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Turkish Journalist: ‘When The Media Is Silenced, Countries Become Deaf And Blind’

Sevgi Akarcesme discusses Turkey's government and issues of press freedom with 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Jan. 20, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Alex Heuer
St. Louis Public Radio

Freedom of the press has drawn renewed attention following recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

On Jan. 7, terrorists attacked satirical publication Charlie Hebdo for its cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, killing 12 people and injuring many more.

“As a practicing Muslim, I hate people when they commit acts of terrorism in the name of Islam,” Turkish journalist Sevgi Akarçeşme told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Tuesday. “They are the ones who harm Islam the most. Unfortunately, millions of Muslim people in Europe are going to have harder lives just because of those.”

In Turkey, the response to the attacks was mixed, she said. Zaman, the newspaper where she works as a senior editor and columnist, condemned the attacks and said freedom of expression cannot be violated, Akarçeşme said.

“Anyone who believes in democracy and freedom of speech should stand behind media freedoms,” she said. “Because when the media is silenced, countries become deaf and blind.”

A few days after the attacks, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s prime minister, participated in a Paris march for the victims of the attack. But at the same time, 40 reporters were sitting in Turkey's jails.

In December, the Turkish government raided the newspaper Zaman and a television station, arresting journalists who are critical of the government. In particular, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has repeatedly sued Turkish cartoonists for portraying him as various animals.

Turkey has long been at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe.

Turkey also shares a border with Syria. The country has been flooded with Syrian refugees. The country’s stance on ISIS is “sensitive,” Akarçeşme said. “This is an imminent threat to Turkish people. Any security threat in Syria has immediate impact in our territory. (But) since the beginning, Turkish government has been supporting the opposition forces — pretty much anyone who is fighting against (Bashar) Assad, Syria’s dictator.”

“What makes Turkey even more valuable has always been its secular democratic background,” Akarçeşme said. The country was able to “show the world” that democracy and Islam could co-exist.

Erdoğan was Turkey’s prime minister from 2003 to 2014, when he was elected president.

“This government has been in power for the last 12 years,” Akarçeşme said. “I was one of the people who supported this government. I just thought they were going in the right track, taking Turkey to Brussels, to Europe and promoting European values — you know, freedom of expression, more freedom of religion. There has been red flags. Personally, sometimes I think I should have been more sensitive about those flags. Unfortunately, power corrupted them.”

In December 2013, when Erdoğan was still prime minister, Turkish police arrested more than a dozen people on corruption charges. Erdoğan blamed foreign ambassadors. His supporters accused the United States or Israel of a plot. Others blame a power struggle between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic community leader who lives in the U.S. in a self-imposed exile.

“The government has become much more authoritarian in order to cover up the corruption allegations,” Akarçeşme said, who is a senior editor and columnist at Zaman, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper. “We continue to cover issues regarding corruption allegations because this is massive.”

In the past year, Turkey’s leaders have cracked down on the country’s independent media.

“That is one of the reasons why Twitter is huge in Turkey, because conventional media outlets are restricted or under pressure,” Akarçeşme said. That’s also why many Twitter accounts there are anonymous, she said.

On Dec. 14, Akarçeşme was at work at Zaman when police attempted to raid the newspaper’s office. Protesters forced police to turn back, but several people, including Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanli, were arrested in a second raid that afternoon.

Dumanli has been released pending a trial. Others, including a television executive, remain in jail, Akarçeşme said.

“The charges are interesting,” Akarçeşme said. The TV executive and several scriptwriters have been accused of “(plotting) against a terrorist organization supporting al-Qaida by means of a fictional TV series,” she said. The executive did not create the series, but his station did air it. Similarly, Dumanli is accused of plotting through two columns and a news report that ran in Zaman.

Akarçeşme was not arrested on Dec. 14. She has recently been in the United States on a grant to report on Silicon Valley. While she was in California, Akarçeşme learned that Davutoğlu, Turkey’s prime minister, has sued her over tweets that he said insulted him. What will happen when Akarçeşme returns to Turkey remains to be seen.

“There is no reason for me to be arrested, but then again Ekrem Dumanli and all of those were arrested without reason,” she said. Her mother has sent texts to Akarçeşme, who has attended school in Philadelphia and worked in Washington, D.C., encouraging her to stay in the U.S.

“For the first time in her lifetime, she told me not to come back because she is worried about me. This is sad as a Turkey citizen. I’m just sad that Turkey, which is a promising country with a lot of resources, great history and all, has come to this point.”

Akarçeşme plans to return to Turkey.

Related Event

The Significance of Media Freedom for Democracy: Turkish Case

  • When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015
  • Where: Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum, Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park, St. Louis
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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