution always protects the state, not the individual.
Rohde: There’s a tradition in Turkey of the state having more — inherently is more important than the individual. The consent — the power that the Turkish state is just based on its pre-eminence, not on the will of the people. And the sad thing is that the army carried out that role for decades where they were the all-powerful thing, and then Erdogan has come in and instead of ending that — and he has weakened the army, which is good — but he has sort of moved into that role as the all-powerful state that doesn’t tolerate dissent and is, you know … it’s very, very disappointing what’s happened.
Q: Does Turkey’s desire to enter the European Union have any moderating influence?
A: (Translator) He doesn’t think that Turkey’s desire to get into the European Union is a very strong one. It’s a strategy. The whole economic system should be open to competition. Every operation should be transparent. All the — He doesn’t think that Turkey is ready.
Q: We have a couple of questions about how America, the American government and Americans are perceived in Turkey; particularly, the question says — Mr. Rubin on Monday indicated that the Turkish people hold a very negative view of America. Why?
A: (Translator) There’s no negativity against Americans, no animosity. The prime minister — right after the Gezi protests, the prime minister explained that these things are happening because of the outside forces, because of the interest lobbies from the other countries, because of the CNN International. So when he pointed these out by name, there has been some kind of a suspicion towards America but not necessarily to Americans. Now there’s a suspicion that any tourist walking around in the Old Town in Istanbul … or maybe in the southeastern region, could be an agent.
Rohde: I just want to add one point on the views of the U.S. Have any of you heard — is a Turkish gentleman — a leader named Fethullah Gülen? Anyone raise your hands, maybe 10 or 20 of them. He is a 72-year-old sort of Turkish spiritual leader who lives in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, in Saylorsburg, Penn. His website describes him as a moderate Muslim. He actually operates charter schools across the United States. He’s also a hugely powerful sort of spiritual leader. He has three to six million followers, and again he does profess a very moderate form of Islam. He also has huge businesses and has $20 to $50 billion worth of companies that he controls in Turkey. Some of the journalism that Nedim has done has talked about this Gülenist movement. There was a video recording that came out about 10 or 20 years ago where Gülen — his followers say it was a fake recording — but he talked about trying to get his followers to infiltrate different parts of the Turkish government, particularly the police and the judicial system. And many of them are very prominent now in the police and judicial system, so one of the groups, one of the many groups that’s gone after Nedim, he suspects and many journalists feel are Gülen’s followers, that they dominate the police and the judiciary. That’s why a lot of these cases have been brought against him, and the Gülen movement is sort of — sometimes they work with Erdogan. Secular Turks fear that it’s this joint effort to create a more hardline society in Turkey. But sometimes there’s a split between Erdogan and Gülen, but he is a very, very powerful figure, and it’s — I think — secular Turks are suspicious about why the U.S. give him asylum. He came here in 1999 when there was a military government in Turkey — or the military was putting a lot of pressure on him. So many — very few Americans know about him, but he’s very famous and he’s deeply feared in Turkey. And if you’re ever in Saylorsburg, he has a large, well-guarded compound where he lives. Sorry to just add that detail, but it’s — he’s done brave and groundbreaking reporting on the Gülenists and how they dominate the police and the judiciary in Turkey.
Translator: And he’s also invited twice.
Rohde: Oh to come — yeah —Gülen himself, who’s 72 years old, has invited Nedim to come meet with him. He fears it’s just an excuse to try to get a picture of Nedim standing with Gülen and it’s — I don’t know the truth. I don’t know if he’s, you know, this moderate spiritual leader or this sort of shadowy force in Turkey, but, you know, let’s just say I trust Nedim a lot more than Gülen.
Translator: He says, no one should believe the reporters.
Rohde: He’s right again, sorry.
Q: Are you still writing now? Where might people read your reporting?
A: (Translator) He’s writing at Poster Newspaper. He’s a columnist. If your Turkish is better, you can read it on the Internet.
Q: Are there parallels between Turkey and Egypt?
A: (Translator) Other than the majority of the populations being Muslim, there’s not many similarities, not political similarities at least. Turkey’s lucky to have the democracy with Atatürk and operated in democracy — so-called democracy — for a very long time. Unfortunately, Egypt is operating under Sharia law and regular law at the same time for so many years, so it’s an unfortunate situation. Turkey is a country where secularism is practiced in governmental offices and business and in social events. Political parties are not banned in Turkey — yes, they can be closed down for a short period of time, but then they come back again. But in Egypt, the parties are being not recognized and put aside. That’s why these things are happening today. In terms of using authority, being authoritarian, maybe you can find some similarities between two countries; but in terms of populations, Turkish people are completely different from Egyptians.
Rohde: He said … that the Muslim Brotherhood is much more conservative than Erdogan and his party, that there’s … a terrible, terrible divide now in Egypt between kind of secular urban liberals and Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Earlier, Nadim said he doesn’t see that kind of danger or divide in Turkey. There are tensions between secular Turks and more religious Turks, but nowhere — you know, he does not fear violence as is occurring now in Egypt.
Q: Would you agree that there is a rising middle class in Turkey and that the economy has been improving, and then if so, how has this affected the freedom for the Turkish people?
A: (Translator) The growing middle class is the base of AKP, the governing party. The democracy demands are coming from the the other groups who are not supporting AKP. These are the minorities, Alawis and Kurds, leftists, secularists. When people get richer, they become more conservative. They don’t want to part with their money.
Q: We have three or four questions, one that wonders how you’re able to maintain such a good sense of humor given all that’s ahead.
A: (Translator) Because that’s the coping mechanism. During the Gezi protests, people went out to the streets with their sense of humor but nothing else against the rubber bullets and gas and water cannons. When the prime minister called them looters … everybody said, yes, we are … When the police was using the water cannons, people were getting in front of the water cannons and they were saying, send more, send more. The graffiti that was accumulated during the Gezi protests are so much better than Turkish comics magazines. It is the only medicine to put up with all that trauma in Turkey. If you don’t have sense of humor, there is nothing else you can lean onto. When some forces want you to be enclosed, and when they want you to be sad and crying, we just come out laughing. Isn’t that funny? Someone is writing a book, and he’s called a terrorist rather than a writer.
—Transcribed by Natalie Mayan