Turkey in crisis: Renewal of conflict with Kurdish militants is accompanied by a highly toxic political and media climate

In the final part of her series on the crucial buffer between east and west, Laura Pitel finds that even raising the deaths of ordinary men, women and children – regardless of which side killed them – is like prodding a hornet’s nest

Laura Pitel
Tuesday 19 January 2016 20:27 GMT
A women and her children stand in the ruins of battle-damaged house in the Kurdish town of Silopi
A women and her children stand in the ruins of battle-damaged house in the Kurdish town of Silopi (Getty Images)

Turkey’s popular Beyaz Show took a more sombre turn than usual one evening earlier this month. The live entertainment programme aired a call from a woman who gave her name as Ayse Celik.

She described herself as a teacher from the city of Diyarbakir, the largest city in the mainly Kurdish south-east of the country, where conflict has once again erupted between Kurdish militants and the state.

“Are you aware of what is going on in the east, in the south-east of Turkey?” she asked, the line muffled. “Here, unborn children, mothers and people are being killed… What is being experienced here is conveyed very differently [by the media]. Do not keep silent… Children should not die, mothers should not die.”

The guests on the couch nodded. The studio audience whistled and clapped. The host, Beyazit Ozturk, thanked her for her contribution. Then all hell broke loose.

Pro-government social media users and newspapers accused the caller of spouting “propaganda” for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Ministry of Education declared that she was not a working teacher.

A prosecutor opened an investigation into both her and the television channel for “terrorist propaganda.” Mr Ozturk later issued an on-air apology, saying that his “brain stopped”.

Rocket hits school in Turkey

The resurgence of Turkey’s long-running Kurdish conflict has been accompanied by a highly toxic political and media climate. While the Prime Minister, Ahmet Davultogu, told Turkish media that an intensified security campaign that began in the south-east last month was drawing to a close, weeks of heavy clashes in city centres have already left thousands trapped in the middle.

Human rights groups and analysts estimate that at least 100 civilians have died. But even raising the deaths of ordinary men, women and children in Turkey – regardless of which side killed them – is like prodding a hornet’s nest.

Asli Tunc, a professor of media at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, described the national debate as “suffocating”. “I am afraid we are gradually removing the prospects for peace and reconciliation,” she said. “We lost all the nuances in this severely polarised society.”

For opponents of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, the President bears the blame for the increasingly poisonous tone. Journalists say that a severe crackdown on media in recent years has encouraged self-censorship among news outlets.

Though Turkey’s winner-takes-all political tradition has never left much space for opposition, critics accuse Mr Erdogan of deliberately adopting polarising rhetoric in pursuit of nationalist votes. Last week, when a group of more than 1,000 academics put their names to a letter claiming that the state was pursuing a “deliberate massacre” in the south-east, the President denounced them as “dark, nefarious and brutal”.

A man and child at a house in Silpoi, south-east Turkey (Getty)

 A man and child at a house in Silpoi, south-east Turkey (Getty)
 (Getty Images)

However, the acrid national discussion of the Kurdish issue predates the AKP’s rise to power and has flared up in tandem with outbreaks of violence. In 1999, after some of the darkest times in the 30-year conflict, the singer Ahmet Kaya was hounded out of Turkey after telling an awards ceremony that his next record would be sung in Kurdish.

The vision of the modern Turkish republic set forth in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, was based on a narrow ethnic and cultural framework. School textbooks teach a concept of nationalism that the sociologist Kenan Cayir says “does not include or tolerate differences”. Criticising the state or the army is seen as akin to seeking to undermine the country’s foundations.

The Turkish government argues that the PKK – designated a terror organisation in Turkey, the US and Europe – poses as much as a threat to the nation as Isis. It has asked the BBC to adopt the same approach to the PKK, which regularly kills policemen and soldiers in what it says is a fight for greater Kurdish autonomy, as it did with the IRA.

The November rerun of the general election, which took place amid growing violence and divisive language, appeared to vindicate Mr Erdogan’s approach. The AKP won almost 50 per cent of the vote, thanks in part to the return to the fold of conservative Kurdish voters.

But in Diyarbakir, where daily life is interspersed with the rattle of gunfire, there is also a sense of disbelief at the disconnect between what they see happening in their city and the accounts they watch and read.

Fakiriye Cukur knows first-hand that civilians have been caught up in the fighting. Her 16-year-old daughter, Rozerin, was killed this month as she returned from visiting a friend after a short break in the curfew that has been imposed near her home. Clutching a framed picture of her daughter, who loved photography, poetry and animals, she said: “She was an angel.”

Shooting victim Rozerin Cukur
Shooting victim Rozerin Cukur (Sertac Kayar)

Mrs Cukur, 53, is convinced that it was a state sniper who killed Rozerin. The few pro-government media outlets that covered her story blamed the PKK. It is impossible to establish what really happened, not least because the schoolgirl’s body remained trapped in the conflict zone. But simply lamenting Rozerin’s death is a loaded issue in Turkey in 2016.

Even Turkey’s Western allies worry that the censorious climate is deepening national fault lines and damaging the prospects of peace. The US ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, gave a rare public rebuke last week after the attack on the academics.

While suggesting that Washington “may not agree” with their opinion, he voiced concern at “a chilling effect on legitimate public discourse” about the conflict across Turkish society. He added: “Expressions of concern about violence do not equal support for terrorism.”

Speaking on a visit to London, Mr Davutoglu chastised the signatories for not giving “the full picture” of the reality of the Kurdish conflict but insisted that Turkey was a “pluralistic society” where “everyone can say anything”.

Mrs Cukur, still raw with grief, could not fathom the tone of the debate in her country. “If civilians aren’t being killed then who are these people?” she asked. Her message was simple: “As a mother, I don’t want any killing, any dying. I want peace.”

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