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Bülent Keneş Q&A: arrested journalist on dangers of speaking out against Turkish government

The editor of Turkey’s leading English language newspaper Today’s Zaman was last week arrested for insulting the president over Twitter. The day after his release he spoke exclusively to Voices in Danger about the impending trial, the challenges of running an independent newspaper in Turkey and the intimidation faced by journalists who dare to speak out against the Erdoğan regime. 

Alex Dymoke
Friday 16 October 2015 13:38 BST
Bulent Kenes in the Today's Zaman offices on the day of his arrest
Bulent Kenes in the Today's Zaman offices on the day of his arrest (Today's Zaman)

Q | Did your arrest come as a surprise?

A | Yes and no. I've known for a long time that president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's AKP government has been unhappy with my newspaper's criticisms of its anti-democratic policies, and I am often criticised personally in state-controlled media who accuse me of being a CIA or MOSSAD agent. However, the particular pretext on which I was arrested was a surprise, because I was accused of insulting Erdoğan over Twitter when my tweets didn't insult or denigrate anyone. I merely shared a cartoon published in national paper, and quoted a statement from the opposition party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

Q | What happened after you were arrested?

A | I was taken to custody at around 8:00pm on Friday October 9 while working at the newspaper's headquarters. I was transferred from place to place. There was an arrest warrant for me, but the judge could not be contacted, so I was forced to stay the night at the remand prison in the counter-terrorism office. Early in the morning I was taken to Çağlayan courthouse where I waited for the judge, who eventually came at 12:00. During this time, I was in the custody of the counter-terrorism police. The judge read the arrest warrant, but didn't take my objections into consideration.

As harassment has failed to silence me, Erdoğan and his cronies have opted to physically censor me by putting me in prison

Then, I was taken to Metris prison where I was confined to a filthy 10-bed ward. There was no washroom and I was denied basic cleaning provisions like soap, a toothbrush or clean pyjamas. I was unable to brush my teeth or take a shower during the time I stayed in Metris prison. For the night I spent at the police remand prison and the two days in Metris I was wearing the same clothes in which I left for work on Friday morning. I was transferred to Silivri prison Monday afternoon.

Q | What is life like for Turkish journalists who criticise government?

A | It is slightly better than North Korea, but worse than almost all other countries. Visits to police stations, prosecutors’ offices and court houses take place with depressing regularity for journalists who criticise the government, as do character assassinations, insults and defamation on social media.

Q | Will the case go to trial? If so, do you expect it to be fair?

It will go to trial, as many similar cases against me have done in the past. In June I was given a 21 month suspended jail sentence for a tweet I posted in 2014. And no, the trial will be far from fair or just. The judicial system has long been deeply partisan and acts according to direct and indirect instructions from Erdoğan's government.

Q | What were the tweets that got you in trouble?

A | By the standards of most democratic countries, the tweets contained no reprehensible content. I shared a cartoon and quoted an opposition party leader. If you translate my tweets into English, you will see they don't constitute any crime. As harassment has failed to silence me, Erdoğan and his cronies have opted to physically censor me by putting me in prison. It is a despicable and cowardly tactic that I hope will backfire.

Q | How has the war in Syria affected the Turkish government’s attitude toward dissenting voices?

A | The crackdown on dissenting voices is closely related to the failure of Erdoğan's failed Syria policy. Erdoğan lent support to various Jihadist groups in an attempt to topple Assad, thereby contributing to the terrible humanitarian tragedy in Syria and the refugee crisis engulfing Europe and the Middle East. Suppression and oppression have increased as the government attempts to conceal its support for radical Islamist groups in Syria.

Q | Have other journalists at Today’s Zaman been intimidated or harassed by the authorities?

A | Yes. A number of my editors have had similar experiences. Two managing editors of Today’s Zaman have had investigations against them opened by prosecutors. Some of our prominent columnists like Yavuz Baydar, Sevgi Akarçeşme, İbrahim Türkmen and Cafer Solgun have been also targeted.

Q | How difficult is it to run a newspaper in Turkey?

A | It depends on your stance. If your paper is pro-government, you are free to insult, slander, fabricate news stories and even threaten adversaries with death threats. If, however, your publication is critical of the government, your advertisers will be threatened, and you will be the target of unending financial investigations. Your staff will be targeted by court cases, character assassinations, death threats and even attacks by pro-Erdoğan mobs – they must be prepared for that.

Q | Why has censorship and the persecution of journalists got so much worse in recent years?

A | Oppression against independent media increased after the corruption scandal of late 2013. Critical publications like mine paid the price as the Erdoğan regime did everything in its power to cover up the scandal. As multiple international press organizations like Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have confirmed, the situation in Turkey is worse than it's been for a long time.

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