What’s it like to be arrested and jailed for doing your job — reporting the news? Meet Turkish journalists whose work ensnared them in a nightmarish cycle of court hearings, detentions and fines.
It was the kiss seen around the world.
Shared by Journalist Kadri Gürsel and his wife Nazire, following his release from a Turkish prison in late September 2017.
“It’s made a picture, an iconic picture maybe. The kiss was a good answer to our jailers, I think.”
An answer to his jailers – and to a government intent on curbing press freedom in Turkey.
Gürsel had been arrested in October 2016 – along with more than a dozen other journalists at Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s leading opposition newspaper.
The journalists were ultimately charged with aiding a terrorist organization and held in custody during the opening phases of the trial, which for Gürsel meant spending 11 months in jail.
Over his 33 years in the news business, Gürsel has witnessed the demise of independent journalism in Turkey. Kadri Gürsel:
“It started in 2010, grew bigger, and at the end of the day, the whole media industry got under the control of the regime. The habitat for free and independent journalism does not exist anymore, and the mainstream media, in its proper definition, does not exist.”
During his career, Gürsel has been a vocal critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government – a stance that proved costly in 2015, when he wrote for a prominent mainstream newspaper.
Nate Schenkkan, Freedom House Director for Special Research:
“Kadri Gürsel was fired from Milliyet for a tweet in which he said that Erdoğan more than anyone was responsible for ISIS (Islamic State terrorists) in Turkey … And then from there I would say it escalated into much further targeting of him over the next two years.”
Gürsel continued criticizing the Erdoğan government, particularly its crackdown on press freedom. And he doesn’t mince words when discussing the charges against him and his Cumhuriyet co-defendants.
“It is an obvious assault against journalism, in fact. Because this should not have happened. It is the end result of a case against Cumhuriyet which was based on nothing. Journalistic activities were criminalized. A whole newspaper was criminalized.”
The trial became an opportunity for him to speak out against the government’s repression.
“I had to use my voice, because first and foremost, a journalist has to clearly declare that such accusations are not well-based, and such accusations are only aimed at muzzling the press, suppressing the freedom of expression and defending his or her own right to be free, is undeniable.”
The court’s verdict was not surprising. Gürsel was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. He’s currently free while appealing the decision.
Emma Sinclair Webb, Turkey Director, Human Rights Watch:
“The Cumhuriyet trial as a whole is an entirely bogus, an outrageous trial, where journalists for this liberal secular newspaper were basically described as terrorists. And the sentences they got, Kadri included, were all about aiding terrorist organizations.
“But [there was] no evidence to support this outrageous charge that they were somehow connected with terrorist groups.”
With few media outlets available to him, Gürsel appears on the web-based TV site Medyascope, which offers him and other independent journalists a platform to continue speaking out.
“I express my views with the audience of Medyascope, which is a growing audience regularly, as I am banned from appearing on TVs. It’s a very good thing to make independent media exist in this hostile environment, because this is where the new journalism of Turkey will thrive and will flourish again.”
For now, in this hostile environment, Gürsel continues making his case for press freedom.
“A journalist should defend journalism when journalism is under threat… and defending journalism means defending pluralism, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and in sum, it means defending democracy.”
If independent journalism is to flourish in Turkey again, Pelin Ünker’s experience will be one reason why.
In November 2017, she was a journalist working for Cumhuriyet, reporting on the Paradise Papers investigation. It exposed a hidden world of wealth held in offshore accounts by celebrities, blue-chip clients, and multinational corporations.
“In total, there were 382 journalists that investigated this issue from around the world. Of course in other countries, this news was published the same day – at the same time.”
Ünker revealed that former Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim and his sons had ties to five shipping companies registered in Malta, a tax haven.
Yildirim never disputed the accuracy of the report. Yet he filed charges against Ünker for slander and defamation.
Pelin Ünker: “Binali Yildirim and his sons had admitted the existence of these companies. However, an allegation was made and the court sentenced me to 13 and a half months in prison. But in the end the sentence was dismissed by the appeals court.”
But Ünker did not come out unscathed. The appeals court fined her $1,549 in the defamation case.
“In Turkey, they try to restrain investigative journalistic activities by imposing fines. Still, many journalists try to report the truth under these difficult circumstances.”
Of over 350 journalists involved with reporting on the Paradise Papers worldwide, Ünker is the only one who has been charged with a crime for her work.
She is currently free, pending the outcome of her trial. Ünker now works as a freelance reporter for the German news service Deutsche Welle, and remains committed to doing investigative work.
“In this period of time to speak out and do real journalism is really important, that’s what I think. I have a child and I want her to have a better future, and to make a better future for her we have to keep covering the news.”
One of Turkey’s most recognized television journalists appears on the number one network in the country.
Fatih Portakal anchors a daily news show on Fox Haber, part of conservative media baron Rupert Murdoch’s powerful global media empire. Its news format resembles Fox TV in the US, but Fox Haber’s focus is on Turkey.
“Yes, this is a U.S. channel, but we work here as Turkish newscasters and our country is our priority. Yes, the channel makes money, but our priority is objectively reporting on the news in our country and then sharing the news from around the world if time permits.”
Portakal’s success as a television journalist derives from his bold on-air personality.
Emma Sinclair Webb:
“Fatih Portakal became very popular because he was irreverent. He did a lot of asking questions of power. It’s the actual style – questioning style – [that] resonated with people and made him a very popular person to watch in the morning. And it didn’t mean that those who watched him all agreed with him. But it was much more exciting to watch a journalist who actually does journalism in asking the questions. And that’s why he found himself targeted.”
Many journalists in Turkey have been fined or jailed for the crime of Insulting the president. But the outspoken Portakal has so far avoided being charged.
“What I do here is – that’s different from other prime-time news broadcasts – is that I talk. This is what I do, and maybe people like this. In a country where there aren’t many people who talk – who write, maybe I express these people’s feelings. We voice what people would like to say, but can’t.”
Erdoğan is aware of Portakal. He issued a threat against the journalist at a rally, mentioning Portakal’s name, which means ‘orange’ in Turkish.
“Somebody whose name is orange or tangerine, or citrus — whatever you name him is calling on people to go out on the streets. Know your limits … know them. If you don’t know your limits, this nation will hit you in the back of your neck.”
Journalists who’ve criticized Erdoğan have been attacked by thugs in the past.
The threat of violence, especially from a head of state, is not to be ignored. Afterward, it made Portakal more cautious.
“Because you can’t figure out how the society or the individual will react. He may do something crazy. He may not do anything at all. You don’t think about that. You just protect yourself a little bit more. This is how pressure can be.”
It’s pressure like that – threats, arrests, prison sentences, fines – which makes a journalist’s job in Turkey hazardous.
“We should be worried about the loss of independent and professional media in any country. It means that the democratic order is eroding there.”
In May of 2019, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that Kadri Gürsel’s detention before trial violated his free speech rights. An Istanbul court later acquitted him — but confirmed the sentences of Gürsel’s Cumhuriyet colleagues.
In her defamation trial, Pelin Ünker avoided jail but was forced to pay a fine.
In August 2020, Fatih Portakal left Fox Haber Television. He continues to offer political commentary on his YouTube channel.
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.”
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.