This is the personal testimony of a human rights activist who has requested anonymity. It accompanies this multi-part series on the political situation in Turkey, and was first published by Index on Censorship.
I am about to make a life changing move and leave Turkey. This decision did not come easy. I still do not feel very comfortable about leaving my family, friends and the struggle behind. However, this is a must-do move in order to keep my soul, spirit and mind intact.
I am an activist, a human rights defender, a dissident, and currently I feel like a lab rat trapped in a maze, trying to find the exit to freedom. And worse still, I can hear countless fellow mice doing the same! This is extremely disempowering.
In Turkey, we are losing all our legitimate grounds and means to scrutinise, criticise and oppose power and express our ideas and thoughts in the media, the streets, associations, social media…
There are almost no independent mainstream media left that dare write what is newsworthy, if it touches upon the government or big business interests close to power. The outlets that do so face countless sanctions, ranging from prosecution and arrest to total closure. Journalism was already under huge pressure, but the failed 15 July coup provided a big opportunity to the government to further silence all opposition. As of today, there are 145 journalists in jail, 157 media outlets have been closed and approximately 9,000 journalists are jobless. Thousands of websites are either banned or blocked. If I cannot make my voice heard to influence public opinion, how can I be effective in my work to promote human rights, peace and justice?
Media is not the only medium that’s been hijacked; since 20 July, the government has closed about 500 non-governmental organisations under emergency decrees. Some of these NGOs were very effective service organizations. Authorities confiscated all their equipment, bank accounts and documents — a violation of their clients’ right to privacy. And very recently, an investigation was initiated into four prominent human rights organisations — okay, listen to this — for reporting on human rights violations that occurred in cities that were under curfew. In other words, they are accused of fulfilling their raison d’être!
The shrinking space for freedom
Social media was the only space left in which we could communicate, inform and be informed. However, for a long while we have been under attack for using this medium, too. Just a couple days ago, the deputy prime minister warned everyone to “behave on social media or face the consequences”. Actually, many have already faced them. There are hundreds of prosecutions with charges of terrorist propaganda and even more of insulting the president (based on Article 299 of the penal code, which became the new 301). Saying “I wouldn’t serve tea to the president” or “I don’t like the president” are now considered criminal insults.
The message is clear: do not speak out, do not criticise, do not expose corruption, nepotism, abuses of power, lies or violations committed by the government. If you insist, you will be rendered jobless like thousands of journalists, academics, teachers and doctors, or you will be prosecuted and jailed.
We hear their message. We hear it again and again, every time a friend is put behind the bars, any time trolls target us on social media. We hear it when we are attacked by pepper gas and batons for protesting on the streets.
I know that this is an intimidation strategy. I also know that it will not deter me or my friends from doing what we do. Yet, the climate of fear dominating the country makes me feel trapped, cornered, inefficient and useless. I am at the verge of falling into a state of learned helplessness, if not depression.
I don’t want to self-censor, yet I also don’t want to fall victim to their repressive policies just because of the non-violent things I say and do. Increasingly, I am turning into a lesser version of myself – less productive, less confident and losing faith.
It is true that the people of Turkey have never enjoyed a full democracy. Rights defenders and the opposition have always been targeted and criminalised as traitors, branded as terrorists and disloyal enemies for exposing the truth.
But for the first time in my life, I feel unendurably besieged and under threat. It is not just about the authoritarian regime: people find ways to bypass the restrictions and find other means to continue working. What slammed me to the ground and drained my hope and sapped my energy is the pure evil that has burgeoned in society. As the columnist Ahmet Insel quoted from Ibn al Muqaffa in his writing, “The worst time is when the ruler and the evil of the people are united.
“I couldn’t cope with it. I am choosing to retreat, only to come back stronger, wiser and more equipped.”