Turkish journalist Emre Soncan (36), who has been jailed in Turkey’s notorious Silivri Prison in İstanbul for 667 days and sentenced by a court to seven years, six months in prison on charges of “membership in a terrorist organisation,” has said: “A journalist is critical, skeptical, rebellious and utopian, etc… So a journalist is a lot of things, but there is one thing he or she is not: A journalist is not a terrorist.”
A Turkish court on April 10, 2018 handed down a prison sentence of seven-and-a-half years on terror charges to Soncan, who is among dozens of journalists jailed in the aftermath of a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
Soncan was detained 10 days after the coup attempt and was arrested along with 21 other journalists in the same investigation on July 29, 2016. With additional arrests the number rose to 27. The trial at the İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court was concluded on March 8, 2018.
Toward the end of the trial in which Soncan was charged with membership in a terrorist organization and was awaiting a verdict following his 20-month stay in prison, the judge decided to separate his dossier from the others, saying that there was a new case against him and that he would be tried in new proceedings.
Soncan, who has been in pretrial detention for 627 days in Silivri Prison in İstanbul, was convicted of membership in a terrorist organization. However, the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) was told that the verdict in Soncan’s case was made without giving him the relevant documents required for his defence before the court. Therefore, the young journalist refused to present his defence at the final hearing due to the fact that the documents he requested were withheld from him.
Giving a written interview from his prison cell to SCF, the jailed reporter of the now-closed Zaman daily spoke about his passion for freedom and expressed his impatience for the day he would return to his profession and again be doing journalism only for the people.
Young journalist Soncan also said he was offended by European politicians. He said European politicians have betrayed the struggle for freedom of the press and freedom of thought in Turkey for the sake of the economic and political interests of their countries. Soncan criticised European politicians, saying, “They are disloyal to the values that made Europe what it is today.”
Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday. If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.
Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 253 journalists and media workers were in jail as of May 11, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 192 were under arrest pending trial while only 61 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 142 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.
Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.
Jailed journalist Emre Soncan’s answers to SCF’s questions are as follows:
First of all, could you talk about how you were arrested and what your current situation is?
I started working at the Zaman newspaper in 2004 after short internships at CNN Türk TV and the Star newspaper. As I continued my profession with the title of ‘Presidency and General Staff Correspondent,’ and I was dismissed from my job by the new administration after the seizure of the Zaman newspaper. I was arrested on July 29, 2016 during operations launched against the opposition media in the wake of the despicable coup attempt on July 15, 2016. I have been sentenced to seven years, six months in prison for ‘membership in a terror organization’ because of the books and news stories I wrote and the criticism I voiced on TV channels targeting the government. I’ve been under arrest for about two years.
How is prison life?
As night falls, I do not know at all if there is a daytime in prison. Since I do not use the sheets and pillows given me by the prison administration, I get into the bedclothes I bought from the prison canteen, I pull the blanket with two fingers up to my nose, I try to fix the fold of the blanket with my feet as I lie down, I turn right for a while, then turn left for a while. I fall asleep at a moment when I am dreaming of my freedom… Naturally, as I sleep, the whole prison also starts to sleep. The heater on the side of my bed, the books and magazines on the radiator are also closing their eyes. Even the steps of the staircase are sleeping. But the passion for freedom within me is not sleeping. Since the passion for freedom within me does not sleep, my slumber turns into a nightmare between sleeping and awakening.
Only the edges of the roof seem not to be sleeping beside me because I can always hear the voices caused by the water flowing from the eaves to the yard and as they hit the concrete floor.
During the daylight, the orange light of the sun glows my eyes. I am trying to set a balance between light and darkness. It’s like the effort that a tightrope walker who has not yet mastered in his skill uses to protect his balance on the rope …
I read, I write, I think … Actually, I am trying to cling to life by reading, writing, thinking. Writer Hasan Ali Toptaş says in his book “Gölgesizler” (Those who have no shadow) that “Life consists of repetition.” I do not remember life really being like that. But in prison all days are a repetition of each other. We are forbidden to see our friends because of state of emergency (OHAL) implementations. We can only have a phone call every two weeks. Open visits for our families are only once every two months. So you have to wait for sixty long days to be able to hug your loved ones. Letters and books were also forbidden for a long time. Fortunately, they abandoned this outdated practice.
We have a small courtyard, nine feet square, but covered with wire cages. I think they are afraid of us embracing the clouds. Or maybe they are afraid of we will collect sunlight when the sun sets.
Do not tell anyone, but I have imaginary wings. I run from the prison from time to time. The gendarmes and prison guards cannot see. I have also my words. I build bridges with them that go to eternity. I walk on these velvet letters silently. Neither judges nor police can come behind me because they do not have their words…
Sometimes I witness small miracles here. For instance, one day a tiny butterfly with cloudy yellow wings attached to its earth-brown body landed on the side of the glass. I could not understand why this butterfly chose my prison, and my ward in the prison to live its short life. Anyway, I felt very happy.
Let me also tell you about the moment I am writing these lines. The sunshine is hitting half of the courtyard and the clothes are drying under the sun. A calm shadow dominates the other half of the courtyard with a slight breeze. Here, I sit on a plastic seat that I put in this shadowy part of the courtyard, where I take my left leg and put it on my right leg, resting my cheek on my left hand as I look at the harmony among the colours of the tea in the cup that I hold in my right hand and my burgundy shirt, and also the disharmony among all my manners with the atmosphere of the prison, I am writing these lines.
What do you think about the situation of imprisoned journalists in Turkey and the rising critical voices from the West on the problem?
Right now, hundreds of journalists in my country are behind bars only because of their thoughts. However, as the late Turkish author Selahattin Eyüboğlu emphasized, ‘The greatest crime of thought is to claim the thought is a crime.’ The essence of journalism as a profession is skepticism and critical thinking. Suspicion and criticism also start with thinking.
For me, the greatest crime that a journalist could commit is to engage in political power and to position him or her self on the side of power, the government and the state, and to turn his/her back to society. Many of us, as journalists, became a part of this crime at the time. Now I have been cleansed of this crime in prison. And I long impatiently for reaching my freedom as soon as possible and engaging in journalism only for the society.
When we come to your question again, yes, the common point of me and other colleagues in the prison is to criticize the government and to think that the essential problem of this country is the political understanding of those who govern the country. And, unfortunately, with every passing day, with every anti-democratic move, the trend of increasing pressure on the media and opposition confirms our stance.
I am especially grateful to my colleagues and friends working for non-governmental organisations in European Union countries. They’re trying to make our voices heard on every platform. But I cannot say the same optimistic sentences for European politicians. They are turning their backs on the problem of freedom of expression and freedom of thought in this country because of their relations with the Turkish government and their pursuance of their so-called ‘national interests.’ In fact, they are not faithful to the values that have made Europe what it is today. I do not even want to mention any of the media organizations in Turkey. It is not possible for them to serve the ideal of freedom of the press in a real sense or to exert influence on the government in the short run as long as they insist on giving support to and showing solidarity only with those colleagues who are close to their view of the world and unless they are stripped of their ideological eclipses as expressed by the late Turkish thinker Cemil Meriç.
What do you want to say on the “terrorist” accusations for critical journalists?
A journalist cannot be at peace with power anywhere in the world because he tries to tell the public what the government is trying to hide from the public and since journalists are constantly suspicious of the government’s executive choices. Criticism of the government is not a hostile attitude, but rather an obligation of our profession. The journalist is the rebellious… He/she writes his stories on his feet, not on his knees. He/she always dreams of a better country and a better world. Even if he knows that is an impossible dream, the journalist always dreams of perfection. In this regard the journalist is a utopian most of the time. Namely, the journalist is critical, skeptical, rebellious and utopian, etc… So a journalist is a lot of things, but there is one thing he or she is not: A journalist is not a terrorist.
I was hurt when they said, “Welcome, coup journalist,’ on my first night in the prison… I was hurt when I walked through the courthouse corridors in handcuffs surrounded by gendarmes and when the hostile eyes of our citizens were focused on me… I was hurt when I was put in detention together with twelve people in a cell that was meant for only three people and with a murder suspect sleeping right next to me in this cell… However, to live is to be injured and to be injured was nice. In order to understand the agony and pain of others, maybe it was necessary to have been hurt and wounded. Thus I was able to understand the wounds and the pain of others.
In conclusion I would like to say that the subject of the accusations against me, namely my news, my books, my comments and most importantly my thoughts, are my children. They asked for my children. I refused to give them my children. Do not give your kids to anyone!