Threatened, beaten, shot: Turkish journalists in the crosshairs

Yavuz Selim Demirag, a columnist for the ultra-nationalist Yenicag Daily newspaper, critical of Turkey's President, speaks to AFP journalists in the Turkish capital Ankara on May 29, 2019 after he was attacked on May 11. (AFP)
Updated 02 July 2019

Threatened, beaten, shot: Turkish journalists in the crosshairs

  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world
  • Opposition journalists face not just violence but relentless pressure from the judiciary

ANKARA: After being assaulted 28 times during his career — punched, kicked and beaten with bats — Turkish journalist Hakan Denizli thought he had seen it all.
But for the 29th attack, they came with a gun, and they did so while he was taking his four-year-old grandchild to daycare.
Denizli, who edits the Egemen daily newspaper in the southern city of Adana, is matter-of-fact about it: "I got into the car and the window was open. They came, shot me in the leg and ran away."
That incident in May came amid a spate of assaults that has seen six journalists targeted in as many weeks.
Many blame the worsening atmosphere on politicians, who regularly lash out at individual journalists.
"If you don't know your place, the people will hit you in the back of your neck," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan snapped after a TV presenter on Turkey's Fox news channel asked whether people would protest rising prices in December.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, and ranks it 157th out of 180 countries in the world for press freedom.
There are 142 journalists currently behind bars in Turkey, according to the P24 press freedom website. Most are detained under a two-year state of emergency imposed after the 2016 failed coup.
The government says nobody was arrested for work as a journalist, but RSF says violence against the media often goes without punishment or even criticism.
A request for a parliamentary investigation into the recent attacks was rejected by the ruling AKP party and its alliance partner.
One outspoken critic of Erdogan's government, Yavuz Selim Demirag of the Yenicag daily, blames the attack on him on a full-page advert put out by the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the ruling party's coalition partner.
He was among dozens of journalists listed in the advert, which was published in several high-circulation newspapers after last year's general election, with the banner, "Slander, allegations, complaints".
At least two of them have been attacked.
Demirag, 61, was beaten by a gang with bats outside his home on May 10, breaking parts of his rib cage.
"When I sneeze, cough, get up, it hurts," he said.
Prosecutors say they are investigating, but six suspects were quickly released after their arrest.
"Being a journalist in Turkey is hard, attacking journalists is heroic," Demirag said.
Opposition journalists face not just violence but relentless pressure from the judiciary.
Barely a month after the assault, Demirag was briefly imprisoned for an old conviction of "insulting the president" over a speech in which he questioned the right to immunity of certain officials, and he remains on probation.
Denizli says he has "maybe 24 or 25" legal cases against him.
"I am not cowed by these cases."
Journalists of all stripes are at risk, but the responses often reflect the fierce partisanship of Turkish politics.
The government has been silent on Demirag's assault, for instance, but Erdogan's office immediately denounced the attack on Islamist journalist Murat Alan, who was beaten up in Istanbul on June 14.
Alan had reportedly referred to Turkish generals as "donkeys", angering the country's ultra-nationalists.
Idris Ozyol, a journalist from Antalya on the south coast, did at least receive a call of consolation from Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after being attacked recently.
But he said Cavusoglu blamed the government's own coalition partner, the MHP -- which only annoyed him further.
"One arm of the government attacks, the other arm sends messages saying 'We are so sad' -- like a game of good-cop, bad-cop," he told AFP.
RSF's Erol Onderoglu said the situation was "deeply hypocritical" given Turkey's criticism of Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their Istanbul consulate last year.
Onderoglu, who himself faces charges of "terrorist propaganda" for supporting a pro-Kurdish newspaper, said: "We need a prominent political figure to intervene against this hostile climate... (but) it is really difficult to expect anything."
Recovering from the gunshot wound to his leg, Denizli suspects his articles on corruption are to blame for the endless attacks, but he remains undeterred.
"I just try to do my job as best as I can," he said.


In Iraq, virus revives traumas of Daesh survivors

Updated 04 December 2020

In Iraq, virus revives traumas of Daesh survivors

BAJET KANDALA CAMP, Iraq: For half a decade, Zedan suffered recurring nightmares about militants overrunning his hometown in northern Iraq. The 21-year-old Yazidi was just starting to recover when COVID-19 revived his trauma.
Zedan had lost several relatives when Daesh stormed into Sinjar, the rugged heartland of the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq’s northwest.
The militants killed Yazidi men, took the boys as child soldiers and forced the women into sexual slavery.
Zedan and the surviving members of his family fled, finding refuge in the Bajet Kandala camp near the Syrian border where they still live today.
“We used to be farmers living a good life. Then IS (Daesh) came,” he said, wringing his hands.
In a pre-fabricated building hosting the camp’s mental health clinic, Zedan shared his traumas with Bayda Othman, a psychologist for international NGO Premiere Urgence. Zedan refers to the violence of 2014 vaguely as “the events.”
The UN says they may constitute something much more serious: Genocide.
“I started having nightmares every night. I would see men in black coming to kill us,” Zedan said, telling Othman that he had attempted suicide several times. He has been seeing her for years, learning how to cope with his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through breathing exercises that she taught him.
Earlier this year, his nightly panic attacks stopped. Finally, he could sleep again. But only for a few months.
In March, Iraq declared a nationwide lockdown to try to contain the spread of Covid-19. Zedan broke down.
“I fear that my family could catch the virus or give it to me,” he said. “It obsesses me.”
As lockdown dragged on, Zedan’s brother lost his job at a stationery shop on the edge of the camp.
“There’s no more money coming into the family now. Just thinking about it gives me a panic attack,” he said.
“The nightmares returned, and so did my desire to die.”
Out of Iraq’s 40 million citizens, one in four is mentally vulnerable, the World Health Organization says.
But the country is in dire shortage of mental health specialists, with only three per 1 million people.

HIGHLIGHT

The Daesh extremists killed Yazidi men, took the boys as child soldiers and forced the women into sexual slavery.

Speaking about trauma or psychological problems is widely considered taboo, and patients who spoke to AFP agreed to do so on the condition that only their first names would be used.
In camps across Iraq, which still host some 200,000 people displaced by violence, the pandemic has pushed many people with psychological problems into remission, Othman said.
“We noticed a resurgence of PTSD cases, suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts,” she told AFP.
In October, there were three attempted suicides in Bajet Kandala alone by displaced people, who said their movements outside the camp were restricted by the lockdown, or whose economic situation had deteriorated even further.
A tissue factory who fired people en masse, a potato farm that shut down, a haberdashery in growing debt: Unemployment is a common thread among Othman’s patients.
“It leads to financial problems, but also a loss of self-confidence, which rekindles trauma,” she said.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), about a quarter of Iraqis who were employed prior to lockdown have been permanently laid off.
Youth were particularly hard hit: 36 percent of 18-24 years old who had been employed were dismissed, the ILO said.
A new patient in her forties walked toward the clinic, her hair covered in a sky-blue veil.
Once settled in a faux-leather chair, Jamila revealed that she, too, feels destabilized by the pandemic.
The Yazidi survivor lives in a one-room tent with her son and four daughters. But she doesn’t feel at home.
“I have totally abandoned my children. I feel all alone even though they’re always at home. I hit them during my panic attacks — I didn’t know what else to do,” she said.
Othman tried to soothe Jamila, telling her: “Hatred is the result of untreated sadness. We take it out on relatives, especially when we feel devalued — men prey on women, and women on children.”
But the trauma is not just an issue for the displaced, specialists warn.
“With the isolation and lack of access to care, children who have lived a genocide develop difficulties as they become adults,” said Lina Villa, the head of the mental health unit at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in northern Iraq.
“We fear suicide rates will go up in the years to come.”