A few days before the treason trial of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan begins on the prison island of Imrali, Turkish media continue to reflect only one side of the story, that of Turkish authorities.
The general public remains basically unaware of the defense or of Ocalan’s or the PKK’s arguments.
Ocalan, for years Turkey’s most-wanted man, was captured in Kenya in February by Turkish commandos. Earlier, he’d been expelled from hiding in Syria and later he attempted to seek asylum in Italy. The dramatic story has dominated Turkish media for months.
Ocalan is charged with ordering the murder of innocent people and attempting to establish a separate Kurdish state. He faces the death penalty if convicted. Turkish law does not ban capital punishment, although there has not been an execution since the mid-1980s.
Ocalan’s lawyers argue that for the past two years the PKK leader has advocated a peaceful solution to solving the Kurdish problem within Turkey’s existing borders. Some 10-15 million Kurds live in the country, mostly in the southeast. Turkey refuses to recognize the Kurds as a minority and the Kurdish language is banned in Turkey’s schools and media.
The lawyers also say Ocalan cannot and should not be tried as a murderer. Though thousands of Turks and Kurds have died in a 14-year conflict between security forces and the PKK, Ocalan’s lawyers say this is war, not murder.
Turkish newspapers and TV channels routinely ignore these arguments and instead refer to the PKK as «a separatist organization» trying to dismember Turkey. Ocalan is frequently labeled Turkey’s «chief terrorist» or even a «baby killer.» Press conferences of Ocalan’s lawyers are not reported and few newspapers dare to publish interviews with them.
At recent court hearings in Ankara, which Ocalan is banned from attending for security reasons, Ocalan’s lawyers have been subject to verbal abuse by family members of police and soldiers allegedly killed by the PKK. Ocalan’s lawyers have also complained about the behavior of Turkish news photographers and television cameramen who crowd around them as if they were Ocalan themselves.
Last week Oral Calislar, editor of the newspaper «Cumhuriyet,» was sentenced to 13 months in prison for running two interviews conducted in 1993 with Ocalan and another Kurdish activist living abroad. Turkeys «state security court» later ruled that the interviews undermined Turkeys territorial integrity.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Calislar said he was only doing his job as a journalist. He says that dealing with the Kurdish problem openly is the only answer. Calislar:
«Turkey faces a Kurdish problem. We have to solve this problem through discussion. We have to inform the citizens about the opinions of the other side too. How do you want to decide, to reach a verdict on individuals and organizations, when you have no contact with them and don’t know what they are saying?»
In the otherwise colorful Turkish media, political and social discussions are usually conducted in a free and even sensational manner. However, in covering sensitive national or security issues, censors and self-censorship appear to rule what gets printed. The conflict with Kurdish rebels is at the top of the «black list.» But Elvan Ozkaya from Turkish NTV television tells RFE/RL that she respects the Turkish public’s outraged reaction to Ocalan. She says the media coverage is not only the result of censorship, but reflects the feelings of the population:
«Since the person is Abdullah Ocalan, who has been wanted for years and [is the cause of death of] many people, we shouldn’t see this only as an issue of hatred. Finally, somebody has been captured. This is a reaction to this situation. Besides a directive from above [government], we have this reaction and I think it is quite normal.»
Last week, Semdin Sakik, a former Ocalan deputy who was captured last year in northern Iraq, was sentenced to death by Turkish courts. Observers are expecting the same verdict for Ocalan. The public seems to be prepared for a death sentence. It might be said though that the media — in harmony with the state and the army — leave no room for any other expectation.
(First published on RFE/RLwebsite May 9, 1999)