An article appeared a couple days ago in ANF, Özgür Ülke: the bombing of a Kurdish newspaper 16 years ago, that touches upon an important era in the history of the Kurdish press in Turkey. The article though did not give any context to the tragic ‘black’ years of the early 90s for Kurdish journalists and journalism, nor does it relate the importance of this and other newspapers to the development of the Kurdish press. This background information is crucial to really appreciate the story of Özgür Ülke.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, 03 December 1994 three synchronised explosions rocked the main office and printing house of the daily Özgür Ülke in Istanbul, as well as the paper’s office in Ankara.
Shortly before 3am an explosion ripped through the daily’s printing house in the Cağaloğlu neighbourhood of the Eminönü district in Istanbul, causing extensive damage. The Eminönü district is home to many publishing houses. Half an hour later, an explosive device, perhaps an explosive-laden truck, detonated on the ground floor of the daily’s main office in Kumkapı in the Fatih district of Istanbul. The four-story building was gutted. All told, one person was killed and 23 were injured. Ersin Yildiz, the lone fatality, died on the way to hospital.
Meanwhile, an explosion rocked the Özgür Ülke office on Menekse Street in Ankara causing extensive damage. There were no casualties at the Ankrara office.
Interior Minister Nahit Mentese said that the reason for the bombings of the Özgür Ülke offices in Istanbul and Ankara might be provocation or a dispute among its various factions. He added that every possible angle was being investigated.
However, others had different ideas as to who bombed the Özgür Ülke offices. The newspaper blamed the state for the coordinated explosions. Mehmet Cifti, Ankara representative of Özgür Ülke claimed that the attacks on the newspaper, which had recently come under increased police harassment, were an attempt to ‘silence’ the paper for defending Kurdish rights. He claimed the decision to attack the offices had been taken during Turkey’s military-dominated National Security Council meeting three days prior to the attacks. Both the Turkish Chief of General Staff and the Interior Minister are on record saying ‘Özgür Ülke should be stopped.’
The editor-in-chief, Baki Karadeniz, said that it was obvious who the perpetrators were, adding: ‘These attacks will not silence us. Our newspaper will be published tomorrow and the days after that…’
And it was published the next day with the headline ‘Bu ateş, sizi de yakar’ (This fire will burn you too).
On 19 December 1994, the paper published an article under the banner headline: ‘[former Turkish PM] Çiller Gave the Orders To Bomb the Paper.’ The Prime Minister’s Office Press Centre issued a statement saying that ‘the newspaper in question is misleading the citizens and the world. Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the constitution and the law in Turkey, which is a democratic state of law.’ The statement went on to say that ‘the Turkish Republican Government considers freedom of the press as sacred as other rights and freedoms and values it as such.’
Replying to reporters’ questions in Ankara after the attack, Interior Minister Mentese said that even insinuating state involvement in these attacks directed against human lives and property was unthinkable. He added that the state had always tried to ensure the prevalence of the laws. In reply to a question on whether it was a coincidence that the bombings took place soon after the PKK called for a cease-fire, Mentese said that every possibility was being taken into consideration.
Prior to the bombings…
Turkish PM Yıldırım Akbulut announced in 1990: ‘We have decided to answer guns with guns,’ and with that new restrictions were placed on the reporting of the conflict in the southeast; all news reports would have to be ‘coordinated’ with the Interior Ministry, and publishers would be liable for hefty fines and immediate closure upon conviction of printing any material considered to ‘pose a threat to the rule of law.’
The restrictions stemmed from a Council of Ministers order, Decree 413, which equipped the regional governor in southeastern Turkey with extraordinary powers, among them, to censor the press. Following this and other decrees issued later that month, an almost complete censorship was imposed on news from southeastern Turkey. Most news from that region was then based solely on information released by the regional governor’s office. Journalists who tried to cover Kurdish issues or investigate allegations of abuse on the part of security forces ran a serious risk of criminal charges and prison sentences. Some were expelled from towns in the region.
These were the first shots to be fired in a new war against the Kurdish press, which was to escalate into a barrage of assassinations, arson, judicial persecution and confiscations.
Widespread attacks on journalists working for left-wing and pro-Kurdish newspapers began in 1992. These assaults and murders, which continued and escalated over several years, must be seen in the light of the state’s tight control on the expression of unorthodox views, and particularly of any material which was seen as ‘subversive.’
Article 8 of the newly-implemented Anti-Terror Law of 12 April 1991 armed the state with a handy weapon against the pro-Kurdish press. A catch-all provision said that: ‘No written or verbal propaganda, meeting, demonstration and march, which targets the indivisible unity of the people and country of the Turkish Republic, for whatever thought or aim, are allowed.’ Article 8 was used against any manifestation of Kurdish identity, illustrated most starkly by the experience of the pro-Kurdish press.
Up to the end of 1992, 48 confiscation orders or lawsuits were filed by State Security Court prosecutors based on 114 issues of the weekly newspaper Yeni Ülke, which first appeared in October 1990. Start up funding for Yeni Ülke was provided by the PKK and was enthusiastically backed by Kurdish activists.
The monthly magazine Özgür Halk started publication in November 1990 and lasted for 27 issues. During that period, 15 issues were confiscated and lawsuits were filed against 22 issues. Eight employees of the paper were arrested and tortured; the Diyarbakır office was bombed; the Diyarbakır representative Huseyin Ebem was given a 26-month prison sentence and a 45 million TL fine for ‘making propaganda against the indivisible integrity of the state’, and two of the paper’s representatives were murdered.
The daily paper Özgür Gündem paid the heaviest penalty for the right to publish during this phase of the state’s operations against the press. Between 31 May 1992, when it was launched, and 15 January 1993, when it was forced to stop publication, confiscation orders were issued against 39 issues; fines amounting to billions of TL were imposed on the management; seven correspondents and distributors of the paper were murdered; 55 correspondents were arrested, and three of them were severely tortured; employees’ homes and the paper’s offices were repeatedly raided by the police, and property used by the paper was subjected to regular arson attacks.
Özgür Gündem, which typically published interviews with Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, and frequently printed statements by the PKK, was regarded by most Turks as the mouthpiece of the outlawed organisation. Öcalan also had a weekly column in the paper using the pen name Ali Firat. The papers’ reporters were constantly stopped by police, and distribution of the paper was obstructed by security forces in the southeast.
Turkish officials refuting claims of harrassment of the paper say the state has nothing to fear from a newspaper whose circulation is a mere 12,000. Other reports estimated circulation anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000.
The year 1993 began with the closure of the newspaper on 15 January, driven out of business by harassment, confiscations, raids, arrests, and violence. On 26 April 1993, Özgür Gündem was publishing again, after merging with another paper that had also been relentlessly persecuted, Yeni Ülke. But that did not last for long. Throughout the following 7 months, the paper suffered a crescendo of attacks, both physical and legal. By July, the publishers and editors had been fined a total of 8.6 billion TL ($736,500 at that time) and sentenced to prison terms totalling 155 to 493 years. By the end of November 1993, there were 170 further cases outstanding against the paper, including an action to close the paper on the grounds that ‘the chief editor Davut Karadag did not communicate his new address to the Istanbul Governorate.’
The main charges against the paper were ‘making separatist propaganda’ and ‘praising the PKK’ contrary to Articles 7 and 8 of the Anti-Terror Law. These were due to be heard before the State Security Tribunal, a special court designated under Article 143 of the Turkish Constitution to hear ‘offences against the indivisible integrity of the state…,’ on 21 September 1993. On that date, however, the proprietor Yasar Kaya was unable to appear, because he was in custody on another charge.
On 10 December 1993, International Human Rights Day, 200 police raided the paper’s offices in Istanbul, arresting 100 employees and seizing equipment. In simultaneous raids on all the other offices of the paper except Ankara, another 50 were taken into custody.
By the end of 1993, six of the paper’s journalists and 14 other staff members had been killed, one journalist, Burhan Karadeniz had been shot by unidentified gunmen and paralysed for life, and one journalist had disappeared.
On 14 April 1994 Özgür Gündem was shut down temporarily, in the first of 200 such cases to come to the Supreme Court. On 27 April, the owners of the paper decided to cease operations, and a new title, Özgür Ülke, was launched. But on 14 June 1994, the editor, deputy editor and 11 journalists from the defunct title were put on trial in Istanbul. The editor, Ms Gurbeteli Ersöz and four others were charged with membership of an illegal organisation, the remainder with ‘separatist propaganda.’
Özgür Ülke fared no better than its predecessor, Özgür Gündem, and two months after the bombings, on 03 February 1995, Özgür Ülke was closed down altogether when a court ruled that it was subject to the same ban as Özgür Gündem. When yet another paper representing a Kurdish viewpoint, Yeni Politika, was planned, its premises were raided before even the first issue appeared in April, six of its journalists were detained, and the inaugural issue was confiscated for containing ‘separatist propaganda.’
This was all taking place around the same time the Turkish military was carrying out a ‘scorched earth’ policy in the southeast, with roughly 2,000 Kurdish villages erased from the map, and two million Kurds driven from their homes. The villages were forcibly evacuated and later burned or partly destroyed. Nearly 300,000 troops—more than half of Turkey’s armed forces at that time—were stationed in the region.
There were also attacks on Kurdish political parties. In the spring of 1990 the Peoples’ Labour Party (Halkın Emek Partisi, HEP) was formed. It tried to articulate Kurdish identity as far as it could without running into trouble with the vaguely worded Anti-Terror Law. The party was threatened with closure at the behest of State Security Court Chief Prosecutor Nusret Demiral, for making ‘separatist propaganda’ and it was eventually banned in July 1993.
The Democracy Party (Demokrasi Partisi, DEP) was founded in May of 1993 by members of the HEP as a successor party in anticipation of the ban. In March 1994, the Turkish Grand National Assembly withdrew the immunity of the Kurdish MPs in the DEP.
Six of the MPs, Hatip Dicle, Leyla Zana, Orhan Doğan, Sirri Sakik, Ahmet Türk and Mahmut Alınak, were arrested on the withdrawal of their immunity.
The DEP was dissolved by the Constitutional Court on 16 June 1994. On 08 December 1994, five days after the bombing of the offices of Özgür Ülke, Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Ahmet Türk, Orhan Doğan and Selim Sadak were found guilty under Article 168 (2) of the Turkish Penal Code of membership of an illegal armed organisation, and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Sedat Yurtdaş was found guilty under Article 169 of having provided support to an armed organisation and given 7 years six months imprisonment. Mahmut Alınak and Sirri Sakik were found guilty under Article 8 (1) of the Anti-Terror Law of having engaged in separatist propaganda and were sentenced to 3 years six months, plus a fine of 70 million TL, but released on bail.
Aliza Marcus, in her book Blood and Belief, says that ‘[t]here is no question that Kurds gained from the opportunities created when the PKK, starting in the early 1990s, carved out or otherwise gave backing to new, legal Kurdish institutions and publications. A whole generation of journalists developed in Özgür Gündem and its related newspapers, and for the first time, Kurds could read news of direct relevance to their lives.’
TRT TV. ‘Interior minister denies state involvement in Özgür Ülke bombings’ as reported in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts (6 December 1994); LexisNexis.
TRT TV. ‘Explosions at offices of pro-Kurdish paper’ as reported in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts (5 December 1994); LexisNexis.
Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 – Turkey
Avebury, Eric. Turkey’s Kurdish Policy in the Nineties. Paper presented at the Middle East Studies Association meeting in Washington, DC, December 1995. Accessed at American Kurdish Information Network.
Fraser, Suzan. Pro-Kurdish paper blames state for bombings. Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 03 December 1994.
Kanal-6 TV. ‘Paper’s editor vows to keep publishing’ as reported in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts (5 December 1994); LexisNexis.
TRT TV. ‘Çiller denies issuing order to bomb newspaper’ as reported in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts (23 December 1994); LexisNexis.
Marcus, Aliza (2007). Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish fight for independence. New York University Press.