Occupational Hazards

by Nancy Snow

Toward Freedom magazine, December 1997 - January 1998


Greg Ruggiero was arrested recently in New York City for displaying "graffiti.'' His crime: hanging 9x12 posters announcing a street demonstration and protest against media censorship and monopoly. A member of the New York Free Media Alliance, Ruggiero had pasted the message on construction board that was "virtually covered with corporate ads." For exercising his free speech and attacking the dominance of commercial speech in US society, he spent 24 hours in jail and was sentenced to community service.

The Alliance, Ruggiero explained at an international Media activism panel at the 1997 Media & Democracy Congress, was formed recently "to free local mass media from domination by commercial, government, and elite interests who censor or distort information vital to our communities." Mainstream US media are failing in their public interest obligations to inform the citizenry about their communities, the regional coalition charges.

Ruggiero's jailhouse experience shocked and bemused the mostly North American audience. But according to Zeynip Tufekcioglu, a 26-year-old Turkish journalist who followed him at the lectern, media activists have it easy in the US compared to Turkey, where telling the truth is usually followed by running for cover There, the death of the public sphere sometimes means actual death. "I really don't see [the US] as having a big problem with censorship. I'm really sorry for Greg getting arrested, but he'll get over it," Tufekcioglu quipped.

Half of all the world's imprisoned journalists reside in Turkey, say two international press organizations, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF). The RSF's 1997 report states that 154 Turkish journalists were victims of police abuse in 1996. One journalist died, 31 were tortured in custody, 53 were beaten up, and 69 were threatened. "In Turkey, police not only target their violence at the Kurdish and leftist media, but also against mainstream media," the report concludes.

Activism wasn't an abstract topic for Tufekcioglu, but rather "a part of our daily struggle to get the news out" against the backdrop of ongoing civil war between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which seeks its own state of Kurdistan. The conflict has claimed over 24,000 lives since 1984. The Turkish government officially denies the basic cultural and linguistic rights of its Kurdish population, numbering around 12 million and occupying Turkey's nine southeastern provinces.

Turkish leaders consider any PKK activities terrorist, allowing the military to control Kurdish policy. According to the 1996 US State Department report on human rights in Turkey, "as part of its fight against the PKK, the Government forcibly displaced large numbers of noncombatants, tortured civilians, and abridged freedom of expression."

In lay terms, Tufekcioglu says, that means that any journalist who writes about the Kurdish conflict risks his life. An example is the 1996 case of the translator and publisher of a Human Rights Watch report on the conflict in the southeast who were charged under Article 159 of the Turkish Criminal Code for "defaming the military." Employing the Anti-Terror Law, which features a broad and ambiguous definition of terrorism, the government detains alleged terrorists for acts, words, or ideas which promote dissemination of Kurdish separatist propaganda.

A longtime member of NATO and one of the US's closest allies, Turkey is the world's champion abuser of what journalists can write, say, or do. And according to Tufekcioglu, the US government is a direct accomplice. "The fact that Turkey is a NATO country and lies strategically between Europe and the Middle East means that what really is going on inside the country doesn't get a lot of press coverage in the US,' she explains. The truth, however, is that the US won't support any government in Turkey that doesn't accept what the US wants.

Turkey's power structure, according to Tufekcioglu, is big business in alliance with multinational corporations, all supported and protected by the Turkish and US military. "You have these big powers crushing any thing alternative," she says. "The message that the Turkish mainstream media tells the population about the Kurds is that there is just this horrible armed organization that seems to be killing innocent babies. That's all they know." As a result, most people don't want to believe journalists who say the government is killing people.

Although the Turkish Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and press, the government limits both. Article 7 of the Anti-Terror Law criminalizes all news articles deemed to be "terrorist propaganda." Article 8 criminalizes news reports that are "aimed at destroying the indivisibility of the Turkish state." And Article 312 of Turkey's Penal Code mandates up to three years in prison for writing that "incites hatred or enmity." Until 1995, Turkey banned student and faculty associations and labor union involvement in political activities. The Criminal Code still contains penalties for those who "insult the President, the Parliament, and the army."

The government is hostile toward anyone who exposes human rights violations, including human rights monitors in the southeast Kurdish stronghold. "People have no idea what is going on in Turkey," says Tufekcioglu.

Yet, oddly enough, she displays no visible fear about continuing to speak out. In fact, she's optimistic, accepting the hazards associated with documenting human rights abuses and freeing the media in Turkey. "You don't stop driving cars," she jokes, "just because there are traffic accidents."


Nancy E. Snow is an assistant professor at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, and is the author of Propaganda, Inc. (Seven Stories Press).


Reprinted from Toward Freedom, a progressive world affairs magazine, August 1997

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