World, Politics

A Turkmen in SA: Heartbreak of a foreign journalist in exile

By Turkmen Terzi 15 August 2016

I believe in God. I believe that life is a theatre and we are here to play our roles. Can our scripts be rewritten or are we doomed by our destinies? I am TURKMEN TERZI, a journalist who came to South Africa as bureau chief for my news agency and watched from afar as my country Turkey transformed into a mad dictatorship. Unlike hundreds of journalists in Turkey who are being persecuted for doing their jobs, I enjoy the safety of South Africa for as long as you will have me.

I am carrying a big name, Turkmen, which came from my great-grandfather. He was a humble man, but protective of his pride. I heard that one day when his uncle slapped his face, he left his home village, went to town and settled with his sisters, never going back. Even though Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had changed the local alphabet to Latin, my great-grandfather would still write in the original Ottoman Arabic. After he passed away, people couldn’t read his writings, which included notes on debtors – poor villagers who owed him money. My uncle could therefore not recoup the money and the business collapsed.

People still remind me now that so many benefited from his generosity. The only memory I have of my great-grandfather is of him coughing on his bed the day before he passed away. This visit was my earliest memory and I was only four years old. I had never seen my secular grandfather, and had always disagreed with my nationalist father.

I call myself “Second Turkmen”, carrying the same character traits as my namesake. I couldn’t agree with the supervisor at university, with my father in business, and I couldn’t fit into the neat confines of professional life. Like my namesake, I decided to leave my birthplace and went to India just a few months later after getting my philosophy degree. I represented the Cihan News Agency in India. At that time this “colourful world” was so popular in Turkey. Thousands of businesspeople would come to visit and the Turkish Embassy requested that I help them in New Delhi, where only a few Turks lived.

I wanted to cover Delhi’s colourful political life, but Cihan was insistent on me covering news on cows, monkeys, elephants, and street merchants. Each and every Turk asked me about how cows lived on the streets. I had left the world’s economic, cultural and political hub to become an expert on cows, monkeys, handcrafts, table covers and embroidered women’s cloths.

In 2006 intense fighting started in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. Cihan dispatched me to this lovely island and I spent three years in Serendib. The Sri Lankan Army took us to the war-torn areas. One of the world’s deadliest wars had left thousands of civilians and soldiers dead. One day, the Tamil Tigers organised a suicide bomb attack on a religious ceremony. State television captured the blast that left dozens dead and injured. They shared visuals with local and foreign media. This news was widely covered by Turkish media and my news agency gave me an award. When the Sri Lankans defeated the LTTE, we had nothing left to cover on this small island.

It was then that Cihan transferred me to South Africa to cover the 2010 Soccer World Cup and Nelson Mandela.

I am not a sports correspondent or a soccer fan, but covering the World Cup was a fantastic experience. After the tournament, I started covering Mandela’s life closely. Once, I wrote a piece about Mandela and strangely one of the top columnists in Turkey criticised me for giving so much attention to Mandela. Later I heard that it was because Mandela had rejected Atatürk peace award in 1992. Atatürk was the founder of Modern Turkey and many Turks are still resentful of Mandela because of this. But I kept writing about Mandela, and it was widely received by Cihan clients, a wide variety of national television stations and newspapers. The 2013 African Nations Cup, African Union meetings and the BRICS summits were fascinating experiences for a philosopher-journalist who didn’t have much interest in these fields.

Back home things started to change after the December 2013 exposés of corruption involving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inner circle. Although I reported from South Africa, internal politics in my country began to affect my personal life and job directly. Our once permanent customers, conservative Islamist media, which used our news widely, now started to oppose us. This was because the Feza Media Group, which owns Cihan and Turkey’s biggest newspaper Zaman, as well as the English medium Todays Zaman, were critical of the Erdogan government and known to be part of the Hizmet (Gulen) Movement affiliated media.

We lost all our pro-Erdogan customers. Interestingly, secular, liberal, Kemalist media, who were previously opposed to the “Hizmet Movement”, became our members. After the Gezi Park protests, which were organised by mostly secular groups and minorities, these groups became closer to my media organisation. Cihan and Zaman became critical of the government’s excessive crackdown on the protesters. In addition to the work I did for my agency, I also did crossings for the Samanyolu Television Group, which was recently taken off air under the media crackdown, and Koza Ipek media, also interrupted during a live broadcast.

The night Samanyolu was removed from the satellite network, I watched my colleagues crying in the studio; famous anchors were trying to calm the staff down. It was a nightmare. At midnight, one of the biggest stations in Turkey, which owns 13 channels including a 24-hour news channel, stopped broadcasting. Soon after, I received a WhatsApp text alert from my editor in the Zaman building: we should inform the local media wherever we are in the world about the ongoing takeover.

While my colleagues were being beaten by police, they were uploading the crackdown videos and photos for us to deliver to our media contacts freely in order to raise our voices and seek solidarity. I did my best to share their messages with my South African media colleagues and those in other countries I have been to before.

That afternoon, the police raided the Zaman building as thousands of the paper’s readers gathered outside the building. We heard that Erdogan had ordered the police to disperse the crowd in a ruthless manner. The police used water and tear gas; a woman who had lost her children was crying and begging the police to help find them. Instead the police entered the Zaman-Cihan building, beating editors and journalists.

Ironically, almost all the local television stations were broadcasting magazine programmes. We depend on foreign media to see what is really happening there – RT, BBC, CNN, ZDF and others covered the crackdown from the beginning. Despite all the pressure of the attack, our colleagues published the paper the next day. But by that Sunday, the 25-year-old Zaman Newspaper, which had previously been praised by Erdogan for its outstanding journalism, was taken over and published by pro-Erdogan editors. Their editorial policy has changed 180 degrees.

Without giving up, my editors launched three new newspapers and one news agency. Erdogan’s crackdown continued nonetheless and all my papers and news agency were closed down just after the July coup attempt.

Darkest night of Turkish history

It was 9pm on Friday evening, 15 July, when my friend called me as the military stopped them at the Bosphorus Bridge. He informed me that a coup was taking place. From thousands of kilometres away I watched the events play out. It was almost like a Hollywood movie. The difference, of course, was that this was real. It was painful to watch how my beloved nation and country seemingly collapsed that night. It was more painful that Erdogan blamed the Gulen Movement within an hour after the coup had started.

Since the corruption investigation against Erdogan began in December 2013, the ruling party members and Erdogan had been threatening and jailing Gulen sympathisers, closing schools, arresting journalists, judges and police officers. The coup was the turning point. Erdogan had managed to convince the entire nation to turn against “Hizmet”. Ironically, almost every conservative, religious household had in some way benefited from this peaceful movement. Instead of arresting the coup plotters, the AKP government started a massive purge. Over 70,000 people have been fired, including teachers, health professionals, imams, professors and judges.

After the coup, Erdogan and his party branded the entire movement and its sympathisers “terrorists” without any indictment or evidence. It is interesting to note that former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had previously said Isis members could not be arrested or identified as “suicide bombers” before they acted. In the last seven months, more than 300 people have died in several Isis attacks. Despite all the CCTV footage and intelligence, the government has never arrested any ISIS members before an attack. For the government, ISIS or the PKK are not a real threat – they would rather blame the Gulen movement for every attack, without any proof.

After the coup, journalists have come under concerted attack. Many of my editors and colleagues either fled from Turkey or were arrested. They left their families behind. Bulent Korucu was a humble editor and columnist. The police raided his house, arrested his wife and even threatened his five small kids. They were told that if their father did not surrender, they would begin to arrest his elder children. This broke my heart. The government also moved to prevent lawyers from representing Gulen sympathisers.

I had been watching this entire story from South Africa, the land of Mandela, the world’s icon of freedom and equality. A few weeks ago, SAfm Live invited me to a live current affairs programme in which the Turkish Ambassador to South Africa joined from Ankara. When Sakina Kamwendo, the host, told him that I was in the studio, he accused me live on air of being a terrorist and having blood on my hands. He pulled out of the interview.

Erdogan’s crackdown had reached the furthest corners of the world. My colleagues in Germany, Holland, Belgium and France are also threatened by pro-Erdogan Turks with their offices being mobbed by angry Erdogan supporters.

What a life I have lived. A philosopher, who never followed soccer, covered the World Cup; who saw political theories as just a crumb of philosophical ideas, spent much time with politicians. I met world leaders, interviewed Mahinda Rajapaksa, Rupiah Banda, Desmond Tutu, Graça Machel and Winnie Mandela. A person who didn’t even watch TV and who had a mundane life landed in the hot seat in a profession that continues to shock me.

I thought I might return to my country one day as an activist. But I am tired. I have no leadership capacity. I am just a storyteller – I have started a book project of over 300 simple, funny stories. When I was being branded a “terrorist” on national radio, some journalist colleagues who know me tweeted to SAfm that my jokes and stories would make you die of laughter. It is the only danger I pose to society.

But while I joke, my heart aches for what is happening to my country and for my brother and sister journalists facing trial and persecution in Turkey. There is nothing I can do to help them except to keep telling the story. Like people benefited from my great-grandfather’s generosity, this Turkmen hopes to do the same – with any luck with more understandable writing. DM

Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) greets supporters after casting his vote at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey, 01 November 2015. EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU

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