Turkey was ranked 155th out of 180 in the 2017 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. This is an unsurprising placing given the country’s targeting of journalists since 2016’s attempted military coup to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Along with the former Miss Turkey, 1,800 people were punished for ridiculing or writing unfavorably about the president on social media. Insulting the president is a crime punishable by up to four years in prison.
Most recently, Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak was sentenced to prison on terrorist propaganda charges over a 2015 story about clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants.
Around 160 journalists are currently behind bars.
The president obtained unique powers in April under a proposed state of emergency. Ever since, there has been a clear-cut regression of individual rights in Turkey. Rights groups fear that the country is sliding towards increased authoritarianism under Erdoğan.
Award-winning novelist Burhan Sönmez was assaulted and almost killed by Turkish police in 1996 for speaking about life in Turkey. It took him 10 years to recover in the UK where he was a political refugee.
Sönmez spoke to WikiTribune on the phone about the power of fiction in a society that jails those who write. Our interview has been lightly edited here for clarity. A complete transcript can be seen here.
On danger in Turkey
Q: How would you react if you were to be arrested tomorrow?
A: I would carry on speaking openly and criticizing the government’s practices. Because in authoritarian regimes, before they silence you by putting you in prison, they like to silence you by giving you fear.
How did you become so staunchly committed to freedom of expression, given the circumstances in Turkey?
If I don’t say what I think, then I will lose my trust in myself. That is the first point. The second thing, in Turkey, there are so many people like me. We don’t call them brave – they are just outspoken.
In Turkey, we have been in similar situations for decades. In the 1980s when I was a student, it was just after the military coup, and again hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned and tortured and even executed.
In the 1990s, it was the peak of civil war and, apart from militants or soldiers, 17,000 civilian people were assassinated on the street. My generation is facing another problematic, another dangerous, authoritarian regime, so we feel the same thing.
We say, “OK, this is my home, this is my personality, and these are my old principles.” I have [to] defend them again and again.
On the power of the written word
Turkey has a thriving fiction climate. Elif Shafak recently wrote about the downsides of being a public intellectual. Is it easier for authors like you, Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk to get political ideas across in fiction rather than in reporting?
In Turkey, you can read any book and any novel as a political book. Even a story about love will be read with [political] glasses.
The social, political and economical atmosphere – you cannot avoid it.
Your novel Istanbul, Istanbul isn’t really about politics but about love, and you’ve said you drew on your own experiences. How does enlightening fiction impact the political climate in Turkey?
If I write something related to politics, I want to give people the feeling that life is richer beyond politics. We don’t have to just frame our life with the politics.
How can poetry convey ideas in Turkey and make people political?
In Turkey, we have a very powerful poetry tradition. One of the best maybe in the world, especially in the mid-20th century. It was the peak of Turkish poetry, the contemporary poetry. Maybe you have heard of Nâzım Hikmet. He is kind of the Shakespeare of Turkish poetry. [He] lived in the 20th century and died in exile.
And still in Turkey so many young people write poetry, they publish poetry, and read poetry.
Do you think poetry is spurring people on to be political?
Yes, because it is easy to give your idea on daily life and daily politics easily through poetry, like when we had an uprising about four years ago in Istanbul during the Gezi protests.
Millions of people took to the streets for two weeks, and the main means was poetry. All walls were full of poetry lines, written by youngsters from Turkish poets or international foreign poets. It is very strongly accepted here.
Daring to think differently has often landed intellectuals in trouble throughout history. While this goes against freedom of expression, to what extent is it fulfilling that the Turkish forces are taking journalists seriously enough to jail them?
We are having maybe the worst time of our political history. At the moment, more than 170 journalists are in prison in Turkey, the biggest jailer of journalists in the world nowadays.
On the other hand I know that some people, some journalists, cannot write down what they think because they know that as soon as they write it down, they will be accused of being party to a terrorist organization.
But there are still many other journalists and intellectuals who are still bravely and passionately defending their principles and rights and say whatever they think.
President Erdoğan wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian, where he said Turkey is “defending democratic values.” Fake news has been talked about a lot in the West. Is there a problem with fake news in the Turkish media?
In Turkey, it is kind of impossible to say that we have a free media, apart from a couple of newspapers left behind.
Maybe that is the reason that everybody is now on social media in Turkey, because we don’t have any other means to express ourselves. Twitter, Facebook or other platforms of social media are very widely used in Turkey. Everybody [uses] social media very actively, from all generations.
Since the Gezi uprising, the government realized that social media is the main field of opposition and public to move around, and now they are trying to control it by investing huge money into troll accounts.
What do you think Erdoğan’s end game is? Is this a permanent realignment of Turkey intellectually towards his form of Islamism, or will it end when Erdoğan ends?
He believes that he is the new Sultan of the lost Ottoman Empire. But now he is hating. He hates this Turkish Republic and he is trying to bring the Ottoman Empire back.
By bringing the Ottoman Empire back, he is kind of a savior; he is the new Sultan. Also because Ottoman had a caliphate, he also believes that he will be the caliphate of all the Islamic world. That is his dream.
Do you think he is going to achieve that?
I don’t think so. Because in Turkey, it doesn’t matter what percentage of the support you get in public, but what your opponents feel about you. Do they just oppose you or do they hate you? In Turkey most of the society hates Erdoğan.
Under those circumstances you cannot rule a country peacefully. That is why he is using the old means of violence and fear on society. But Turkey is a very dynamic and strong country. I don’t think that he will be able carry on like this forever.
What can the outside world do to understand Turkey more?
They have to open their ears more to the people criticizing Erdoğan. Five or so years ago when I was in England, people like me couldn’t convince people in Europe that Erdoğan was doing very badly in Turkey. The international community should listen to us… listen to the opposition, the social democrats, the secular parties, the Kurdish opposition, journalists in prisons. And women.
In Turkey, women are in danger mostly, with their lifestyle being threatened. That is why in any event, in any action, you will see that women, especially young women, are at the front row.
If you are in prison and being harassed, as a man, it is something else. If you are being harassed as a woman it is something more serious because they abuse you, they mistreat you sexually. So many cases we know of that kind of mistreatments.
Why do you stay in Turkey under such an oppressive environment, when you could live a simple life of pleasure somewhere else?
That is my dream. But sometimes your destiny is just bound to the destiny of your family, your whole country and your society. You cannot run away from it, morally. I see myself attached here, as long as there is suffering and violence.
“Nobody leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark,” it says in a book. I don’t know what the future will bring to me and to my country, but I will be here to see what the future will bring.