The Activists

When the Turkish government cracked down on the Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gündem, journalists and activists stepped up in solidarity. And paid a price.

Turkey is one of the largest jailers of journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Many who have stood up to press freedom have faced a similar fate. This is the story of two individuals who did.

On July 17, 2019, outside Istanbul’s Palace of Justice, a celebration greeted human rights activist Şebnem Fincanci.

Her three-year ordeal was finally over. She was acquitted of spreading terrorist propaganda … a crime that carried a multiyear prison sentence.

Read the full script

Şebnem Korur Fincanci, human rights activist:

“This is the first time in a long, long time that we are here with good news to share! Isn’t it my friends? We are here with charges and condemnations. Sometimes hearings are postponed, but generally speaking, people here are sentenced for crimes they never committed.”

The high court’s verdict was unexpected and proof that [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s government crackdown on dissent and press freedom has not silenced everyone.

The charges against Fincanci resulted from her involvement with an opposition newspaper that focused on Turkey’s Kurdish issue.

Since the mid-1980s, the Turkish army has fought the militant Kurdish group, the PKK, which seeks to establish an independent state in southeast Turkey.

The conflict has killed forty thousand civilians, and wounded untold numbers more. It’s also given rise to antiterrorism laws that control how the Turkish press reports on Kurdish matters.

Lisel Hintz, assistant professor, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies:

“Anyone writing on the Kurdish issue who wrote with a sympathetic tone could potentially be accused of terrorism.”

The opposition newspaper – Özgür Gündem – had covered issues related to the ethnic Kurdish minority since 1992. And because of it, endured relentless pressure from Turkish authorities.

The Erdoğan government in one year launched 260 legal investigations against the newspaper, and arrested members of its staff, to keep it from publishing.

On May 3, 2016 – International Press Freedom Day – Özgür Gündem launched a campaign promoting freedom of expression.

More than 50 supporters of press freedom volunteered to serve as guest editors for a day to support the newspaper.

Şebnem Fincanci was one of them.

Şebnem Korur Fincanci:

“The main reason for us to act as a guest editor was to raise awareness against the Kurdish issues, the atrocities that occurred in the Kudish region. The Özgür Gündem buildings have been bombed, burnt down; and many of the journalists have been arrested and detained. Or have been killed.”

The government responded to the freedom of expression campaign by arresting many of the one-day editors, including Fincanci.

On June 20, 2016, she began a 10-day stay in prison prior to being charged with spreading terrorist propaganda. Ficanci’s detention along with the jailing of other Özgür Gündem guest editors sparked protests.

This was not Fincanci’s first confrontation with Turkish authorities.

Now a distinguished forensic physician, early in her career she saw government corruption up close.

Şebnem Korur Fincanci:

“In the first week of my residency, I witnessed how they covered and falsified the torture findings in the Official Institute of Forensic Medicine. That day I had started both being an activist – but using the science, also helping my activism to reveal the truth.”

Fincanci’s investigations into the torture and killing of Turkish citizens led to trials that convicted members of the police and security forces of human rights violations.

She later helped develop the United Nations standards for researching and documenting evidence of torture, known as the Istanbul Protocol.

Şebnem Korur Fincanci:

“We will continue to support your struggle. You never gave up, and we will never give up!”

Today, Fincanci is president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey – and an activist committed to press freedom.

Şebnem Korur Fincanci:

“It is not acceptable to send the journalists in the prison. That is the situation. And can we accept this? Of course not … being in prison itself – the deprivation of liberty itself – is a human rights violation.”

Erol Önderoğlu was also an Özgür Gündem guest editor.

And like Şebnem Fincanci, was arrested and detained for 10 days in June 2016.

For over two decades, Önderoğlu’s covered press freedom issues in Turkey as representative for the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. It’s become a primary focus of his work.

Where journalists used to be witnesses reporting the news, increasingly they find themselves at the center of the story: defendants in court, charged with violations of Turkey’s anti-terror laws.

Önderoğlu is well-known in Turkey’s press community. And often helps foreign journalists navigate the country’s constricted media environment.

His tireless support of press freedom extends to all journalists, regardless of their political affiliation or viewpoint.

Erol Önderoğlu, Journalist, Reporters Without Borders:

“Since the beginning of my career, I’ve supported the idea of both conservative media companies and leftist outlets expressing their views. That’s why it’s natural for me to be in solidarity with a newspaper like Özgür Gündem.”

The arrests of Önderoğlu and Fincanci were seen as part of the Erdoğan government’s efforts to intimidate not only journalists, but anyone advocating for them.

The outcome of their trial, which began in November 2016, would reveal the level of persecution in Turkey. The trial went on for months and then years without a decision.

On April 16, 2019, two and a half years after the start of the trial, Erol and his wife, Serpil, left their apartment and walked to the courthouse for the eleventh hearing.

There, Erol met a friend and spoke about the court’s impending decision.

Erol Önderoğlu:

“I expect conviction … I expect for sure conviction … So, I think, you know the current application, yeah, said one year and a half of prison.”

A year and a half in prison for supporting press freedom.

Erol Önderoğlu:

“When I was charged, I thought that despite working hard for freedom of speech, I wasn’t a welcomed part of society. For the first time I felt that I didn’t have a place in today’s Turkey.”

Later that day, the court delayed its decision once again, prolonging Önderoğlu’s uncertainty.

Then, came July 17, 2019, the day the court announced its decision. Erol was away at the time.

At the scene, his co-defendant Şebnem spoke not only for herself and Önderoğlu, but for all the journalists still awaiting trial.

Şebnem Korur Fincanci:

“In this country the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ have been twisted. Even though we are the ones who are fighting in this country, fighting for life, fighting for the young, and no one dies because of it, we are the ones who are accused of terrorism.”

In Turkey, this is the new normal. But these two activists are unwilling to give up on their country and its future.

Erol Önderoğlu:

“I hope that in the future – when Turkey has a place in the democratic world – all the things we’ve gone through will remind us of the need for reconciliation in our country.”

Şebnem Korur Fincanci:

“I consider it my duty as a human being, for other human beings, to realize a better world and to struggle for this better world. And I’m sure humanity will be successful at that.”

Two months after Önderoğlu and Fincanci’s acquittal, Turkish government prosecutors won an appeal of the court’s decision.

They will face a new trial for “spreading terrorist propaganda” beginning in February 2021.

About this project

The right to free and open access to news and information should be universal, but threats to a free press persist in many parts of the world. Turkey is one of them. Though Turkey is a democracy, the watchdog group Freedom House classifies it as “not free” in part because of media restrictions and digital censorship. The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders calls Turkey the “world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists,” with digital censorship reaching “unprecedented levels.”

About VOA

Voice of America provides trusted and objective news and information in 47 languages to more than 278 million people around the world. We strive to fill the void created by censorship and repression, model the workings of a free press, and tell America’s story in all its diversity. VOA is part of the United States Agency for Global Media.