The growing sound of silence in southeast Turkey

After being briefly detained last week, Nurcan Baysal, an award-winning Diyarbakır-based activist and journalist, has continued to report on the situation in Kurdish-majority southeast Turkey, where locals have seen how growing fear about the pandemic has increased the government’s sensitivity to criticism.

“Today I called some of my friends who are doctors,” Baysal told Ahval in a podcast. “I tried to take some information, and they openly said, ‘Nurcan, we can’t talk’.” 

Four weeks after announcing its first confirmed case of COVID-19, Turkey has the world’s ninth most cases, at 38,226, with more than 800 dead. The government has shuttered most shops, restaurants and cafes, cancelled all flights by Turkish carriers and quarantined more than 30 of its largest cities, along with 100 residential areas. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday vowed to expand the number of hospital beds in Istanbul, the country’s coronavirus epicentre. Health experts and opposition politicians have called for a full lockdown like those applied in much of Europe, while the government has arrested more than 400 people for critical posts on social media. 

Journalism watchdog Reporters without Borders said at least eight Turkish journalists, including Baysal, had been detained for pandemic-related reporting and are now waiting to hear if they will be officially charged. “Efforts to contain the flow of information have been greater than those to contain the epidemic itself,” Miray Erbey, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, wrote this week about Turkey.

Whatever policies of oppression the government embraces, it tends to apply them twice as hard in Diyarbakır, the biggest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast, where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been waging an insurgency for some 35 years.

The biggest, most recent spasm of violence was in late 2015 to early 2016, when government forces used tanks and artillery to drive the PKK youth wing from urban centres where they had erected barricades in response to a call from the group’s military leaders to declare autonomy from the state. City centres were left in ruins. Since then, Baysal has been detained three times and sentenced to 10 months in prison, had her home raided twice and faced dozens of police investigations.

Last week, authorities told her that her columns and social media posts incited panic and fear. Baysal, the 2018 Global Laureate for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, according to the Irish organisation Front Line Defenders, explained her work as a journalist and activist and was released.

“The prosecutor mainly asked me about one paragraph in my article for Ahval News. He said, ‘Why did you write about the coronavirus risk in prisons?’” she said. “He said, ‘You are not an ordinary person. You have an effect on people and you should be more careful’.”

The prison issue has emerged among Turkey’s most urgent. Parliament is expected to vote this week on a bill to free nearly a third of the country’s nearly 300,000 inmates, while excluding political prisoners, such as journalists, politicians and activists.

The amnesty is a response to overcrowding and concerns about the possible rapid spread of COVID-19, particularly considering the lack of cleanliness, hygiene products and distancing possibilities behind bars. The Council of Europe and Human Rights Watch have both denounced the bill and called for the release of political prisoners. 

After a parliamentary advisory body approved a draft of the bill on Saturday, inmates at a penitentiary in the Kurdish-majority city of Batman rioted. Some 8,500 people, including thousands of Kurdish lawmakers and journalists, remain behind bars on charges of links to the PKK. 

Last week, former Diyarbakır mayor Selçuk Mızraklı wrote in an Ahval column that the government was abandoning countless journalists, students, lawyers and intellectuals to death in prison. 

That Mızraklı is among those in prison underscores the absence of leadership in southeast Turkey, where the government has targeted any successful figure from the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). 

The main opposition mayors of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, and Ankara, its capital, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, respectively, have seen their profiles rise as they have aggressively responded to the pandemic, notably by launching municipal fundraising drives to support the poor and small businesses troubled by the corona crisis. 

Erdoğan followed suit by launching a national donation campaign, and the next day barred the municipal fundraising drives. Both İmamoğlu and Yavaş quickly vowed to continue their efforts to raise funds for the needy. 

Meanwhile, last month the mayor of the largest city in Turkey’s southeast was sentenced to more than nine years in prison. 

The government has dismissed 40 HDP mayors since last year’s local elections, and jailed dozens of other top Kurdish leaders, such as Selahattin Demirtaş, former HDP co-leader and presidential candidate. 

“We don’t have mayors,” said Baysal. “We don’t have people who can talk on our behalf.”

To make matters worse, the government vowed to give Kurdish people in southeast Turkey peace, economic development and local rights, and fell way short, according to Baysal. 

“There’s no trust of this government,” she said. “They failed to follow through on their promises, so we have this trust problem.”

The government also shut down most NGOs in the southeast, including Sarmaşık, which would now be delivering food and other support to Diyarbakır’s poor and at-risk if it had not been closed in 2016. 

Baysal and some friends have in the past week joined forces to launch a new initiative that aims to make at least 50 food deliveries every day to people in the poorer areas of Diyarbakır, like Sur and nearby Bağlar. 

After taking a long time to adjust to the new distancing rules, much of Diyarbakır is now shuttered and quiet. But Baysal still sees considerable pedestrian traffic in less wealthy, more densely populated areas like Sur and Bağlar.

“This social distancing is a luxury in some areas,” she said. “If they don’t work, there is no bread for that day. So, if the state doesn’t support them with food and other things, these people will go out and continue to work.”

Baysal has also continued to work. Because of her experience with major international organisations like the United Nations Development Programme, she is less concerned about a lengthy prison term than most journalists in the southeast, who lack such backing. But the threat of contracting COVID-19 during even a very short stint in jail has her worried. 

“I feel a responsibility to report, to inform the people about what’s happening here, (but) it is really not easy,” she said, mentioning her two sons, who are 13 and 16-years-old. “They need me, and I don’t want to be in prison when there’s this coronavirus.” 

Baysal said that for the first time she had begun posting, then quickly deleting, tweets that she feared might draw government attention. She was thinking about not reporting in Turkish for a month, or until the corona crisis blows over.  

“In the last eight years, I never stopped, I always continued to write through the clashes,” she said. “But today I’m thinking maybe I need to stop ... There is no law here.” 

All major decisions in Turkey appear to be taken by one man, said Baysal, and concerns are growing that Erdoğan could take a step like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban took last week, essentially eliminating parliament in order to rule by decree. 

“Turkey’s really in darkness the last four to five years. I don’t know how dark it can be,” she said. “Every year we tell ourselves this will pass, but it’s not passing. I’m really hopeless this time.”

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