The New York Times Continues to Hide Severe Human Rights Violations in Turkey

On February 13, 2012, ‘Discussion on Turkey’ – an interview, by David Barsamian with Noam Chomsky – was posted on ZNet. The interview has also appeared – partially translated – in various media in Turkey. The main points in the interview can be summarised as the following: David Barsamian brings up an article[1] that appeared on The New York Times on January 4th, 2012 about the repression of journalists. The article states that 97 members of news media are in jail and the Turkish government has recently increased the pressure on the freedom of speech.

As reflected in his comments, Noam Chomsky finds this coverage by The New York Times hypocritical. To him, the very appearance of news about human rights violations in Turkey probably serves other purposes. Here is, roughly, what he claims: In the 1990s, when the real big atrocities supported by the US were being carried out in Turkey, The New York Times almost never mentioned human rights violations in Turkey. The reason it mentions them now is not that it has a principled attitude in regard to human rights violations but that Turkey carries out an independent politics in Middle East, and the US is not happy with it. Aside from the hypocrisy of mainstream media in the US, Chomsky of course states that the situation is getting worse in Turkey and that it needs to be protested.


This interview with Noam Chomsky by David Barsamian, originally an Armenian from Diyarbakir-Turkey with whom I had the opportunity to meet, has in some ways brought about concerns for me.

Noam Chomsky is certainly right in terms of the US media. However, the situation is not very different from the 1990s. That is, Turkey is going through a severely oppressive period that may be termed ‘soft fascism’, albeit one without mass murders or evacuations of thousands of Kurdish villages. The New York Times, instead of covering real, widespread oppression and cruelty, has only been reporting about the oppression of journalists. And even this has only been done in a very limited way. Although the pressures on journalists are actually more widespread and systematic, The New York Times only mentions the arrests of two journalists in the forefront of criticism levelled at the government, namely Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener[2] who have questioned government policies within the system. The aforementioned article had only one sentence referring to the massive oppression of the Kurdish opponents: “Protesters in Istanbul last month denounced the detention of at least 38 people, many of them journalists, suspected, the police said, of ties to Kurdish separatists.”

Within this framework I am unfortunately not in agreement with Noam Chomsky’s view. As far as I’m concerned The New York Times’s coverage of the oppression of journalists in Turkey does not primarily stem from the fact that the US is uncomfortable ‘with Turkey’s independent politics’. In my opinion, the real function of this news story is, again just like in the 1990s, to cover up the severely oppressive environment in Turkey –which has recently restarted to pursue a pro-Western politics in the Middle East – and to limit the scope of the criticism levelled at Turkey in regard to human rights violations. To what extent Turkey carries out “independent” politics in the Middle East and North Africa would have to be the subject of another article.[3]

Still, the issue poses a big challenge from the point of the anti-systemic opposition in Turkey. From what it seems, even Noam Chomsky, rightfully called ‘the conscience of world peoples’, lacks thorough data on the severe oppression in Turkey. That is to say, the opposition struggling to democratise the present system in Turkey is unable to inform the international democratic public opinion about the oppression it is subject to.

Therefore, in this article, I want to provide a platform for data on the oppression of all kinds of democratic opposition, and primarily those on the Kurdish political movement in Turkey since the general elections of June 12th, 2011. I am hoping this article will be a modest contribution towards informing the international democratic public opinion in terms of the severe oppression in Turkey.


“Soft Fascism” taking form in Turkey after the general elections of June 12th

There has been an environment of intense oppression in Turkey since the general elections. The main reason is the re-adoption by the post-election Turkish government and military of the policy to resolve the Kurdish issue through severe violence, as an echo of the 1990s.  

A brief explanation about the reasons behind this change of policy may be of use. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which defends the fundamental rights of Kurds, joined the elections under the “Labour, Democracy and Freedom Bloc”, which also included some left-socialist parties. The Bloc had remarkable success in the elections and won 36 seats in the Parliament. 

The remarkable success of BDP in the elections (the Bloc earned 6.6% of the votes, which amounted to 2-3 million votes) gradually made it harder to reject the demands of the Kurdish people. This had two reasons: firstly, the argument often levelled at the BDP that they did not truly represent the Kurds was now without foundation. Secondly, Kurdish people were only demanding some fundamental rights. These rights included the Kurds’ demand of the right to mother-tongue instruction at all levels of education, constitutional assurance of the cultural identity of Kurds, autonomy for the Kurdish region and the strengthening of self-government, the release of Kurdish militants and politicians in jail, and house arrest, as opposed to solitary confinement, for the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Another issue that scared the Turkish Government and the military was that Kurds – who had to migrate to cities dues to thousands of village evacuations in the 1990s – became an important urban political power both in the Kurdish region and in big cities west of the country. Indeed, mass demonstrations by hundred of thousands of Kurds across the country after six Kurdish parliamentarians were denied the right to enter the Parliament due to some petty reasons showed that the Kurdish opposition had become an urban power that could mobilise rapidly.

Anti-Terror Laws

Surely the State had taken precautions against this mass opposition as early as 2006. This was the year when an anti-terror law was approved in Parliament. According to this law, those who supported the demands of the Kurdish people through press statements, protest marches and writing “would be punished as terrorist organisation members although they are not”. The prison sentence stipulated in the law approached 10 years.

Following the elections, in reaction to the Kurds and their demands becoming visible in the political arena, the government and the military returned to the policy of the 1990s and started a violent campaign of oppression.

The Balance Sheet of Human Rights Violations in Turkey from April 2009 to March 2012

This campaign aimed to undermine the BDP’s power and marginalise it in the legal democratic arena. Campaigns levelled at civil Kurdish politicians and activists on the grounds that they had ties with PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which had been conducting an armed struggle, actually started in April 2009 – on the eve of AKP Government’s so-called reformist ‘Kurdish Opening’ policy. The Kurdish political party saw much success during the local elections on March 29th, 2009 and won 99 municipalities in the Kurdish region. The first operation took place some 15 days later.  

Following the elections of 2011, these operations have become unprecedentedly intense. Now, approximately 10 Kurdish activists are taken into custody and arrested every day in Turkey.  Those arrested under the anti-terror law are tried at Extraordinary Courts (specialising in dealing with lawsuits brought under anti-terror law). In accord with the anti-terror law, detainees are denied a court trial, sometimes for as long as one year. They don’t know what they are charged with until they are brought in front of the court because their lawyers are unable to access the files and incriminating evidence due to ‘security claims’.  Detainees are unable to see their lawyers during the first 24 hours. Evidence against the defendants is mostly from illegal phone-tapping records. Also, while lawyers are unable to access incriminating evidence, the pro-government mainstream media conduct defamation campaigns by publishing or broadcasting these charges against the detainees for days.  As of now, no weapons or other tools of violence have been found in relation to defendants under arrest.

Below are some figures concerning Kurdish politicians, mayors and activists as well as journalists working at Kurdish newspapers and lawyers working at Kurdish law offices, all of whom have been arrested under these operations. 

          According to the BDP Headquarters Law and Human Rights Commission report of October 2011, 4,227 BDP members were arrested under these operations from April 2009 to October 2011. (As of March 2012, the number of detainees arrested during operations against BDP and other Kurdish organizations is estimated to be between 6,000 and 7,000.) Between March and October 2011, only 4,547 Kurdish politicians and activists were taken into custody – 1,806 of them were arrested.

          Among those who were arrested were BDP mayors democratically elected with a high percentage of votes, deputy mayors, BDP members of the municipal councils, senior party executives, former MPs, citizens supporting the party, human rights advocates, lawyers and journalists.

          In one police operation levelled at Istanbul BDP Political Academy on October 28th, 2011, 23 people giving and taking classes at the academy were arrested. Among those arrested were BDP members taking classes at the academy as well as university professor Busra Ersanl? – who was a member of BDP in the Constitutional Commission in Parliament, and who was teaching at the academy– and the renowned leftist publisher Rag?p Zarakolu.

          On November 29th, 33 lawyers – most of whom represented Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish leader in solitary confinement – in addition to taking part in cases centred around politics and human rights violations were arrested.

          On December 24th, 2011, 36 journalists, almost all of whom were working at Kurdish media organisations, were arrested.

As a result of these campaigns of arrest, many BDP local organizations and BDP municipalities were unable to function.

Uludere Massacre with F-16s

On December 30th, 2011, 34 Kurds, most of whom were children, were bombed and killed by Turkish Armed Forces’ F-16 aircrafts in Roboski (Uludere) village near the Iraqi border. Official authorities announced that the group, who had become border smugglers due to the lack of opportunities to make a living, were mistaken for PKK guerrillas and ‘hit accidentally’. The AKP Government described the massacre as an ‘operational accident’. 34 Kurdish smugglers were bombed twice and killed. Following the acquisition of images from the Heron drones, purchased by Turkey from Israel, there were two rounds of attacks by the F-16 aircrafts with 30 minutes in between.

MPs of opposition parties, working in the Turkish Parliament’s Human Rights Research Commission, went to the region in February 2012 and stated that the images provided by Herons were clear and it could be easily seen that the identified persons were smugglers, not guerrillas.

Oppression Is Not Levelled at Kurds Only

It should also be mentioned that the recent intense oppression in Turkey is not levelled at the Kurdish political movement only, but includes all segments of society voicing demands. For instance, in May 2011, President Tayyip Erdogan visited Hopa – a left-leaning town neighbouring Georgia. The townspeople – producers of tea and hazelnuts, the only livelihood of the region – protested Erdogan because of economic policies. Demonstrators were also protesting against the destruction of their natural environment due to hundreds of hydroelectric power plants that have been built on the rivers of the Black Sea Region. The police applied brutal force on demonstrators. A retired teacher died due to the gas used. At least 20 were arrested and charged with a “terror action”. Also, in Ankara, 95 of those protesting the police brutality in Hopa were taken into custody and tortured. 22 of the demonstrators were arrested.


An Anecdote

I wish to conclude with an anecdote. Some six years ago, I worked at Aram Publishing, a Kurdish publishing house. The owner of the publishing house, Fatih Tas was tried for more than 30 books. I was luckier, and was tried for only two books – as the editor of one and the translator of the other.

One of the books I was tried for was the famous Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media by N. Chomsky and E. Herman. In the updated introduction, the authors said that there was “ethnic cleansing” against the Kurds in Turkey.

This wasn’t a singular court case. In 2006, there were tens of court cases limiting the freedom of expression; started in order to intimidate liberal or left-leaning intellectuals. Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was convicted of ‘insulting Turkishness’ in one of these cases and was made an example, would be killed in 2007.

Just like the news story in The New York Times mentioned by David Barsamian, these cases were widely covered by the mainstream media across Western countries. The reason: those who were tried were ‘worthy victims’, for example Orhan Pamuk, a future Nobel laureate. However, in March, the same year saw a real people’s rebellion in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of the Kurds. Ten people were killed by police bullets, among them a 78-year-old elderly and three kids – two of them aged 8 and one of them 9.

About that time, we were in contact with Noam Chomsky in regard to the support he could provide for our court case. One day, quite surprised by the fact that those who died in Diyarbakir couldn’t find much coverage in the Western media, I wrote an e-mail to Chomsky saying “Isn’t it strange that the West pays so much importance to the freedom of expression whereas the freedom to live rarely gets mentioned?” In the quick reply he sent, Chomsky roughly said: “Western civilisation has never cared for human life, to put it politely.”

The news story that appeared in The New York Times about journalists under arrest – also mentioned in the interview by David Barsamian – shows that Noam Chomsky is still right today. The New York Times, which is interested in the cases about the freedom of speech, is not equally interested in nearly 7,000 Kurds under arrest or Kurdish villagers massacred in Uludere by F-16 aircrafts provided by the US.

Translated into English by Achan Gedge.


[1]Charges Against Journalists Dim the Democratic Glow in Turkey”. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/world/europe/turkeys-glow-dims-as-government-limits-free-speech.html?scp=1&sq=Nedim+Sener&st=nyt


[2] These two journalists have been released from prison very recently.

[3] Nevertheless we can very briefly state these facts: In the autumn of 2011, Turkey allowed the setting up on Turkish soil certain parts of the anti-missile shield system targeting Iran and Russia. The result was a serious deterioration of Turkey-Iran relations. A second development occurred during the Arab Spring. Before the revolts, Turkey had had good relations with now-toppled dictators (for instance the Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Libya’s former leader Gaddafi). After a short hesitation at the face of the Western powers’ strategy to control the outcomes of the Arab Spring and to ‘tame’ the opponents – that is, to ensure that when they come to power they carry out politics that follow the regional interests of the West–, the Turkish government, in a 180 degree turn, decided to side with the strong. As of now, somewhere near the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey, in collaboration with Americans officers, is training “The Free Syrian Army” that the US supports against the Bashar Al Asad rule. While Iran, against a possible US attack, is carrying out the policy of strengthening the Shi’ite parties having close ties with Iran and the present Nusayri rule in Syria, Turkey is supporting the Sunni political powers in both countries together with pro-US countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And in Syria, Turkey is mediating the ‘taming’ talks organized by the US to ensure that the Sunni Muslim Brothers, when in power, follow the interests of the West in Middle East. Lastly it’s important to be reminded of a fact often escaping the Western dissident commentators: One of the most important factors affecting Turkey’s policy towards Syria, Iraq and Iran is the state of Kurdish minorities in these countries. Turkey has become an active member of the US-Europe coalition against Syria, and this stems from the desire to be a part of the ‘game’ in order to be able to have a say in the future of the Kurdish minority in Syria –that is, to prevent the granting of autonomy to Syria Kurds– when the present regime collapses.


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