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In Berlin, Turkish Newsman and Pussy Riot Risk It All for Freedom of Speech

Dictators crush dissent and honest reporting with the gun, the sword, the noose and the bone saw.

Turkish journalist Can Dündar has lived the last year and a half as an exile in Berlin – a Salman Rushdie without the fatwa, but nonetheless in danger. (Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

A couple of weeks ago, shortly before the beginning of the 4th World Conference of Screenwriters in Berlin, several of us involved in its organizing were told that toward the end of the second and final day there would be a lot of additional security.

And so there was. Suddenly, at the appointed hour, several unfamiliar faces arrived, casually dressed but strategically placed around the auditorium and clearly ready to take action if anything bad seemed about to happen.

They were there to protect the Turkish journalist Can Dündar. For the last year and a half he has been hiding in exile in Berlin – a Salman Rushdie without the fatwa, but nonetheless in danger. A noted author, screenwriter and TV personality as well as a newsman, he was arrested by the Erdogan government in November 2015 on terrorism and espionage charges, but freed pending trial after 92 days in prison.

"There's a great big eye wandering over our heads. That eye belongs to a figure known to us all from literature: Big Brother is now in Turkey." —Can Dündar, Turkish journalist living in exile

The following spring, Dündar was sentenced by a Turkish judge to five years and ten months. Leaving the courthouse, he was the target of a failed assassination attemptHe fled to Germany. Should he return home, an outstanding arrest warrant, incarceration and possible death await.

His crimes? In general, enraging the Turkish government with his acute analysis and investigative reporting. More specifically, as editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, he oversaw an expose that Turkey surreptitiously was sending arms to Syrian rebels, a story headlined, "Here are the weapons that Erdogan says do not exist."

Erdogan, who claimed Dündar’s paper was spreading lies in support of Fethullah Gülen, the cleric living in America that the Turkish president accuses of plotting the failed 2016 coup against him, vowed that Dündar would “pay a heavy price.” He was accused of leaking official secrets and betraying the state.

But now here he was with us in Berlin, in sports coat, tie and khakis, smiling, bearded and diminutive as his security guards towered over him.

“Imagine you rule as a one party government for a decade and a half,” he began. “You’ve crushed all your opposition and taken over the media… You’ve commissioned films glorifying your ideology and no one goes to watch them. You’ve removed ‘sinful’ sculptures from public spaces but no one turns to look at the fountains you erected in their place. You’ve had ‘immoral’ TV series axed but no one watches their replacements.”

There is, he continued, a “battle for cultural rule in Turkey,” a struggle for freedom of speech and creativity. “Will we work and draw the government’s fury or yield to the censor and lose?” he asked.

"When they hear the word culture, they reach for their gun. But fate plays them cruel tricks. They’ve got nothing else to read but the books that we write, nothing else to watch but the series we produce, and nothing else to sing but our songs. In any contest with oppression, culture always has the last laugh.”

Nonetheless, he said, “There’s a great big eye wandering over our heads. That eye belongs to a figure known to us all from literature: Big Brother is now in Turkey."

According to the Turkish press freedom website P24, as of mid-October, “There are at least 176 journalists and media workers in prison in Turkey either in pretrial detention or serving a sentence.”

The organization Reporters without Borders notes that since the 2016 coup attempt,  “A state of emergency has allowed the authorities to eliminate dozens of media outlets with the stroke of a pen, reducing pluralism to a handful of low-circulated and targeted publications. Turkey is again the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists, with members of the press spending more than a year in prison before trial and long jail sentences becoming the new norm -- in some cases, journalists are sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of a pardon.”

All of which makes it richly ironic, even in the face of tragedy, to see Erdogan in such high dudgeon over the death and alleged dismemberment of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. While he demands a complete and transparent investigation into the killing of Khashoggi, Erdogan keeps reporters and editors – and thousands of dissidents and opponents – incarcerated in his own country. (Not to mention Erdogan’s own predilection for rendition, kidnapping Turkish nationals from other countries.)

But as Can Dündar finished his remarks in Berlin, there was another big surprise, another reason for the heightened security. Two members of the Russian dissident group Pussy Riot had arrived and rose to speak.

Pyotr Verzilov and Nika Nikulshina are two of the four protesters who on July 15 ran out onto the field at the World Cup final in Moscow, in front of Vladimir Putin, France’s Emmanuel Macron and other heads of state. They spent fifteen days in jail.

Weeks later, after Nikulshina had been held in detention again and Verzilov had waited in a courthouse for her release, he fell ill. “Nika and I returned to our home and it was the anniversary of our relationship,” he told us. “I went out to get some flowers and as I was going to the flower shop I looked at my phone and I realized that suddenly I wasn’t able to focus closely on what was written on my phone and couldn’t really concentrate… I went to sleep for a couple of hours and when I woke up I realized that I was slowly losing my consciousness and my ability to communicate with the outside world.

Nikulshina called an ambulance. "I think if we hadn't found him he would have died," she said. Two weeks and two Moscow hospitals later, “People started to suspect I  was poisoned by a military grade agent, some poisonous gas that no one ever knew what it was,” Verzilov said. “So we immediately began to become quite suspicious with Russian hospitals because they were not sharing with our lawyer their analysis.

“You can understand that if you’re the boss of a huge hospital in central Moscow, and you view your job as very political, obviously you can’t give a patient his analysis before checking with some people at the [Russian security agency] FSB.”

Pyotr was moved to a Berlin hospital, where he was successfully treated and seems fully recovered:  “Gladly, I’m much better now than the last weeks that I just spent in my own magical world so now we are trying to understand what has happened and piece this all into one puzzle, but essentially what happened was the price that you have to pay in Russia if you’re going to be political and willing to stand up against Putin.”

Why did this happen? Pyotr Verzilov did not say, but at The New Yorker, Masha Gessen recently observed, “[O]ne of Russia’s many quasi-anonymous, semi-underground online publications on the publishing and messaging platform Telegram—the contemporary version of samizdatreported that Verzilov had been working on an investigative story about the deaths of… three Russian journalists, Alexander Rastorguev, Orkhan Dzhemal, and Kirill Radchenko. The three had been in the Central African Republic reporting on a mercenary force linked to a close associate of President Vladimir Putin.”

Verzilov was supposed to be on that trip to Africa but had committed instead to the World Cup protest. He had just raised money to investigate the three deaths and was supposed to receive documents relevant to the probe on the day he fell ill.

We know about the other Russian newsmen and women who have died since Putin’s rise to power. And worldwide, so far this year, the International Federation of Journalists has recorded the deaths of 72 journalists and media workers. Our conference began just days after Khashoggi’s disappearance and shortly after news had come of the rape and murder of Bulgarian reporter Victoria Marinova, the fourth high-profile journalist to be killed in Europe since the beginning of last year.

Many of these are murders perpetrated by those who fight against the freedom of expression, who would shout fake news in the face of honest investigative reporting that seeks the truth, no matter where the facts may lead.

"When everything our president says is a lie, when our country turn its back on the truth, when we do not speak out and use our strength and position to defend a human right as fundamental as speech, unless we push back hard, we’re done for."

And they are deaths further exacerbated by America forfeiting its place in the global community, led by a man who mocks and bullies the press – just days after Khashoggi’s disappearance praising the Montana congressman Greg Gianforte for bodyslamming journalist Ben Jacobs.

He refuses to take a moral stand on anything, much less defending the right of expression or of taking an opposing position, and has embraced in a bear hug the nationalism, bigotry and populism of the far right. He has declared America First and rejected globalism and international cooperation.

In so doing, the United States now gives carte blanche to those in the world -- Putin, Erdogan, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and the rest -- who choose to crush dissent and honest reporting with the gun, the sword, the noose and the bone saw.

When everything our president says is a lie, when our country turn its back on the truth, when we do not speak out and use our strength and position to defend a human right as fundamental as speech, unless we push back hard, we’re done for. End of story.  

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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