All of us are aware of the cruel repression on media by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But, for the first time in Blitz, we have the first-hand witness to such cruelty. While Erdogan is trying to exert optimum pressure on Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he definitely hides his evil face of being the world’s worst jailer of journalists. One of the key victims of Erdogan is Abdullah Bozkurt, former editor of Turkey’s leading newspaper, the Today’s Zaman. Erdogan is hunting for Abdullah Bozkurt and there are warrants of arrest against this courageous journalist.
Recently, Abdullah Bozkurt accorded an exclusive interview to Blitz editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. Here are the excerpts:
Blitz: We know, you are currently the President of the Stockholm Center For Freedom, meaning, you are no more in Turkey. Would you kindly tell us, under what circumstances, and why, did you have to leave Turkey?
Abdullah: It was a snap decision to move abroad right after authorities issued sweeping detention warrants against 42 journalists on a single day in late July, 2016. Many of them I knew personally, worked together as a colleague in news rooms, chased after stories of public interest and some I knew from the by-line of the news stories that we read every day. It was only a matter of time before they came after me on fabricated charges as Erdogan government often does. In fact, police raided my office in Ankara a day after I left the country. I understood that the government wanted to destroy the entire critical, independent and opposition media under the pretext of battling against the failed coup bid. In fact, the first media outlets Erdogan went after were those that questioned the events on coup which was a false flag orchestrated by the government to set up the opposition in Turkey for a mass persecution. I was one of few lucky ones who managed to get out in the nick of the time through airport as many were detained on the spot at the airport. As of today, we have 242 journalists who languish behind bars in Turkish prisons and 148 journalists like me are wanted for an arrest.
Blitz: As we know, eighty million citizens of Turkey are experiencing a dramatic decline in its parliamentary democracy under Erdogan’s presidency. Under such circumstances, what actually is the agenda of him? Is he gradually transforming Turkey into a Sharia nation?
Abdullah: The main motivation behind this rapid slide on the rule of law, democracy and fundamental right is Erdogan’s desire to transform Turkey into a bastion of political Islamist movement and position himself as the self-declared leader of all Muslims or Ummah as described in the Islamic literature. His move against critical media came right after major multi-billion-dollar corruption scandals in December 2013 that incriminated him, his family members and his business and political associates. Erdogan does not want investigative journalists to dig into his corrupt network and his aiding and abetting of jihadist groups of all sorts. He wants to transform parliamentary democracy into an autocratic regime with values rooted in extremist religion and ultra-nationalist discourse. There is overwhelming evidence in the public record about ways and means Erdogan regime has been investing in various Islamist groups from Hizb ul-Tahrir, Jamaat al Islamiyya, Muslim Brotherhood to more extreme and violent ones such as al-Qaeda and even Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. He hopes to use these diverse groups as proxies to advance his political and religious agenda, strengthen his hands in negotiations with other countries and use them when needed as spoilers to secure what he wants.
Blitz: Every dictator and fascist in the world considers us – the journalists as their main enemies. We become the first victims whenever there is a rise of a dictator or fascist. But, it seems, we haven’t yet been able uniting in a strong platform through which, we can influence in putting those dictators or fascists under tremendous pressure from the global leaders. There are rights groups such as Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF, PE), PEN etc dealing into matters related to journalists. But most of the time, their actions are limited to issuing statements or publishing reports condemning the repression on journalists. On the other hand, authoritarian rulers simply ignore all of these statements and reports or even trash those. Under such realities, does it mean, the repression on journalists won’t really see an end?
Abdullah: Unfortunately, we live in a world full of hypocrisy and, more often than not, realpolitik dictates interests and shapes policies, especially when it comes to advancing business and financial interests. As such, fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, press and speech were pushed to the backburner in many cases. Statements of concerns and public advocacy of press freedom are important and relevant to the debate, but certainly not enough. The reaction of authoritarian governments to such statements mean they actually care what others say about their records and try to come up with counter moves to neutralize these statements. Perhaps they are important in contributing to the process that one hopes will lead to establishment of critical threshold that will break the camel’s back.
The path to democracy is not a smooth one and we need to be fighting for it every day. Despite challenges that, at times, may be seen insurmountable, we cannot simply give up. The human beings at the very core yearn for a freedom, and we must have a faith that freedom will overcome fascism and dictatorship. There are many examples we can recall from the history that will prove this point. We may not see the day of the victory in our lifetime but others will pick up and carry the flag of freedom further.
Blitz: Being a journalist and editor of a newspaper, I really do not see real outcry in the world centering repression on journalists in Turkey. On the other hand, global media are rather over-enthusiastic in covering the case of Jamal Khashoggi, though we know, he is not the only victim but there are many. How we can bring each and every case of persecuted Turkish journalists to the global attention?
Abdullah: The way Khashoggi was brutally murdered in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul prompted well-deserved international outcry and we all must join in that campaign to bring those who are responsible for his death to the account. I actually knew him personally although we did not see eye to eye on many issues. In a conference debate in Abu Dhabi in 2014, we sat together on the same panel and argued opposite views of Erdogan government. He was very much pro-Erdogan. We may not agree on everything, but we have to join forces when it comes to defending fundamental human rights and liberties including those of Khashoggi. Dictators and autocrats often manipulate divisions among journalists and media outlets and we must not let that happen. That is the lesson one can draw from the terrible experience we have in Turkey. Many decided to keep silent when the government started coming after some critical media groups, hoping to get a bigger slice in the market, silently cheering for the removal of rivals. They did not realize that Erdogan would stop there. The dictator then came after them as well.
We need to keep remembering the names of journalists who are locked up in Turkish prisons. Let’s cherish their memories, acknowledge their work, write and talk about their profiles. Forgetting their names would be the worst sentence they can get in prison. We, the lucky ones who can still write and speak up, have the responsibility to become voices for the silenced journalists in Turkey or in other countries. They somehow manage to learn about what we do outside of the prison walls through their lawyers, family members and friends. Even a small gesture, mention or campaign will keep them going and provide them hopes for the future.
Blitz: Turkey is changing. Seeing the media reports, what we feel, majority of the people in that country are supporting Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In this case, may I ask why the Turkish societies seem to prefer embracing radical Islam and Sharia rule?
Abdullah: That tells how important the critical and independent media is and that is why Erdogan destroyed the critical media, starting incrementally in 2015 and speeded up in 2016 and shut down nearly 200 media outlets in the aftermath of failed coup bid. In June 2015 national elections, Erdogan’s party lost the majority in the parliament, for the first time after 13-years of the rule and was unable to form a government alone. Instead of forming a coalition or allowing other parties to form a government, he pushed for snap poll. But before going to early elections, he seized the third largest media outlet, Ipek media group that has two popular TV networks including 24-cycle news broadcast station, two print dailies and one radio. That deprived the political opposition an important venue to express their views. In March 2016, it seized the largest nationally circulated newspaper Zaman with 1.2 million copies daily circulation. Now Turkish people hear only one narrative which is Erdogan’s story. In many cases, the government narrative is based on lies, half-truth and misleading facts. They do not hear and read challenging views from critical media which was killed already. Therefore, it is not surprising to see that he remains to be popular. He appears every day in various platforms, and some 20 channels broadcast his speech live to Turkish audience.
Blitz: It is becoming evidently clear that, Erdogan has an evil agenda of cleansing his political opponents through cruel repression. He has been gradually expanding his influence over country’s civil-military administration. Under such realities, do you really see any hope of Turkey getting liberated from the evil clutches of these Islamist-fascists?
Abdullah: Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consolidated his gains and solidified his position. He now controls all the levers of the power in Turkey including judicial and legislative branches. The free and fair elections are no longer possibility. It won’t be easy to free Turkey from the iron grip of Erdogan and his Islamist brethren. However, he faces two formidable challenges. One is from the economy which is very much dependent on foreign trade and investment. He simply cannot keep up with chronic current account deficit in the medium and long run, but may very well weather difficulties in the short run with the assets Turkey has. One way or another Turkey needs to come back to the rule of law if it wants to stay afloat. The other challenge is the diverse demographic of Turkish society that can only handle so much pressure. It will erupt at one point when the critical threshold gets reached. That is why Erdogan is expanding his paramilitary forces to reckon with such contingency. The outside pressure, targeted sanction that will take out key operatives of Erdogan from the equation and divestment campaign may speed up the process of liberating Turkey from the thuggish regime of president Erdogan.
Blitz: We hear about abduction and murder of journalists in Turkey by Erdogan’s men. Can you kindly give some very specific examples of such notoriety?
Abdullah: Over 100 critics were abducted by Turkish government operatives abroad, mostly in Africa and Asia where Erdogan government has some influence. They were taken back to Turkey where they were tortured on black sites for days and weeks before a formal procedure were launched. This contravenes a due process and international laws, yet Erdogan government vows to keep that campaign up while criticizing Saudi Arabia for doing the same as in the case of Khashoggi murder. This is sheer hypocrisy. No journalist was kidnapped yet, but one Turkish-Dutch journalist Hasan Cucuk who has been living in Denmark for over 25 years is targeted for an assassination. Dutch security had to move him to a safe place until they neutralize the threat. The assassination plot is traced to Erdogan government according to account provided by this veteran journalist who has been a vocal critic of Erdogan regime.
As of today, 242 journalists are in Turkish prisons and some were subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Erdogan regime is killing them slowly behind prison walls by condemning them to long jail sentences under fabricated charges.
Blitz: How an Islamist Erdogan sees the rights of women?
Abdullah: What the regime is preaching is not the same what it is doing in practice. There are some 17,000 women who were jailed in Turkey within the last two years alone because they were affiliated with US-based Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen, a leading critic of Erdogan regime. According to the government’s own statistics, 743 babies were jailed when their mothers were imprisoned by the regime on completely fabricated charges of terrorism. The police even drag the mothers from maternity wards right after they delivered babies.
Erdogan personally opposes the equality between men and women and says this is against the nature. He says equality should be sought only between women or between men, not between the two sexes. He blames the West for exploiting women under the equality campaign. He describes feminists as those who have nothing to do with Islam. His government is very much male-dominated administration with only two women ministers in 18-member cabinet. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is also very much male-dominated party.
Blitz: Has Erdogan been able bringing the judicial system in Turkey into his grips?
Abdullah: He has subordinated the entire judiciary, including the Constitutional Court to his whims and emotions. He has purged over 4,000 judges and prosecutors, amounting to some 30 percent of all judges and prosecutors in Turkey, under the pretext that they are all terrorists. That included two members of the Constitutional Court, the nation’s top court, and over 2,000 were jailed on dubious charges. Many AKP party members were later appointed as judges and prosecutors who are now doing the dirty bidding of Erdogan by abusing the criminal justice system to persecute critics.
Blitz: When we look into Iran, it seems to us that the restoration of democracy in that country has already become a mission impossible. Are you seeing a similar fate to Turkey as well?
Abdullah: Turkey is not Iran, not yet anyway. But it is going fast on that path and Erdogan is using many tactics Iranian Mullah Regime has employed in the past to transform the government and the nation. It is a possibility that we may end up in a new version of Iran in Turkey unless we manage to bring Turkey back from that brink. He has destroyed checks and balances and eliminated independent media and civil society that will check on his government. He has been building paramilitary forces to solidify his regime. However, NATO anchor and strong business and trade ties with European Union still play a significant role in shaping policies of the Turkish government. He may need a rupture in transatlantic ties to completely turn Turkey into a new Iran and he has been working hard to accomplish that in the future.
Blitz: Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been making frantic bids in getting Fethullah Gulen expelled from the US. There are fears for Gulen facing unknown consequences if he returns to Turkey. Being a senior journalist, do you think the United States should expel Gulen and send back to Turkey?
Abdullah: Nope. No critic should be handed over to Turkey including Gulen, a prominent opposition figure. In the recent indictment against Erdogan’s long arm in Virginia, the US, by Special Counsel Mueller and his associates, it was clearly stated that the US Justice Department officials went through extradition documents sent by Erdogan government and found out that there is no evidence that would hold up to the scrutiny of the US court in handing over Gulen to Turkey. In other words, Erdogan’s fabricated charges were rejected by the United States legal professionals who examined thousands of pages submitted by the Turkish government. The United Nations Human Rights Commission’s report on Turkey clearly indicated widespread torture and ill-treatment in Turkish prisons and detention centres. No democratic country can turn over any regime critic to Turkey where he or she would be subjected to inhuman treatment and torture.
Blitz: Turkey is a member of NATO. It is one of the important allies of the US. What would be the possible consequence if finally it turns into a Sharia nation?
Abdullah: It would mean that NATO lost an important ally in the south-eastern front and would deal a huge blow to the security of NATO alliance. Erdogan government’s links to jihadist groups have already threatened NATO member countries. Many suicide bombers who wreaked havoc in European capitals from Brussels to Paris, from Stockholm to St. Petersburg had spent time in Turkey, went to Syria through Turkey where authorities simply looked the other way around to say the least. In many cases, Turkish authorities facilitated travel of jihadists, provided medical care when needed and helped receive funding and supplies. Turkey turning into a religious zealotry in the governance is clear and present danger for the NATO alliance.
Blitz: We know, Erdogan wants to topple-down the ruling royals in Saudi Arabia. He might even have Iran as his ally in this ambition. Can Erdogan really succeed in doing so or he would simply contribute in escalating unrest and anarchism in the Middle East?
Abdullah: It has become clear that Erdogan wants to take out the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman by exploiting the murder of journalist and hope to secure a replacement that would be friendly and receptive to his grand designs for the Middle East. It appears less likely to succeed in that venture given what happened during the G-20 leaders’ summit in Argentina where Mohammad Bin Salman represented his country. Erdogan wants to milk this case to get also some cash from Saudis that Turkish economy needs. In fact, he has recently admitted that Turkey approached Gulf States to secure loans when Turkish Lira tumbled down dramatically in recent months but he said almost all responded negatively.
Blitz: There are allegations against the Turkish intelligence agencies of kidnapping anti-Erdogan individuals from the foreign soils. Are these allegations real and substantive substantives?
Abdullah: They are real and even admitted by Erdogan and other government officials. Turkish government brags about how they brought back over 100 members of the Gulen movement. Turkish intelligence service MIT plays the lead role on these kidnappings. They failed to do so in Mongolia when the politicians and civil society were mobilized against the abduction and MIT’s spy plane had to fly back to Turkey empty handed. Last week, Correctiv.org published months-long investigative piece on these abductions which appeared in many leading dailies in Europe and Israel as headline stories.
Blitz: I was charged with sedition, treason and blasphemy in Bangladesh and even had served 9-year’s rigorous imprisonment for the “crimes” of confronting radical Islam and militancy; for denouncing antisemitism and Holocaust denial; and for promoting interfaith harmony. So I can feel the pains and sufferings of my fellow journalists in Turkey. Would you kindly tell us, if the family members of those imprisoned journalists in Turkey too are facing state-patronized repressions?
Abdullah: Erdogan regime has gone after family members and relatives of Turkish journalists as well. For example, Hatice Korucu, the wife of Bulent Korucu, a chief editor of a critical national daily, was arrested and spent eight months in jail when authorities could not locate the journalist husband. Police told the wife that unless the journalist husband surrenders, she would be kept in jail. Zeliha Esra Karayegen, the 21-year-old daughter of journalist Ibrahim Karayegen, night-shift editor at Zaman daily, was imprisoned while her father was still in jail for over a year. In my case, the police detained my 79-year old mother on my account to intimidate and silence me. There are more examples for this inhuman policy of punishing relatives of critics by Erdogan regime.