Keeping one eye on the lion

Even the great lion’s roar cannot silence the nightingale, that is one key takeaway from the new book of reporting by Istanbul-based novelist and journalist Kaya Genç.

The “Lion and the Nightingale”, published in October, uses a series of profiles of Turkish people to underscore the constant struggle between the often aggressive actions of the state (the lion) and those who work to highlight its troubling policies, and maintain freedom of speech and the rule of law.

In his last book, 2016’s “Under the Shadow”, Genç detailed the political journeys of more than a dozen younger Turks as a way to showcase the 2002 rise to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The party’s great promise was hyped by the likes of the New York Times and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But within a decade, many soured on the AKP, leading to the national outpouring of frustration that was the 2013 Gezi protests.

That book closed with an epilogue about the July 2016 coup attempt, which again brought thousands of Turks to Istanbul’s Taksim Square, but with a different energy. “Powerful politicians started talking about the flow of free media and the value of information,” Genç wrote. “People were ecstatic to be on the streets.”

As the Lion and the Nightingale opens, those hopes have been dashed by a series of bomb attacks, a post-failed coup purge that ultimately led to the dismissal of some 130,000 public servants and a looming shift to a presidential system that would put unprecedented power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Genç writes that he initially admired the AKP’s post-coup narrative of defiance and resistance, and the state’s power, with Erdoğan as a sort of father figure, made him feel safe. Then the purge continued and people remained out of work, and Genç watched artist, intellectual and writer friends fall victim to the state as Turkey launched one incursion after another into Syria.

“Now Turkey is very militarised,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “What we expected from the military coup turned out to be illusory. It was rhetoric, but it wasn’t realised.”

The book begins on New Year’s Eve, the last day of 2016, a mostly quiet night that eerily foreshadows our coronavirus isolation of today.

“Many people stayed home that night,” Genç writes. “Cengiz stayed home. My friends stayed home. If the streets of Istanbul were deserted, it was because we were fearful. We had lost our hearts. We were in our pyjamas. We were cowed.”

Just after midnight, a gunman shot his way into Istanbul’s Reina nightclub, a glitzy dining and dance hall overlooking the Bosporus, killing 39 people and wounding dozens more. In the days after the attack, Turks found a way to tune out the fear and animosity and begin returning to Istanbul’s streets, visiting bars, restaurants and cafes, which Genç sees a recipe that could apply today.

“The kind of adaptation we exhibited after the terror attack and how we took back control of social life, that’s what the world will need to learn after this coronavirus ends,” he said.

In the book, Genç decided to stay and write about what will come to be a crisis-filled year, despite so many of his journalist and artist friends having already left or been silenced by government repression.

“I wanted to be firmly on the side of Turkey’s artists and the nightingales,” he said of the book. “The assault on artists and writers and intellectuals and journalists, and most of them are my friends, has been so severe that there is no way to be objective about it.”

He spends time with a newspaper editor recently released from prison and details the story of Kurdish artist and schoolteacher Sener Özmen, who gets a fellowship offer in the United States but, after being purged, is unable to travel abroad. Genç recalls the excitement of 2010, when Istanbul was strutting its stuff as Europe’s capital of culture.

“There was so much money pouring into Turkey’s culture industries and there was an imaginary boom in the arts world and all this interest in Turkish literature,” he said. “All those things proved to be bubbles and they came to nothing ...You can no longer make money as a writer, as an artist in Istanbul because all the bridges between the central government and the artistic community have been burnt down.”

Turkish media has gone down an even darker path. In late 2007, when Genç started work as a reporter for the Turkish edition of Newsweek, there was great optimism as major international media groups began investing in Turkey and writers were gaining more freedom to write about long taboo topics like Kurdish and Armenian issues.

On his first day on the job, he visited Argos newspaper and talked to the son of Hrant Dink about the upcoming first anniversary of his father’s assassination. But by the time Genç returned to the Newsweek office, the magazine had been taken over by the government.

“It was a very early lesson,” he said. “Working in Turkey as a journalist you must expect this kind of disappointment at all times.”

It was just the beginning of a massive government crackdown on free speech and independent media. Since the failed coup, the Turkish government has shuttered nearly 200 media outlets and led the world in jailed journalists. Many others were forced into exile. Today, Turkey’s media landscape is more than 90 percent pro-government.

“People who got into this business for money, they were quickly eliminated,” said Genç. “But those who were really passionate about finding out the truth, they proved very resilient.”

He acknowledged that he was initially critical of oppositional, or activist-style journalism that involves taking a clear political stand, arguing that reporters should be objective. But the scale of the government’s media crackdown has altered his thinking.

“We are lucky to have these activists or we’d be left with nothing,” said Genç, pointing to a slew of outlets launched by fired and exiled journalists, like Medyascope, Bianet, Ahval, P24 and others. “The lesson of the assault on Turkish journalism is it’s very difficult to beat Turkish journalism. Even if you devote all your time and energy to it, they somehow survive.”

That has not stopped this government. Fatih Portakal, an anchor at Fox News Turkey, was accused this week of spreading lies and manipulating the public on social media after he tweeted about the limited funding for the government’s corona response.

Last week, Diyarbakir-based journalist and Ahval columnist Nurcan Baysal was detained on similar charges. “I told them I am a journalist and a human rights defender and it’s my right to inform the public about the measures taken in my city,” Baysal told Ahval in a podcast.

This is nothing new for Baysal, who resumed her reporting shortly after she was released. In the past four years she has been detained three times and sentenced to 10 months in prison, had her home raided twice and faced dozens of police investigations.

In the book, Genç writes that the AKP government has mastered the art of censorship and that Turkey has lost a great deal of international media attention as its star has dimmed. Genç believes that government surveillance has also quietly increased, and that Turks in public have largely lost the ability to speak.

He was in a WhatsApp group of artist and curator friends from around the country discussing the Osman Kavala case after the philanthropist was arrested in 2017. People in the group would make a comment critical of the government, Genç said, then feel fearful and want to take it back or leave the group.

“The desire to share our frustrations and anger is there, just like the fear of censorship, of oppression, of being put into a prison cell, is there as well,” he said. “We don’t have a deafening silence in Turkey, people are talking, people are very critical on social media. But we lost the respectable platforms of mainstream media where we could channel those thoughts into op-eds, columns, and good journalism, or good art works.”

Turkey’s intellectuals, artists, and journalists in particular, must remain constantly wary of the lion’s roar, the aggressions of the Turkish state.

“Those traumatic moments come more often,” said Genç. “We have to somehow learn to live with them and still produce works of art, or books, or essays or whatever, knowing that we can lose our freedom and security at any moment.”


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.