Turkey: The world’s largest prison for journalists

As usual during the first days of spring, the weather was sunny when I stepped inside the cold walls of  Bakırköy women’s prison in Istanbul. Inside I met Nazlı Ilıcak, a 75-year-old journalist who was sentenced to life imprisonment for having “attempted to destroy the constitutional order”. She has been in prison for almost three years now and was still surprised at how a notebook in which she kept friends’ phone numbers could be taken as evidence to support accusations of “terrorism”.

“It is like being trapped inside a tomb”

Nazlı Ilıcak told me she was missing her old life and missing her children and grandchildren. “It is like being trapped inside a tomb. You try to reach out and hold on to something, but you can’t.”

When I asked if she would write an article for our World Press Freedom Day campaign, she immediately became serious as she took her pen and paper and started to write. In that moment, I could see her reaching outside the prison walls and becoming a journalist again. In fact, I saw the same expression – that of a serious journalist who loves their job – in the faces of all the other imprisoned journalists I visited.  

I also met Pınar Gayıp, a reporter with Etkin News Agency (ETHA), who welcomed me with a big smile. She is currently on trial accused of “membership of a terrorist organization” and “making propaganda for a terrorist organization”. Some of her social media posts and her work for ETHA are being used as evidence against her. 

Gayıp said her worst day in prison was the day the police broke up a weekly vigil – the 700th – by Turkish women demanding accountability for the disappearances of their family members since the 1980s. Gayıp told me that the women, known as “Saturday Mothers”, are the voice and conscience of Turkey: “When they [the police] attacked the Saturday Mothers, I felt like something had broken inside me. I wish I could be there.”

Semiha Şahin, editor of ETHA who is being tried in the same case, said she had been feeling gloomy despite the coming of spring. However, she had made new friends inside prison and was reading inside more than she could outside. Like Gayıp, she watched the way the police had broken up the Saturday Mothers protest on 25 August 2018 with tears in her eyes. She would never forget that day, she said.

“They fear the press”

Hanım Büşra Erdal who has been imprisoned for approximately three years, and whose case is still in the court of appeals, explained to me that her world gotten smaller inside. There was no one left but her family to support her. Erdal said she felt lonely and had given up on the judiciary system: “Even a journalist needs to have an army of supporters behind them. If not, nobody mentions you in the news.”

Tuba Bulut and Reyhan Hacıoğlu, reporters with the newspaper, Özgürlükçü Demokrasi, which has now shut down, have been on a hunger strike since 2 March to protest against being held incommunicado.

Reyhan Hacıoğlu said: “They [the authorities] fear the press. I wish all these human rights violations had not taken place so that we would not have to write about them, but unfortunately they happened.” – something like this? When I asked her what she missed the most, she said: “I miss reporting news about a better country”.   

Silivri: a colossal prison

A few days after visiting Bakırköy Women’s Prison, I was on my way to Silivri Closed Penitentiary. The spring showed its face more and more in the roads covered with wild flowers. Housing some 20,000 prisoners Silivri seemed to be a small town of its own.

I met Yakup Çetin, who was sentenced to six years and three months in prison, accused of “membership of a terrorist organization”. He has already served three years of his sentence, and said his perception of life had changed in prison: “Life is this moment and this is valuable. I would like to continue my life by living in the moment when I get out.” 

The last journalist I visited, Eren Erdem, greeted me with an apology. “Excuse me if I smell like bleach, today is cleaning day.” To make the days more bearable, he had created a system with his cellmates in which they discussed the books they had read and did daily chores together.

Serving a sentence of four years and two months, Erdem said his reading list had recently focused on political theory and philosophy. Like the other inmates, he has benefitted from the books left behind by other imprisoned journalists.

But they cannot make up for what Erdem has lost.

When I met him, he said the prison authorities had for the past 15 days withheld a photograph of his son from him. “The courts are restraining you from seeing your child and the prison’s administration keeps you from seeing his photograph,” he said.

It is outrageous to think that journalists like Erdem are being held in prisons just for doing their jobs. It is shocking to know that many have been convicted in show trials using fabricated evidence and trumped up charges.

I leave the prison with a heavy heart for the journalists who are being brutally targeted in the government’s attempt to silence critical voices.

Beril Eski works as the Press Coordinator at Amnesty International Turkey. She was allowed to visit the prisons as a lawyer registered with the Istanbul Bar Association.