Suddenly a terrorist

When I switched on my cell phone as my plane landed from Istanbul to Munich, I was greeted by a text message from a former colleague. I was with my two year old son and it was a sunny day in August. “Hey Fatma, would you like to start writing again?” wrote my former editor-in-chief, who fled Turkey before me and found refuge in Belgium. I had mixed feelings about the escape – sadness, fear, disappointment, worry and pain – but also great relief that I had found a safe haven for my family. My husband, who had left Turkey two days before me, and I no longer feared that our home would be searched by the police in the middle of the night and we would be arrested in front of our young son.

First, autocrats want to get rid of the fourth estate

I was happy, albeit sad, because I was able to escape from Turkey. Unlike many of my colleagues who, following a controversial attempted coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016, were overnight labeled terrorists and jailed. The failed coup attempt provided Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with an excellent opportunity to crack down on journalists who were critical of him. Like any other leader who wants to silence the opposition and establish an autocratic regime, Erdoğan knew he had to first get rid of the independent media known as the Fourth Estate in democratic countries.

Although I didn’t have an apartment in Germany or a real place to sleep at the time, I still had my laptop with me and told my old colleague that I liked to write something. I saw dozens of my former colleagues jailed just for journalism, mass arrests of ordinary people and the purging of thousands of civil servants by controversial government decrees in a crackdown on fabricated terrorism and coup charges. And I realized that the only thing I could do for these people was to write about them and let the world know how Turkey, which was once seen as a model for the coexistence of democracy and Islam, is changing in transformed into a one-man regime. Writing was a kind of sanctuary for me. It gave me comfort to do something for the people who were unlawfully imprisoned and subjected to serious human rights violations in my country. It was like an entry in the history books of a time when Turkey experienced perhaps the worst trauma to its democracy.

I would never have thought that possible

I was now a journalist in exile – something I never thought possible. In countries with poor democracy, it’s possible to be labeled a terrorist one night and find yourself in prison or in exile the next.

Journalism in exile holds challenges, but also many opportunities. When a journalist is in his home country, no matter how hard he tries to be independent and question official ideology and reporting, he always has to respect boundaries and sometimes he has to censor himself. As a journalist in exile, however, one has great freedom to question the official discourse of one’s home country on controversial issues and to write about things that go unreported at home because local journalists are afraid of upsetting the government, which they end up doing could cost her job, her freedom, or even her life.

Even the few independent media are afraid

According to Reporters Without Borders, 90 percent of national media in Turkey is owned by pro-government businessmen and follows the official line. There are a few media outlets that claim to be independent, but even these are obviously afraid to take on the Turkish government and Erdoğan because they turn a blind eye to certain news items that would normally make headlines in a free media outlet.

For example, it was Turkish journalists in exile who founded various media platforms, such as my news site turkishminute.com and Bold News Media, which report extensively on widespread human rights violations in Turkey, on torture and ill-treatment in prisons, on the situation of seriously ill prisoners and on reporting corruption in government. Without these exiled journalists, the Turkish people and the international community might never have known about the Turkish families who perished in the Evros River or in the Aegean Sea trying to flee Turkey in rubber boats. They would not have known about the tragedy of Mustafa Kabakçıoğlu, a decorated police inspector who was found dead on a plastic chair in a prison quarantine cell in northern Turkey in August 2020. He was among more than 120,000 civil servants fired after the coup for alleged links to terrorist groups.

Working as a journalist in exile gives me hope

They might also never have known about the tragic death of Halime Gulsu, a 34-year-old English teacher who was arrested after the coup for ties to the Gülen movement. The Gülen movement is a religious group inspired by a Turkish cleric living in the United States. The young woman died in a prison in southern Turkey in April 2018 after prison authorities refused her essential medication. Also, they might never have heard of the hundreds of children, even newborns, who accompanied their mothers to prison during the post-coup purge. All of these victims have been accused of terrorism by the Turkish government for alleged links to the Gülen movement, believed to be behind the failed coup. However, the movement vehemently denies any involvement in the failed coup.

Leaving your homeland and starting a new life in a foreign country is difficult, but working as a journalist in exile gives me and many of my colleagues the opportunity to speak out against the wrongful actions of an autocratic regime and gives us the hope that our work will one day help improve democracy, the rule of law and media freedom in our home country.

Fatma Zibak is a Germany-based journalist and editor of the English-language news website turkishminute.com.

Translated from the English by Lingua World GmbH. This text appears as part of the joint project “Voices of Exile” by the Tagesspiegel and the Körber Foundation. Since 2016, the Tagesspiegel has regularly published texts by exile journalists under the title #now we write. the Körber Foundation fruns programs that strengthen the journalistic, artistic and political activities of exiles in Germany. These include cooperation with the news platforms “Amal, Berlin!” and “Amal, Hamburg!” From 15th to 16th May 2022 will take place in Hamburg Exile Media Forum takes place, the largest specialist conference in Germany on exile journalism.

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