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In Louisville, Turkish-Americans Talk Free Press Issues Back Home

Journalist Abdulhamit Bilici
Journalist Abdulhamit Bilici

In March, 2016, police stormed the Istanbul offices of the Zaman Daily, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper. It was a takeover initiated by the government. Outside, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. All of the editors were fired and the digital archives were destroyed.

Many of the journalists have fled the country to avoid jail and prosecution. Abdülhamit Bilici (pictured above) was one of those journalists. He was editor-in-chief of the Zaman Daily and now lives in Virginia.

“They changed the editorial policy of the newspaper in 24 hours,” Bilici said. “It was a critical newspaper and it turned to be a mouthpiece of Erdogan government.”

This freedom of the press in Turkey — or lack of it — will be a topic of discussion on Tuesday, Dec. 5 in Louisville at an event hosted by the local chapter of the World Affairs Council. In 2016, 81 journalists were imprisoned in Turkey — a record number according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The crackdown on media in Turkey intensified in July 2016 after an attempted coup to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The government blamed the power grab on followers of self-exiled religious leader, teacher and former supporter of Erdogan, Fethullah Gülen. Gülen has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999 and claims to have millions of followers worldwide.

One of those followers is Miraç Özkır, who’s lived in Louisville for seven years. He’s an ESL mathematics teacher.

“But I don’t like those words, like 'Gülenist,'” he said. “[Gülen] inspired me when I was younger. I’m a true believer of education and I chose to be a teacher."

The Gülen movement operates schools around the world, including the Gülen-inspired Louisville chapter of the American Turkish Friendship Association.

“Gülen just emphasized education,” Özkır said. “It was very, very, sexy. I can say that people said ‘wow this imam is cool.’ And people started following him.” 

Weeks after the failed coup, more than 100 media outlets were shut down in Turkey. And there’s no sign that media suppression will ease. In November, President Erdogan called journalists elitist and “enemies of the people.”

Özkır said with many leaving Turkey, it would be a big mistake for him to go home. This summer he’s hoping to meet his family in Greece or Germany so he can see them.

Nina Ognianova, coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists' Europe and Central Asian program said since Turkey's failed coup attempt, the country isn't only cracking down on journalists. She said the suppression extends to artists, academics, intellectuals and teachers.

“Entire universities have been shut down or taken over by the government,” she said.

“Strategic partners, such as Turkey have to have a free media in order to be considered a reliable partner,” Ognianova said.

That free media, she said, needs to be able to report on issues such as corruption and Turkey’s involvement in the war in Syria.

“Without voices that tell us what’s going on, Turkey becomes a closed society that we don’t know anything about,” Ognianova said.

The World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana will host “Where Turkey Went Wrong.” Turkish reporter and author Aydoğan Vatandaş will lead the discussion. The event will be held at the University Club on Tuesday, December 5 at 5:30 p.m. More information can be found here

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.

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