Ever wondered how you’d cook the Grand Vizier’s finger? Ferit Tunç, a Kurdish journalist from Batman, might have the answer. Tunç and his team at Batman Yön newspaper have an inventive take on satire: when the paper came under pressure, he began to publish recipes with names like “Vali Kebap,” which means “Governor Kebap,” and “Vezir Parmağı,” the Vizier’s Finger. His work has lead him to be shortlisted for the Index on Censorship’s 2016 Freedom of Expression Award, an internationally recognized prize for organisations and individuals who uphold the free movement of ideas and information. Here he talks to Independent Turkey about his city, his country, and his journalism.
What got you started as a journalist, what drew you to journalism?
I actually wanted to become a legal professional, but because I had studied social sciences in high school the educational system in Turkey at the time prevented me from becoming a legal professional. Because I saw journalism as the closest profession to law, I decided to become a journalist. As a Kurd, the major factor drawing me to this career was that the Kurdish people, in their own geography, the land of Kurdistan, and in their own country as Turkish citizens, they are always beat down upon. The fact that their cultural, economic, and all other rights have essentially been stripped from them. I was well aware of the oppression and injustice acted upon the Kurdish people, and as someone conscious of this fact it was my duty to claim their rights through democratic avenues, and I saw journalism as a part of that duty.
What do you see your role as, in your city of Batman, but also in the rest of Turkey?
Actually, working as a journalist in the city of Batman, where I was born and raised, is a much more difficult task than working in a big city in many ways. In small cities like Batman most people know who you are, and you know who they are, and this makes the duty of a journalist even harder. For example, let’s say you release a story about some wrongdoing committed by a head of an organization, then it can be very easy for that person to reach you and it can lead to problems. Another problem is that oftentimes in these small cities the heads of organizations and the heads of the courts and the prosecutors are close friends, so when issues go to court, cases are resolved on the basis of these friendly relationships. Another difficult aspect of journalism in these places is the economic factor, because once you start writing the truth you start to face economic sanctions. And of course you can’t forget about politics, because politics is a bed of nails for news.
Can you tell us a little more about your story, and the story of Batman Yön – how did you get involved? What do you focus on?
I was born in 1987 as the seventh child of 12 brothers and sisters to a family living just outside of Batman in a village called Karayün in the Okçu plain. I went to primary school in the village and I later went to the city of Batman for middle school, which was three-and-a-half kilometers from the village. Because there was no public transportation at the time, we walked to and from school every day even in the rain and snow. Shortly after I started high school we moved to Batman, in 1996, and I continued my schooling while working at various places to help my family out economically.
In 1996 I finished my high school education, but I began to miss my hometown, and I started realize just how bad people in the big cities viewed the Kurdish people. This negative perspective inspired me to continue my schooling and in 2005 I enrolled in the Marmara University Journalism Department. During my university years I worked for a number of national newspapers and magazines, and I played an active role in civic society, including the Batman Education, Culture, and Research Association with 650 members, and in which I served as the founding president. In 2010 I enrolled in Leibniz University’s Department of International Relations and Politics, but due to financial constraints, I returned to Turkey and studied in the International Relations program at the Istanbul Commerce University. In 2012, due to my father’s health conditions I returned to Batman and founded an advertising company. In September of 2013 I returned to my actual profession of journalism and founded the Batman Yön newspaper.
We formed a crew of competent colleagues and we started off the newspaper very strong, trying our best to cover pressing events in Batman. But our reporting was already starting to ruffle the feathers of the local bureaucracy and court cases started being opened against us. Eventually there were 30 court cases against in the first year of the newspaper alone. This situation was really difficult for both the newspaper and myself, and now we are trying to get back on our feet. While I am continuing my journalistic duties despite the hardships, at the same time I am also pursuing my doctoral degree from Istanbul Commerce University in Media and Communications. I am married and I have two twin daughters, Eymen and Emir.
Do you think there is still a role for independent media outlets, in the era of corporate media ownership?
If I have to be quite frank, it is difficult to refer to newspapers who are supported by the government or large corporations as “independent.” Because the government is a mechanism and each administration that enters the government will try to use that mechanism to praise itself, and to cover up its wrongdoings and problems. As a result of this, state-sponsored newspapers will either entirely relinquish their independence or make serious compromises in terms of their neutrality. As for corporate media, those newspapers will not be able to hold their own corporations accountable and they won’t be able to evaluate their organization’s own ideology, so in both cases, we can’t really call corporate or state-sponsored media independent or neutral bodies.
What has been your experience of media censorship in Turkey, and how do you deal with it?
Actually, each court case that was brought against our newspapers could be considered an effort to censor, because those cases have to do with freedom of expression and they aim to take away the freedom of the press. In this sense, I have been targeted for censorship both in abstract and in concrete terms. Of course, even in the times they were attempting to censor us we never gave up on our values of ethical journalism and we tried our best to resist. With around 30 court cases against our paper and two jail sentences, unfortunately I spent more time in courtroom than in the newsroom doing actual journalism. And in a democratic country where there actually is the freedom of press, our news pieces would not have even been a subject of court.
Despite my efforts to defend myself and provide testimonials, I was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in prison in total disregard for the press penal code. This might seem really comical to you but, there was a story where the chief-physician of the Batman 112 Emergency Service who slapped one of the emergency room doctors on duty. For the story, I used the headline “The Slapping Head doctor,” and arguing that the word “slapping” was slanderous, the court sentenced me to 11 months and 20 days in prison. I also got dragged into a number of cases for stories I had written concerning corruption and illegal activity scandals at Batman University, and in the last case I was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison. Actually, when the judge announced my 2 year 6 month sentence, I could only respond with a smile, because after that I was fully convinced that the freedom of press and freedom expression doesn’t mean a thing. Just think – there was a professor at the university, who was receiving a salary, but who lived in a different city and hadn’t been to the university for 3 years, and just because I published the school’s salary records from a news source, I was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months. And I’m supposed to call this justice?
According to the 2016 Freedom of Expression Awards, while you were under censorship you creatively used cooking recipes and articles to secretly criticize those in power. How did you come up with this creative method?
If your newspaper has been stalled to the point of being non-workable, and you are not willing to compromise your personal values and beliefs, the most just thing to do to is to pursue an act of demonstration through democratic avenues. And of course, if the object of a demonstration is to have your voice heard, you need to come up with an effective way to communicate your message. I decided that we needed to take a stand against these pressures and intimidations through the tried and true method of demonstration, and with the brainstorming help of colleagues, we came up with a method. Instead of posting news stories we decided to post stories about food. That way, we would be communicating in the language our corrupt and dishonest detractors could understood, the language of consumption, devouring, feeding. Of course, at first our demonstration confused many of our readers but after a while they began to understood the reason for our demonstration and we received a lot of support from them. Eventually, our voice was not only heard nationally but internationally as well, and the news of our demonstration reached the international press, which is how I was honored with the 2016 “Freedom of Expression Award” shortlist. Of course receiving an award from such an internationally known and reputable foundation was a source of great affirmation for me that I was going in the right direction, and it made me love my job even more.
Do you think it’s possible to be an un-biased or absolutely neutral journalist?
Essentially, journalists are people with emotions too, and even occasionally in some situations they can lose their ability to be completely neutral. War correspondents are an excellent example of this. You cannot expect a war correspondent whose country is at war to provide an accurate account of the war because their emotions will mitigate their reporting and they may not tell exactly as it its. But aside from these kind of situations, it is entirely possible to be an ethical, neutral journalist. You just have to put your professional aspirations before your own personal aspirations.
What do you see for the future of the media in Turkey today, especially in light of the Constitutional Court order to release Erdem Gül and Can Dündar, and the takeover of Zaman?
First of all, I believe the Constitutional Court’s decision was the right decision, because Can Dündar and Erdem Gül were fulfilling their duties as journalist protected under the freedom of expression law. Yes, maybe Can Dündar’s news about MIT’s transport vehicles [MIT is the Turkish state intelligence agency] may affect the state’s well being, but this does not undercut Dündar’s right to report, and whether or not he publishes or does not publish the story has to do with what I talked about earlier, about him putting his professional obligations before his own personal emotional views.
Concerning your question about Zaman newspaper, it pains me even to answer it. Because in my view, the appointment of government-backed trustees to the paper’s administration is even worse than simply shutting the paper down. If we have the rule of law, and the freedom of expression law, how can we have government appointed trustees? If Zaman newspaper releases an incorrect story, you should hold the chief editor accountable for the error, within the confines of the law.