There we were. A tiny group of intellectual dissidents, unfortunate enough to be forced to exile, doomed remain outcatsts from Turkey, discussing the ‘Trump trauma’, at a dinner table, somewhere in Europe. Gloom at the faces.
The incredibly powerful global tsunami of populism just had its crowning moment with the victory of Trump, raising curtains for the ‘age of horror’. It is contagious, we are told by history.
We wondered how the remaining bastions of democracy in Europe, led by Germany, would be infected by what David Remnick, the Editor of the New Yorker, called ‘the American Tragedy’. That it already put an orange alert to France, or Scandinavia, must be an instant fact.
It’s a Zeitgeist which will put all pro-freedom forces into an ardous test of sturdiness.
Then, somebody at the table reminded us on Umberto Eco’s famous essay, ‘Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism’:
“Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.”
“Freedom and liberation,” Eco wrote, “are a ceaseless task.”
Then, at some point of our chat, Turkey made itself reminded, by two telephone calls.
It was natural, because in a turbulent world rapidly gliding towards elected authoritarianism, Turkey is a political laboratory at an advanced stage.
First call came after a brief message from a friend, a Kurdish lawyer.
‘Baransu case postponed. He fainted, was unable to do his final plea…’
The case is yet another one, with two journalists at its center.
Reporter Mehmet Baransu, who is now in prison for over 616 days, was charged up to 52 years of prison, along with Murat Şevki Çoban, a managing editor with the now shut down daily Taraf, for publishing a news story in November 2013.
The title of the story was ‘The Decision to Finish Off Gulen was Taken in a 2004 Meeting at National Security Council’, telling about the efforts to battle the alleged Gulen Movement affiliated state employees at that time. Both colleagues were charged with ‘revealing classified documents related with the state security’.
It was, more or less, the same charges that most recently were targeting daily Cumhuriyet and its editors, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül.
But if Gülen is the Public Enemy # 1 in Turkey now, why are these colleagues paying such a high prize for digging into these elements? one may ask. It is very difficult to explain to my readers the enormous complexities of the power fight that has held Turkey in its grip for years, but let us suffice the say that if truth is the heart of the matter, it is the journalist who is the victim at the end of the day.
That’s what it boils down to.
I called the lawyer. ‘Baransu was taken from prison by the Gendarmerie at 7 a.m. and brought to courthouse’ he said. ‘The Emergency Rule forbids the security personnel to give food to the prisoners outside the jail. So, Baransu waited for his turn in the busy courthouse; while he was refused food. After 12 hours, he fell ill. This was the final session, the court would deliver its verdict. Now, him unable to deliver his final plea, it is once more postponed to February, he is sent back to jail.’
We weren’t so surprised, but remained stunned.
Words were lost.
Then we remembered that we should call another colleague, Akın Atalay, who had just filed a dramatic letter to daily Cumhuriyet, from Germany. Atalay, who is the chairman of the executive board of Cumhuriyet, happened to be in Köln when the nine journalists, including the successor of Can Dündar, chief editor Murat Sabuncu, were arrested.
His house was searched, and later an arrest order was issued.
To stay in exile or go back? This tough question had kept him busy in Germany for days. Many colleagues asked him not to, citing the absence of any protection of law, and rationale, in today’s Turkey. He would definitely be arrested, and, far worse, nobody had any idea for how long.
But, he at the end, decided to return.
In a long letter, published by Cumhuriyet, Atalay presented some reasons for his decision. He will do so to protect his colleagues from ‘heinous’ accusations, he wrote, adding that he will not respond to questions by the prosecutor who ‘attempts to criminalize our editorial policy decisions.’
‘I shall have returned on November 11, 2016, to land at Istanbul Airport 12 o’clock noon’ he said. ‘We shall all see what happens next.’ That is, today.
We called him. All we could do was to wish him luck, adding ‘this, too, shall pass.’ But we had no idea, how and when. All we knew was, most probably, he would join the others in jail; now almost 150 journalists.
And he did.
‘The top executive of Turkey’s most influential opposition newspaper has been detained in an ongoing crackdown that has seen nine other staff members apprehended in recent days,’ reported the Guardian Friday afternoon.
‘Akın Atalay, the chairman of Cumhuriyet’s executive board, was taken into custody at Istanbul airport on Friday after arriving from Germany.’
Extremely testing times for the finest core of Turkey’s bold freedom fighters, in a fierce but assymmetric battle for the free word, and protection of noble professions in media, academia and judiciary. One can only imagine the agony, whose dark shadow the choice of Trump cast over them. They know, more than many others in the world, how emboldened the authoritarian figures like Erdoğan will feel from now on.
Testing times for benevolent democracies like Germany, too. In that sense, the intellectual initiatives by the Berlin Academy of Arts, its open letter to the federal government to act, are more than welcome.
So is the statement by Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe, to open the gates for Turkish dissidents for asylum; it is timely and encouraging for other EU members to follow suit. The sad reality is, Turkey once more repeating its intolerant reflexes, by resorting to ‘negative selection’, attempting to turn its intellectual elite into social pariahs. Erdoğan already announced that what he called ‘terrorists abroad’ would be soon expelled from Turkish citizenship, just like the military rulers in 1980’s did, en masse.
Exile remains an ugly part of its bumpy history.
But, on civilian level, there is more to do.
I had, at recent media conference in Leipzig, proposed that it was time for European cities, whichever they would be, to engage in adopting jailed journalists as ‘honorary citizens’ – such a city x choosing journalist y, city y choosing journalist y.
On individual basis.
This would in its turn engage the citizens on local level, and their local/regional media to monitor their single cases; keeping their plight alive.
A benevolent civic action, involving cities or towns form countries from western, southern and northern Europe. By doing so, jointly, civil society would enhance solidarity and send a message to Turkey’s battling freedom fighters that they are not left alone. The proposal received good reactions, and Leipzig-based European Center for Media and Press Freedom (ECPMF) says it is ready to explore all the possibilites to make it happen.
I am certain organisations such as Reporters Without Borders would also offer assistance of coordination across the EU, Norway and Switzerland.
In that sense, it was a inspirational initiative of Paris municipality to grant my colleague, Can Dündar, honorary citizenship some days ago. May this be the beginning of a new, collective step, for owning democracy, across the borders.
After all, it all goes down to what Eco, in its prophetic essay 20 years ago, said:
‘“Freedom and liberation are a ceaseless task.”