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How my newspaper was shut down for the 27th time in its history

The staff of Turkish opposition paper Ozgur Gundem refuse to keep silent - even if that has been at the risk of being shot

[The Ozgur Gundem newspaper has often been slammed by the Turkish government for directly praising the PKK and its mission to physically fight for greater rights for Turkey’s Kurds. The government has also been ferocious in its condemnation of the paper that it has at times not condemned the group’s armed campaign. – MEE]

Earlier this month, the headquarters of Ozgur Gundem, the newspaper in Istanbul where I work, was shut down for the 27th time in its 24-year history.

This time, the raid was carried out not by regular police but by police special forces, carrying serious weapons such as assault rifles, who said that an Istanbul court had ordered our "temporary closure".

Since the early 1990s, Ozgur Gundem - the first newspaper in Turkey to have a female editor-in-chief - has refused to keep silent in the face of pressure and censorship, even if it has meant the risk of being shot.

Attempts have been made to make us engage in self censorship through judicial pressure and fines

Just after we launched in 1992, our journalists started to be targeted and killed. Our first raid came on 10 December 2003, which also happened to be World Human Rights Day.

In addition to being shut down numerous times, supporters of our paper have been detained and attempts have been made to make us engage in self censorship through judicial pressure and fines.

What was interesting about the raid on 16 August was that even before the closure notice had been served on the newspaper’s management and lawyers, the media organs of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) began broadcasting the decision a little before 2pm. The government said the decision to shut and raid the paper was because we were engaging in propaganda for the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation.

Shutdown is a dark stain on Turkey

Around 4:30pm, the narrow street where our newspaper offices are located was blocked off by an armoured vehicle and big buses. 

Special forces police and plain-clothes police wearing body armour occupied both ends of the road. As the special forces police violently stormed the building, crews from IMC TV and the DIHA news agency - both left-wing media outlets - were filming both inside and outside the building. 

Anti-riot police block streets leading towards the HQ of Ozgur Gundem in Istanbul (Ozan Kose/AFP)

The policemen immediately pointed their guns at our colleagues in the foyer and forced them to stand facing the wall. Then they stormed the editorial offices on the second floor. We were confronted with a situation reminiscent of what the public faced on the night of the 15 July coup attempt. A group of armed people were illegally confronting civilians and pointing guns at them.

After we said that a newspaper's editorial section should not be stormed like this and demanded to see a warrant, scuffles broke out. Before they started arresting staff, a few of us somehow managed to leave the building.

But 18 staff members who remained were taken into custody, in addition to two IMC TV staff, two DIHA staff and two guests. You could see them being led away in handcuffs with their faces bruised and clothing ripped.

You could see staff being led away in handcuffs with their faces bruised and clothing ripped

One of our lawyers was inside, but the others were not allowed into the building for the entire duration of the five-and-a-half hour search, during which time they took our news materials and confiscated our hard drives. Asli Erdogan, a member of our broadcast consultancy board, was also arrested the next day after her house was raided.

Just one month after witnessing what the coup plotters attempted to achieve, so Erdogan's AKP-led government did the same thing by shutting down our opposition paper. This act was a dark stain on Turkey's stance on press freedoms and the freedom of expression.

Paper refuses to bow to pressures

Ozgur Gundem was raided and shut down because we were pushing those in power out of their comfort zones by creating real synergy among Turkey's opposition. Our keyboards and camera flashes have never stopped, not even for a single moment, in our efforts to expose and oppose fraud, lies, theft, censorship, racism and sectarianism.

Successive AKP governments created a loyal media pool through their business contacts by using our taxes and public resources. Mainstream media outlets that tried to uncover the activities of the government, military, police or the judiciary were threatened with visits from tax officers.

A woman holds a copy of Ozgur Gundem in Istanbul after the newspaper is shut (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

But our paper refused to ever bow to these pressures. As a result it has seen its staff censored and murdered. There were also instances of when kiosks which sold the newspaper were torched

We were pushing those in power out of their comfort zones

My newspaper put its energy into ensuring that the official state policy of forced relocations, exiling people and torture would not be experienced again. It tried to be a shield for people against the government’s indoctrination policies promoting monism, where the only yardstick is a unitary country, with a unitary race and religion.

We tried to build bridges between Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Alevis, Greeks, Jews, Laz, Roma, Circassians, leftists and the working class.

When the lawsuits against the newspaper increased, people from all these communities took up the role of guest editor for a day. For almost 100 days, we had a different editor in the bureau each day. The government could not stomach this.

How a government benefits from a climate of fear

The strongest objections to Ozgur Gundem articles came soon after the 15 July coup, when Erdogan and the AKP bypassed parliament and used the state of emergency to issue decrees that increased pressure and spread violence against the same groups that the putschists would had targeted, such as the Kurds and those unwilling to buy into a single entity culture.

Protesters hold a banner reading "Free media cannot be silenced" after the closure of Ozgur Gundem (Ozan Kose/AFP)

Unlike other press outlets, we never followed the government line and persisted in reporting on events such as the Roboski massacre, the burning to death of civilians in basements in Cizre, Sur, Silopi and Nusaybin. We persisted in reporting on the killing of women and children in their homes.

Unlike other press outlets, we never followed the government line

We were one of the strongest media voices to object to Turkey’s sectarian Syria and Rojava policies. We objected to Turkey choosing sides based on whether people were Sunni and non-Kurds.

The closure of my newspaper signals the start of human rights violations and attacks on opposition circles as the government looks to benefit from the climate of fear after the coup attempt.

In this climate, they thought there would not be much outcry when they closed our newspaper. A brave judge could easily convict the AKP government on the basis of Article 28 - that it is a crime to mix religion with state affairs and politics - which was used to shut us down.

Those who are violating the universal right to news and communication will one day understand the importance of an independent media.

Mehmet Ali Celebi is a journalist with Ozgur Gundem. The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Protestors shout slogans near the HQ  of Ozgur Gundem in Istanbul (OZAN KOSE/AFP)