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Reporting on Turkey after the failed coup

A crowd of Erdogan supporters gathers at Istanbul's Bosphorus Bridge on 16th July after the failed coup attempt. Photo: Depo Photos/ABACA/PA Images

In DG #24, we published a long-form feature about life in Turkey three months after a coup attempt by the military was thwarted. Civilian resistance forced the military to back down on the night of 15th July, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained in power. But in the months that have followed, the sitting government has used the coup to tighten control over the country. A state of emergency – which allows Erdogan to rule by decree – has been in place since July and was extended by 90 days on 3rd January, tens of thousands of civil servants including teachers, academics, members of the judiciary and the security forces have been dismissed or suspended and there are now more journalists in prison in Turkey than in any other country.

Constanze Letsch, who wrote the piece, has been reporting from Turkey for nearly a decade. We asked her how the crackdown has affected her ability to be a journalist in the country. Here’s what she told us.

“Even before the coup attempt, the atmosphere of pressure and the nastiness regarding the press and foreign journalists were already there. It just got worse. In Turkey it’s been the case for a long time that foreigners and foreign journalists especially have been treated as secret agents and people who try to make Turkey look bad to the outside world.

I’ve been verbally threatened at a police checkpoint. It was at night and the police had masks and guns. They said ‘We know why you’re here. We know exactly what you’re doing. Don’t come back here.’ It’s scary, and as a woman it’s even more intimidating.

In August I went to a unity rally in Istanbul with masses of Erdogan supporters. It was the first time that I decided not to tell people I am a journalist. I didn’t have a notebook out, I didn’t tell anyone. It didn’t feel safe and it was kind of shocking to me that I felt that way. Local colleagues also advised me not to tell people that I was a journalist.

Still, for local journalists it’s so much worse. The local press has been absolutely decimated – there are over 150 media organisations which have been shut down. Local journalists have told me this is worse than after the 1980 coup. Reporters are not being killed in the street like they used to be, but they’re being jailed – more than 140 of them to date.

Writing anything critical puts you in the line of fire. Writing about the Kurdish issue is almost impossible – so many Kurdish or pro-Kurdish journalists are in jail or are being prosecuted. These journalists get threatened and assaulted by police. There are reports of torture in police detention.

Another thing that happens is you get fired. The government gives your editor a call and says this person needs to go and then you’re sacked and blacklisted. Journalists of course have to pay rent and many have to pay for their family, so there’s an atmosphere of panic and fear.

There have been a few worrisome developments since I wrote the piece for Delayed Gratification in December. On 29th December, the prominent investigative journalist Ahmet Şık was arrested and he has been in pre-trial detention since. The absurdity here is that he wrote the book about the Gülenists’ [followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen] power inside the police force, and he was arrested for that by prosecutors deemed to be Gülenists in 2011. Now he’s being accused by the leading party AKP of being a Gülenist, and some are even saying that his 2011 arrest was a plot to make him look innocent. You can’t make this up.

The correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Dion Nissenbaum, was detained from his house and held incommunicado for allegedly violating a broadcast ban. For two days his family had no idea where he was, that’s terrifying. But at least he can leave. For many Turkish journalists, their passports have been cancelled. I’ve reported from Turkey for a decade and this is the first time that I have acquaintances or friends threatened with jail, under terror investigation or in jail. It’s really getting to me.”

Letsch’s piece ‘All the president’s men’ is published in DG #24. Pick up a copy in our shop or take out an annual subscription with promo code ‘SOCIAL20’ and we’ll send you the issue for free.

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