“This is the only truth in this land”

Eren Keskin delivers the annual Mehmet Ali Birand Lecture on World Press Freedom Day 2021; at least 68 journalists are behind bars in Turkey


“If you happen to differ from those who govern you in the red lines of the official ideology, your freedom of expression will be violated. This is the only truth in this land.”

Thus remarks Eren Keskin —jurist, co-chair of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, and one of the staunchest defenders of freedom of expression in this land— at the beginning of her speech on this World Press Freedom Day. And as Turkey’s Platform for Independent Journalism (Punto24), we couldn’t agree more.

Eren Keskin delivers the eight Mehmet Ali Birand Lecture, an annual event organized by Punto24 since 2014 by, always on 3 May to mark World Press Freedom Day.

Due to the pandemic, this year’s Mehmet Ali Birand Lecture is held online and can be watched on Punto24’s YouTube channel.

Featured before Eren Keskin’s lecture are brief messages by author Cemre Birand and Consul General Peter Ericson, who would have kindly hosted this event at the Consulate General of Sweden in Istanbul had it not been for the pandemic-imposed restrictions.
We demand freedom for every journalist held for their journalism

Today we salute all journalists who are behind bars in various prisons of Turkey because of the news they reported, articles they wrote, and opinions they expressed.

We know that journalism is not a crime. We know that when the law prevails all of our colleagues who have been detained for their journalism will be released and acquitted.

Until that day, we will keep demanding freedom for each and every one of them. Our wish is to be able some day, not too far in the future, to celebrate the World Press Freedom Day altogether.

Here below you can read the full text of this year’s Mehmet Ali Birand lecture:

(Translated from the Turkish by Murat Şevki Çoban)

We live in a troubled land, where the winds are cold and rough. In order not to be swept away, we force ourselves to live in this harsh climate, a land whose peoples struggle to exist and to survive. Yes, it is indeed troubled, because we are in a place where the first and the greatest crime of the last century has been committed, and an official ideology designed to conceal that crime has been imposed on the whole society. For this reason, when it comes to freedom of expression, we need to look at the red lines of the official ideology that are well-established in this land: the Armenian Genocide, the Kurdish issue, and the Cyprus dispute.

In fact, freedom of expression arises fundamentally in this field.

If you happen to differ from those who govern you in the red lines of the official ideology, your freedom of expression will be violated. This is the only truth in this land. The test of my freedom of expression began at a young age. When I was 13, I went to the sea in Kilyos with relatives on my father’s side. As I was swimming away from the shore, out to sea, my father’s cousin said to me, “You are a very smart girl. Never forget that we are Kurds. Keep that in mind for the rest of your life.” I was taken aback at the time. Because I didn’t know what it was to be a Kurd.

Until I was 16, I would think about the answer to that question every so often. “What is it like being a Kurd? Are we any different?” I kept asking myself. I began to understand what it was like when I turned 16 and became a leftist. At the rallies we attended, people were chanting the slogan, “Kurdara Azadi” (“Freedom for the Kurds”); and all the leftists were shouting these slogans. I was ecstatic then and said, “That must mean being a Kurd is a good thing.” As it happens, the truth that I learned at the age of 13 may have formed the basis of my struggle. Because I realized full well over time that one of the most burning issues in this land was the Kurdish question.

The second test of my freedom of expression occurred, I think, when I was in my early teens and my uncle, my father’s twin brother, wanted to marry an Armenian woman. My grandfather was a law school graduate; he had served as a governor, and was known by people in his circle as a democrat. It became a huge problem in the family that my uncle was going to marry an Armenian. and for my grandfather in particular. My grandfather set two conditions for my uncle to marry Aunt Josephine. The first was that she should change her name from Josephine to Hülya; and the second was that she should become a Muslim.

I was puzzled by this situation; it was incomprehensible to me to demand that a person’s name be banned. “Are we going to call Aunt Josephine Aunt Hülya from now on?” I asked my mother. The answer my mother gave has been instrumental in establishing my identity as a human rights defender. My mother said: “It is a crying shame what your grandfather did. She is your Aunt Josephine. You will always call her Aunt Josephine.”

Later, when I started reading books about the Armenian Genocide, I asked my aunt, “Did your family suffer a lot, too?” My aunt said that her family had, indeed, suffered, but that we should not talk about it since it was dangerous. Thus, I learned that being a Kurd and talking about the Armenian Genocide were dangerous. And I learned this lesson, not as a result of some political events, but through certain developments we experienced in our family.

And in that vein, what I wrote and said afterwards about the Kurdish issue and the 1915 Genocide has always caused me to be prosecuted.

During my university years, I also began to question the Turkish leftist movement. I found it baffling that the truths I had learned were not high on the Left agenda. I began to question the close resemblance between male-female relationships in the Left and those outside the movement. That’s why I was confused. I was contemplating a different form of struggle, but couldn’t quite figure out what it would be. The 1980 coup d’état ran over the issues that needed to be discussed like a bulldozer. Militarism manifested itself once again as the true sovereign of this land.

The first non-governmental organization established after the militarist coup of 1980 was the Human Rights Association (İHD). The founders of the İHD were intellectuals, writers, parents, and especially women whose children were in prison. In 1989, I became a member of the İHD, which was founded in 1986. At the time I became a member, there were two different arguments in the association, mainly on the Kurdish issue. One argument did not favour the Kurdish issue being made too prominent on grounds , asserting that the association would suffer the consequences; the other argument held that the Kurdish issue was a fundamental problem. We registered for the election of the board of the İstanbul Branch with a separate list of nominees in 1990, underlining that the Kurdish issue was a fundamental problem and the argument that we had adopted won the election. Again, in 1990 that the time came for the General Assembly of the İHD. We all went to Ankara, exhilarated that we were about to participate. As the General Assembly was in progress, Vedat Aydın, whom I loved dearly, took the floor. In an unprecedented effort, and displaying great valour, he started to speak Kurdish. At that point, the congress hall split down the middle: Some people were yelling at us, “You will be the end of the association; you will have it shut down,” while we were all agog with applause for Vedat Aydın, shouting slogans.

The council members left the session. Everybody was terrified. “Please, continue your speech,” said one of the only woman members, Hediye Felekoğlu, and Vedat Aydın continued to speak Kurdish. Ahmet Zeki Okçuoğlu took to the stage to translate his speech into the Turkish. In the meantime, the hall was surrounded by police. There was a law which prohibited the Kurdish language at the time; in accordance with that law, both dear Vedat Aydın and Ahmet Zeki Okçuoğlu were arrested.

Vedat Aydın continued to speak Kurdish in his first hearing; he was not backing down on his struggle. Ahmet Zeki Okçuoğlu also said that he would not make a defense statement unless he was given the right to defend himself in Kurdish. Yet, the public reaction was tremendous, as well. The matter was being discussed internationally. The court had to release them at the first hearing. The law that banned Kurdish was subsequently abolished.
“Have you heard, Mehmet Ali Birand has also said Kurd?”

At the time, Mehmet Ali Birand wrote a column for Milliyet newspaper, if I remember. He used the term Kurd in his article. I remember that day very well; we were all calling each other and saying, “Have you heard, Mehmet Ali Birand has also said Kurd?” Vedat Abi was released; the law that prohibited Kurdish was abolished; however, the violation of Vedat Aydın’s freedom of expression was nowhere near the end; it would rather morph into the violation of his right to life. In July 1991, Vedat Abi was apprehended in front of his house by special forces and detained. It all happened in front of his family. Four days after the incident, the lifeless body of Vedat Abi  was discovered, tortured to death.

The mentality that killed Vedat Aydın did not stop there; 11 people were slain at his funeral. Only then did we realize that an unconventional process was underway. There would begin a process, where there would be massive physical attacks and people would be slaughtered. And then, there was. People were massacred in detention, forcibly disappeared, and detained; villages were burned. It was a horrendous process. As human rights defenders, we were all alone. We were trying to track and report each incident to leave a note for time to come.

In such dark days, a newspaper began publication. It was called Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda). This paper began to publish the facts that no other newspaper in Turkey had ever published. From the very beginning of its publication, I’ve been involved as the lawyer of this newspaper. Özgür Gündem continued its publication under great pressure. Many of its columnists were killed. Above all, dear Musa Anter was killed at the age of 72 for writing in this newspaper. Even an 11-year-old paperboy was killed.

And in 1994, the newspaper was bombed. Ersin Yıldız, a newspaper employee, lost his life in the bombing. While the killing of journalists continued, the newspaper buildings were targeted for destruction. Now that I think about it, I don’t know how we went through all that. It was a period in which we had to attend the autopsies of many of our friends and relatives, whose right to life, not freedom of expression, was violated. It was excruciating, but each incident made us a little bit stronger.

The bombing of Özgür Gündem also brought about a major breakthrough. “That’s just too much,” protested the public outcry. In the aftermath of the bombing, Ahmet Altan, Orhan Pamuk, Lale Mansur, Zuhal Olcay and many other artists, writers and intellectuals stood up for the newspaper.

It was also during this time that I was imprisoned following the violation of my freedom of expression. I was invited to a meeting on the Kurdish issue in the Belgian Federal Parliament. I was prevented from going to the meeting, so I sent my speech text to the parliament. At the beginning of my speech, it said, “The world owes a debt to the Kurdish people.” I agreed to have the text published in Özgür Gündem. After its publication, an investigation was launched against me pursuant to Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law which penalised the crime of separatism.


“Hegemon’s ideology embedded in our genes”

Following the investigation, a lawsuit was filed against me; I was prosecuted and convicted. In June 1995, I went to the Bayrampaşa Prison after my conviction was upheld by the Court of Cassation. The time I spent in prison helped me in some ways: I have seen for myself how similar the self-proclaimed dissidents are to the state. I have realized, perhaps in prison, that our greatest problem is to resemble our hegemons. We, indeed, resembled our hegemons; no matter how much we claimed to be dissidents, the Unionist ideology seemed to have been embedded in our genes. Even today, I think along the same lines. The greatest crime of the century, the 1915 genocide, is still not even on radar screen of the Turkish Left. Isn’t that a great shame; doesn’t that leave a question mark in the minds?

I spent six months in prison. As I mentioned above, there used to be Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law at the time. It defined the crime of separatism, and the reason I was sentenced was that I had used the term Kurdistan. Back then, the European Union opened Article 8 to the discussion; it was put under the spotlight. It was my sixth month in prison, when the article in question was amended and we were released.

That’s when I realized that needed to stay put. It is only through the struggle we fight from the inside, only through someone paying the price, that the whole world starts to talk. Therefore, for me, 1995 was also the year in which the struggle achieved success. The term Kurdistan has become symbolic in the tests of my freedom of expression. This is because I went to prison for using the term Kurdistan, and I was banned from practicing law for a year in 2004, again, for articulating this term.

Those were the days when the struggle for the forcibly disappeared in detention began. Before I was sent to prison in 1995, the relatives of the forcibly disappeared in detention began to gather and have discussions at the offices of İHD. We were also involved in this work, as a result of which the most notable act of civil disobedience in this land was born: the Saturday Mothers.

In the intervening time, there was a government changeover in Turkey. And the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power. When the AKP came to power, it was well-aware that it could not substitute the real state. Hence, it began to pursue a policy in line with the European Union; they were even calling that dark era, which we defined as the 1990s, the “white unmarked car” era, and claiming that it would finally come to an end.

The AKP was in power when a case was filed for its closure. For all intents and purposes, it was a violation of the AKP’s freedom of expression, and we, as human rights defenders, opposed it to the end. That AKP, which once spoke of freedom of expression and the politics of the European Union, has morphed into its own hegemon, as we all know. It reached a great compromise with the powers that be, and has been practicing the same mindset of the state that we know from the1990s today.

For a brief period of time, the AKP also gave life a practice that essentially gave hope to the entire land. It was called “the peace process.” It was an unprecedented experience. Notably, everybody who lived in Kurdistan believed that there could be a world without war, that they could live in a land without war. I can still remember that back then, even the expressions on people’s faces changed.


“I had never felt so at peace as I had during the peace process”

“So it can be done,” we told ourselves. We could achieve reconciliation and could come to terms with the past—or so we all believed at the time of the process. In terms of my own life, I have never experienced such happiness or felt so at peace as I had during the peace process. However, due to the power groups within the state facing off against one another upon in which new power partnerships were established, the state reminded us once again: “I make the decisions around here. No one can lay their hands on me.”

It was déjà vu – again, and the peace process came to an end.

After the end of the process and in particular, the attempted coup of 15 July 2016, the dominance of the mindset of the state in the1990s plainly manifested itself afresh. We have seen the key actors of the1990s lining up alongside the AKP. A case in point: Mehmet Ağar. Mehmet Ağar was one of the most influential actors of the1990s. We should never forget that Mehmet Ağar was prosecuted on gang-related charges and sent to prison during the AKP period. But if those same power-holders accept Mehmet Ağar as their partner in power today, then there is an issue. And the issue, as obvious as ever, is that the dark mindset of 1915, still relentless and which had showed its face in the most severe way in the 1990s, was still in control.

In 2013, Özgür Gündem newspaper decided once more to publish under the name “Özgür Gündem.” In view of the fact that it was repeatedly shut down in the past due to pressure, Özgür Gündem continued its publication by constantly changing its name. They said they would start publishing under the name Özgür Gündem again, and offered to put my name on the masthead as the Editor-in-Chief in an act of solidarity with the newspaper, even if I would not actively perform the work. I accepted it out of a sense of duty. Because I thought we were indebted to Musa Anter and all the murdered journalists. Of course, I was working as a lawyer, I could not be an active journalist; but I agreed to have my name put on as the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper.

In the period between when I accepted the position of Editor-in-Chief and when the peace process ended, no lawsuits were filed against the newspaper. Once the process came to an end, however, the paper was bombarded with lawsuits even though its editorial policy remained the same.

I stepped down as the Editor-in-Chief in 2016. After I quit, “the Editor-in-Chief on Watch” campaign began. It was August 2016. That day, I was in Diyarbakır; there was a raid on my mother’s house, which was officially listed as my place of residence. Hundreds of police in ski masks surrounded the entire neighbourhood, and climbed to the rooftops of the buildings; they were searching for me. Later, when I went to give a statement, I was released under judicial control measures in the form of a weekly signature obligation and an international travel ban. Nevertheless, the cases against me were pending.

To date, 143 lawsuits have been filed against me. These lawsuits were filed on such charges as making propaganda for a terrorist organization; insulting the president; inciting the public to hatred and hostility or under the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code [of insulting the nation] . In addition, there was the lawsuit known as the Özgür Gündem main trial, at the end of which we, four of us, were sentenced on the charge of membership in a terrorist organization. I have been in the human rights movement for 30 years. A number of cases were filed against me; I went to prison, but I had never been sentenced on the charge of membership in an armed terrorist organization.

I have rejected not only armed politics, but also civil politics. I have always wanted to remain a human rights defender, and I have done just that. Save for the guns of police, I have never seen or held a gun in my life. But today, this government’s understanding of the law has made me a member of an armed organization. In his opinion, the prosecutor has argued that I was the pen warrior of the organization. That kind of description wasn’t even made in the 1990s. A mind-boggling description. Furthermore, the court described human rights struggle as detrimental, claiming that there should be a national and domestic human rights struggle.

In all honesty, I describe the process we have been going through as “appalling.” I have been in the human rights movement for 30 years. There has never been a time when the future looks so bleak or I felt so defenseless. I truly don’t remember a period when the law was so centralized, and the judges and prosecutors were so afraid.

Nothing has changed; the mindset of the state in the 1990s is still in power. The methods then were different. In the 1990s, there were physical attacks; people were killed; they were forcibly disappeared in detention. On the other hand, there is enormous pressure on freedom of expression now. We should readily admit that there was much more room for freedom of expression in the 1990s. Then, even when we were investigated and prosecuted, no one was arrested until after the Court of Cassation upheld a conviction. But when you go to give your statement today, there is an immediate arrest warrant out for you.


“I would like to criticize the European Union”

The State of the Republic of Turkey fails to comply with the standards of any of the international treaties it has ratified. It violates all of these treaties. I would like to criticize the European Union in this regard insomuch as none of the treaties have been ratified by Turkey on its own; several member states of the European Union are signatories of these treaties. And, all the international treaties have certain compliance control mechanisms. Unfortunately, control mechanisms are not put into effect against Turkey in relation to the international treaties it violates. This causes Turkey to behave in such a reckless manner.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate the latest situation regarding my freedom of expression once and for all. I have been sentenced to 26 years and 9 months in prison over merely having my name printed in a newspaper, due to articles I didn’t personally write. In addition, I have been imposed a total fine of TL 458,000, some of which is finalized and I paid it thanks to international solidarity. There are ongoing cases. So, it appears that if I go to prison, I will spend the rest of my days there.

Despite the current situation, I say, “I am here and I am not going anywhere,” because I want to stay here to keep at disturbing the powers that be.

I am not going anywhere. Just like İsmail Beşikçi is not going anywhere; just like Musa Anter was not going anywhere; just like Ferhat Tepe was not going anywhere; just like Ahmet Altan is not going anywhere; just like Osman Kavala is not going anywhere… I want to stay here to pursue my struggle.