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Dangerous Days

Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

The young woman pulls slowly on a cheap cigarette, obscuring her narrow, determined features in a dense cloud of smoke. Her slim, nail-bitten fingers tap absentmindedly on the tape recorder, ignoring the roar of the troop helicopters passing overhead. As the silence descends, I study her. A pretty 18-year-old, she could be out enjoying herself like other women her age, or attending university or even working abroad. Instead, she has the mannerisms of someone 10 or 20 years older. Why? Because she risks her life on a daily basis, to write about the human rights abuses and terrible civil war taking place inside one of our major European and NATO partners - Turkey.

The snow-topped, guerrilla-infested mountains of south-east Turkey (also known as north-west Kurdistan) seem far away from the golden beaches of its western coast, which form the UK's number two tourist destination. Even further from the little office where we are sitting in the centre of Elazig, a bustling, European-style city on the edge of the region. Yet for Nurcan Yucel, there is a very real danger. The secret police are waiting outside to interview her - delayed only by the presence of myself and my photographer - and she knows she could be arrested at any minute for daring to speak to a foreign reporter. Plenty of others before her have been murdered or 'disappeared'.

As a Kurd, and a stringer (freelance reporter) for Demokrasi, the only real opposition newspaper in the whole of Turkey, young women like Yucel take their life into their hands on a daily basis. She has already been arrested four times, and threatened with rape, yet she says she "has a duty" to work for the paper. This means reporting on events in the country's vicious 13-year-old civil war, which has killed 26,000 people and seen mass rapes, village clearances, torture and disappearances by the Turkish security forces. South-east Turkey is a warzone, where the world's largest stateless nation, the Kurds, are fighting for autonomy.

Twenty million Kurds inhabit the mountainous border regions shared by Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey and are suppressed by all these states. However, Turkey is by far the worst violator. Under the Turkish constitution, it is forbidden to learn, write or publicly speak Kurdish, and anyone discussing the Kurdish question faces imprisonment under harsh anti-terrorism laws. Even the country's most famous writer, Yaser Kemal, received a suspended prison sentence for raising the Kurdish question in one of his books. The country also has an appalling human rights record, State corruption is endemic and it is repeatedly condemned by organisations such as Amnesty International.

Journalists who try and report on the true nature of events have a habit of disappearing or spending several years in prison (where conditions are reminiscent of the Middle Ages). I met the family of one editor who was sentenced to 6,000 years imprisonment. According to the Turkish Human Rights Association, 28 journalists and distributors have disappeared since 1992 and 421 were arrested last year alone. Most media is state-run or state-compliant, and refuses to report on the daily atrocities taking place.

In this climate, Demokrasi, a slim, daily broadsheet newspaper, tries to operate as a voice for opposition and the underclass. With few funds and only 12 pages, it produces three national editions a day, and has a circulation of 10,000 (30,000 copies are printed, but many are confiscated before they can be distributed). Demokrasi has only been open for one year and is the latest in a line of democratic, opposition papers which have been produced since 1992. These newspapers (in order - Yeni Politika, Ozgur Ulke, Ozgur Gundem, Yeni Ulke and Demokrasi) dared to ask questions about Turkey's human rights record and its treatment of the Kurds. Everytime one paper is closed by the State, another opens shortly afterwards with a new name. It is a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities.

I met Demokrasi's editor on the day the paper received its final closure order (in fact, the very day the paper opened, it received several closure orders). Gijltan Kisanak, 36, is a dignified and shy Kurdish woman, who claims, much to the amusement of my translator, "to be something a dinosaur" When I ask her to explain, she says that she's over 30 ("Kurdish journalists do not live a long time") and also a working mother, with a six-year-old daughter - in what is predominantly a traditional Muslim country. This is one of the rare moments when I see her face break into a shy but infectious smile. It completely alters her serious demeanour.

The bustling newsroom where we sit is set inside a shabby two storey building, with bars on all of the windows. It is just two train stops from the main tourist area of Sultan Amet, in western Istanbul. Outside sit secret police cars, watching and noting the names and faces of the journalists entering and leaving the building. Inside, the atmosphere is surprisingly friendly and chirpy, as Kurds and Turks sit side-by-side hunched over phones or computer screens, chasing deadlines or sipping ubiquitous sweet tea. Breezy pop tunes, a mixture of Kurdish folk and Western pop rattle over the office's PA system, in sharp contrast to the seriousness of the work. Everyone smokes, although No Smoking signs hang on all the walls.

Kisanak has been a journalist since she left university, although it was into State-supporting papers that she first went. "But that experience made me so angry - they would never report the truth, so I knew something had to be done." Why? "In Turkey, the press does what the State says. Therefore, the State doesn't bomb their journalists [a reference to two bomb attacks on one of Demokrasi's predecessors, Ozgur Ulke, in which seven journalists were killed and 11 seriously injured. Secret documents were obtained which later showed the attacks were State sanctioned]."

"In other countries, journalists can say what they want," she adds, in her harsh-clipped, smoker's voice. "In Turkey, that's not the case. The problems here are much worse. You can't write about the Kurdish question or the Turkish peoples' problems - the poor, the students, the workers and unions. We don't even have any money to cover these stories properly and the government has closed down eight of our offices in Kurdistan, which makes it difficult to report on the true situation there. We can't even get official press cards [neither can many of the journalists physically travel around the country - they could be killed or arrested]. It's so hard to be a proper journalist in Turkey," she sighs.

Nurhak Yilmaz, 22, is a typical reporter - fluent in English, a journalism student at Istanbul University, Kurdish and extremely dedicated to her work. She's only been here for four months, but already is certain she made the right choice. "Working here is working for truth. I think truth must be written in newspapers - about the Kurdish problem, about human rights problems - all these things must be written." As we walked past the nightclubs and cinemas of Istanbul, Nurhak explained to me that she didn't have time for a boyfriend. There was, she said, a Kurdish tradition of female guerrillas who became "married to the Struggle."

"If you ask me if I am afraid to be here, I would say yes, I am afraid," she adds in a confident voice. "But in spite of everything, I must work here. Because I believe in democracy. I only want to work here, to write the truth and help everyone - Turks and Kurds."

This seriousness and commitment can often seem surprising at least to those of us used to an easy life in the rest of Europe. Yet even after a night out - to see the English Patient (dubbed into Turkish) - most of the journalists would not touch alcohol, preferring instead to visit a café to "OK", a board game which is similar to Scrabble. The midnight cafés are full of people, old and young, playing this game, and arguing passionately about it. Mostly, though, the young prefer to drink sweet tea and discuss politics. I found myself discussing the intricacies of the Irish question with my new friends.

One of the things which makes Demokrasi unique is the youthfulness of its 150 staff - many of them highly-educated women, almost all of them poorly paid or volunteers working 12-16 hour shifts - and the fact that it has managed to produce so many exclusives (most of them embarrassing to the government, which has launched over 200 closure and court orders against the paper and its editors).

For example, it produced a worldwide exclusive on The Susurluk Scandal, which was reported even here in the UK. Last November, a fatal car crash outside Istanbul revealed that a wanted mafia killer, a former police chief and a prominent MP were travelling together with a boot full of automatic weapons. The gangster had a diplomatic passport on his body and the Minister of Interior was forced to resign shortly after the affair was reported.

Other exclusives have included secret documents which showed how the State planned to attack opposition newspapers and TV stations; mass village destruction by the army in the south-east; how the government was starving its own people by the use of a food embargo against Kurdish villagers; and of punishment meted out to those villagers who refused to join a pro-government village militia system. Another incident reported by the paper implicated the army in the murder of 11 pro-government militia - an atrocity which had previously been blamed on the Kurdish guerrilla force, the PKK, and used by the State for international publicity purposes.

Controlling all this, Kisanak has a tough job. "Getting news is a very big problem for us. Our journalists are beaten by police at meetings, and our cameras our taken. Last year the police came into our bureau in Elazig and took all the journalists. They were beaten and tortured. One of them is still in prison as a result." She shows me a picture of a young woman, obviously taken in better days.

Kisanak is the subject of court cases herself, as the Turkish authorities always target those they see as leaders of subversive groups. Some of Demokrasi's reporters joke with me privately that there is a competition not to end up as editor-in-chief, as that is a guarantee for a prison sentence.

Kisanak has seen colleagues disappear and other journalists have discovered their dead bodies: now their fading pictures adorn the walls of the newsroom, sitting alongside posters of Ché Guvera and HADEP, the Kurdish Labour Party. Others have been beaten, arrested or tortured, yet still continue to work for the paper.

One of them is Necmiye Arslanoglu, an attractive Kurdish journalist now in her mid-20s. She still works for the paper today, but back in 1993 she was on her first assignment with Ozgur Gundem. Her job was to accompany a British human rights delegation to the site of a village burning by so-called "contra" (government-backed) death squads. When their minibus entered the village, they were all detained, along with Arslanoglu and a male Kurdish journalist.

"As a Kurd in a forbidden area, she was in complete fear for her life," says Mark Campbell, a member of the delegation who travelled with her. "When we were moved from the local army headquarters to the commander's headquarters in Diyarbakir [the main city in south-east Turkey], she was told there and then, by the commander, that she would be killed."

The two Kurds were lined up against a wall on their own, whilst local village guards members of the government militia, harangued and abused them, calling Arslanoglu a "traitor" and "whore", detailing how she would be tortured, raped and killed. She was then blindfolded and had her hands tied, before being placed in a minibus for six hours. Finally, a military lorry turned up and she and the other Kurd were literally thrown into the back, along with other blindfolded Kurdish detainees. "They were just thrown in like rubbish," says Campbell, "and both were shaking like a leaf."

They were then taken to another interrogation centre on their own, and were certain they would be killed for having brought foreigners to see what was happening in the region. "The routine was, before you entered an interrogation centre, to shout out your name and where you were from," adds Campbell. "That way, someone would know where to look for your body. Necmiye did this as she entered the centre."

Inside, she was beaten, tortured and abused. Her head was smashed against the wall, whilst she remained blindfolded. She was told that the British delegation had all been killed, and that she would be next (in fact, Campbell and other members of the delegation were trying to find out where she was being held - they refused to leave without her). She was eventually ordered to sign a confession which had been written for her. She said no, so her head was smashed repeatedly against the desk. She briefly managed to remove her blindfold and actually saw what was written on the confession - that she was a terrorist, and so on - and so refused once again to sign it.

At that point, both Arslanoglu and the other journalist were taken out of the centre and led, blindfolded, into the back of a car. They were driven to the outskirts of the city on a quiet road, and then dragged out. A gun was put to the backs of their heads and at that point they felt certain they were to be killed. However, the next minute they heard footsteps and the car door slam, before it drove away. It took another five minutes before they actually dared move and remove their blindfolds. Ironically, a local police car drove past and they were reinterrogated again! Later, they managed to hitch-hike their way back to the Ozgur Gundem offices, where they proceeded to write up the village clearance story. It became an international exclusive.

However, Arslanoglu would be detained a further five times. Each time she was charged with terrorism-related offences. She once wrote to Campbell from prison, to say she had been dragged out of her cell by four soldiers who tried to rape her (her screams eventually saved her). An international campaign eventually secured her release and she is till today working as a journalist.

Everyone working for Demokrasi has to take certain precautions every day of their lives. The paper's vendors and distributors working in the south-east have been attacked by contra squads many times. A favourite tactic was to cut the throats of the street kids who sell the papers, and leave their body by the newspaper stand. So now they actually go into people's offices and homes to sell the paper, rather than openly in public.

Umur Hozatli (not his real name), 28, is the paper's media columnist and brother of a prominent Kurdish politician. He has had to adopt a pseudonym and disguise his appearance, because there is a warrant for his arrest over a previous article he has written about the Kurdish problem. His case is up before the European Court of Human Rights, but for the time being he faces daily arrest, can never use anything with his ID on it, and hasn't seen his family for three years now.

Amazingly, however, Demokrasi's staff retain their sense of camaraderie and pride. Sitting in the paper's basement café, the air is alive with the hum of political discussion and seems far removed from the back-stabbing bitchiness of most western newspapers. "Of course we have problems, because of our situation," says Deniz Bayramoglu, 21, the young foreign editor whom I first met on location in south-east Turkey. "But we must be different from others by solving them. We must behave in a civilised way, because that is what we are arguing has to be done to solve the Kurdish question. We are working for a moral position, we're not just journalists working in a career."

Later, he tells me: "We have a saying...the words fly, but the writing stays forever." He pauses and grins. "Oh, we have another new saying now - people come and people go, but the newspapermust stay."

Shortly after my visit, Demokrasi was closed down. For the staff the news was greeted with the usual mix of weariness and persistence. Sure enough, another title is preparing to open. Demokrasi may be dead, but the story remains the same.

This article originally appeared in The Scotsman Weekend © June 97

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Photo © Onnik Krikorian

Photo © Richard Wayman

Photo © Onnik Krikorian

Photo © Richard Wayman


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