Twenty six years after the bombing of the offices of the Özgür Ülke (Free Country) newspaper in Istanbul and Ankara in Turkey, Zekine Türkeri, a former correspondent for the newspaper, shared her views about the way in which the oppressive targeting of the Kurdish media and the failure to address the Kurdish Question has led to fascist rule in Turkey. She pointed to the significance and relevance of the headline her newspaper published the very next day after the bombing: “This fire would burn you too”.
Interviewed by Mesopotamia Agency, Zekine Türkeri explained how Özgür Ülke was targeted by the highest ranking authorities of the Turkish state at the time: “We knew that our newspaper was amongst the hot topics that were discussed at the meetings of the National Security Council (MGK). The MGK meeting which took place in order to give the decision to silence us, was covered in the media of the time, without explicitly writing the name of our newspaper. The final decision of the MGK”, she observed, “was revealed three days later when the offices of Özgür Ülke were bombed”.
Özgür Ülke: The roots of the free Kurdish media
Following the publication of numerous newspapers – such as Halk Gerçeği (Folks’ Truth), Yeni Halk Gerçeği (New Folks’ Truth), Yeni Ülke (New Country), Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda) and Welat (Homeland) – which sought to support the Kurds’ free media struggle during the1990s, Özgür Ülke (Free Country) began publishing on 28 April 1994 in an environment where serious threats and attacks against Kurdish media organs and Kurds were taking place.
Due to continuous censorship and bans, the free Kurdish press had to find alternative ways to survive. It sustained itself through six different newspapers that operated during different times over a four year period. Özgür Ülke was launched within this politicised context. Two hundred and twenty out of its 247 issues were subjected to censorship and decisions were made to confiscate these editions. After 239 days of publishing, the offices of Özgür Ülke, including its central bureau in Istanbul and its Ankara bureau, were bombed on 3 December 1994.
A newspaper employee, Ersin Yıldız, was killed in the bombing whilst 23 employees were injured. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice, but the injured media workers were detained immediately after receiving their medical treatment. Thirty five other Kurdish journals have been launched since the demise of Özgür Ülke in order to maintain the free Kurdish media tradition. The official investigation into the bombing of the Özgür Ülke offices remains ‘unsolved’.
Support for the newspaper
Many intellectuals, authors and journalists reacted to the bomb attack, and wrote columns for Özgür Ülke to emphasize their support for the newspaper. Prominent authors and journalists including Orhan Pamuk, Ahmet Altan, Latife Tekin, Murathan Mungan and Lale Mansur took to the streets and distributed the issue of the newspaper with the headline “Embrace your Ülke (Country)” to members of the public.
The decision to ‘bomb’ was given during an MGK meeting
Three days before the attack, the decision to go ahead with the bombing was given during an MGK meeting, where Özgür Ülke was labelled as a “separationist journal”. Less than two weeks after the bombing, Özgür Ulke published a document that was signed by Tansu Çiller, the then Prime Minister of Turkey. It had been classified as “confidential”.
Çiller was known for her public statements about “death lists” and the lists of the institutions and individuals to be “eliminated”. The “confidential” document with the order that was signed by Çiller was revealed by Özgür Ulke: “The media organs who explicitly support the separationist actions have reached a point of explicit attack to the values and the sovereignty of the state. Despite numerous criminal complaints filed to the Ministry of Justice in order to eliminate this significant threat to the indivisible integrity of the nation, no action has been taken yet. Therefore, it is decided to take the necessary measures”.
In a crude attempt to deflect the state’s responsibility for the bombing, Yıldırım Aktuna, the then government spokesperson made the following controversial statement: “We think that they may have bombed the office of the newspaper themselves in order to leave the country in a tight spot”.
“Tansu Çiller gave the order”
Reflecting on these events and decisions, journalist Zekine Türkeri, a correspondent for Özgür Ülke at the time, said: “Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic, the approach towards Kurds has always been militaristic as they always conducted policies of destruction against Kurds. The state was hostile against all Kurds. The decision to bomb the office of the newspaper was taken at an MGK meeting. Tansu Çiller gave the order”.
Türkeri noted that whilst the newspaper had around 100 employees at the time of the bombing, over the lifespan of the paper, “a quarter of this staff were killed. None of our friends were able to work in Kurdistan for more than six months, because all those who managed to complete six months, were killed. Many of our friends had to leave and go into exile”.
“Özgür Ülke became a target because it wrote the truth”
Türkeri also described the extreme conditions and types of threats she and her colleagues at the newspaper faced: “We were never able to follow news in Kurdistan. We preferred to follow the events in Istanbul together with another colleague, because big and burly men with weapons and masked faces used to stalk us wherever we went. We conducted journalism in such difficult circumstances. We must have done some good journalism because the government of the time was disturbed by us because no other media organization, other than us, wrote about the Kurds and what was happening to the Kurds. Özgür Ülke became a target because it wrote the truth”.
When asked whether that fateful bomb attack achieved its goal, Türkeri replied: “No. Their purpose was to damage us: they took it as an opportunity to kill a couple more Kurdish young people. It was a short-sided mentality that never thought about repercussions of such an attack. Those who planted the bombs knew that they would never be brought to justice, because there is no penalty to kill Kurds in this country. They knew that even if they had killed all of us in the bombing, some other Kurdish journalists and the young people would continue with the journalism. We used the office of another fellow newspaper, Atılım. We used to sleep on the ground and we worked under those circumstances, but none of us quit our jobs after the bombing. None of us stated that we were afraid. We certainly had many difficulties in publishing the newspaper later on, with the pressure and the censorship. Sometimes we had to work with some pages left half-empty (due to the censorship), yet our successors still publish today and there are thousands of Kurdish journalists today. So, those who planted the bomb could never achieve what they wanted”.
A fire that burns everyone
“This fire would burn you all” was the headline of Özgür Ülke the day after the bombing, Türkeri noted. “This fire which disintegrates everything, which burns everybody, applies to all of Turkey now. Turkey has always failed to address the solution of the Kurdish question. This has caused the decay. This fire has burned the country in this way: it has caused the whole country to put up with fascist power, with the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Can you imagine a bigger fire than that?”