The recent dismissal of 2,000 academics is the latest in a series of escalating arrests and crackdowns on media freedom since the failed coup of July 15, which has seen 29 publishing houses closed and the dismissal of 2,308 journalists.
As the post-coup purges continue, it seems the net is being cast ever more widely. With 110 journalists imprisoned currently, Turkey has the highest number of jailed journalists in the world according to Turkey Purge, a website monitoring the post-coup crackdowns.
Whilst legitimate security concerns following the coup have driven many of these arrests, human rights activists are increasingly voicing fears that the state of emergency has been expanded in order to target all political dissidents and government critics. These fears have been substantiated in recent weeks as a number of high profile public figures have been targeted by the state.
Internationally renowned author, human rights activist and columnist Aslı Erdoğan was arrested on August 16 for her critical journalism and work for Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem, since shut down in the wake of the coup.
Born and raised in Istanbul, Erdoğan studied and worked as a physicist, including for the renowned CERN project, before deciding to pursue writing fully, though her fiction had by this time already begun to garner international acclaim.
In a statement to Cumhuriyet, Erdoğan told of the poor conditions she is being kept in solitary confinement, despite chronic medical conditions such as asthma and diabetes.
She is being tried over alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government, for publishing what is seen as terrorist ‘propaganda’, and for ‘undermining national unity’ in her work for a pro-Kurdish newspaper.
An international petition calling for her release has been signed by almost 30,000 people and supported by various free speech organizations such as PEN International and UNESCO.
In her statement to Cumhuriyet, quoted by Index on Censorship, Erdoğan says, “When I understood that I was to be detained by a directive given from the top, my fear vanished. At that very moment, I realised that I had committed no crime.”
As Al-Monitor has noted, Erdoğan poses a threat due to her status as a ‘white Turk’: upper class ethnic Turks with wealth and an elite education. They are traditionally seen as followers of Kemalism, against religious and ethnic associations that go against the idea of secular Turkey. Her public support for Alevis, Kurds and minorities within Turkey is symbolically significant as it crosses the boundaries of the status quo.
Yet in targeting such a renowned figure, and in conflating PKK and Gülenist terrorism with the writing of Erdoğan, a renowned peace activist, the government risks further delegitimizing their post-coup investigations and the rule of law.
The crackdown on media freedom is unrelenting, with the state building up momentum rather than scaling down as relative stability returns to the country after the coup. Kurdish-language newspaper Azadiya Welat was another opposition media outlet raided on August 28, and the trial of the senior editors of opposition newspaper Taraf began yesterday. Their indictment is widely viewed as a further move to stifle freedom of speech in Turkey.
In a statement to Independent Turkey on Erdoğan’s arrest, board member of PEN International and prominent South African author Margie Orford writes, “What does it mean to imprison a writer? To clamp the rough hand of the state over her mouth in order to stifle her voice? What is lost? Conscience, freedom, words. Her words that shape the expression of a world understood through nuance, complexity and the tolerance of difference, of dissent. It is a body blow to democracy.”
For all that, hope remains. “It does not silence her. Her books are there, written, read, loved, read again.”
The Prisoner, one of Aslı Erdoğan’s more haunting works is, becomes a mesmerizing, almost prophetic ode to one woman’s solitude;
“Until the prisoner was taken out of the stone building and brought to the patrol wagon, she stood there. Straight, inaccessible, mute. Blowing about in the wind. Open to abuse. She saw it all: the momentary light in the man’s pupils which showed surprise, or joy, or gratitude, or love, or none of these; the slight movement at the corners of his mouth; the vague greeting he made by lifting his cuffed hands to his chest; the sign his forefingers made—just at that moment, a police officer hit the man hard, cursing—him hitting his head while being stuffed into the wagon with the others. She saw it all.
Even after the patrol wagon had long gone, she stood there, immobile, rubbing her forehead as if it was her head that split open.”
Translated by Deniz Perin.
Read more at Words without Borders.