One-on-one | Politics

Abdullah Bozkurt: The Balkans is a very fertile ground for Erdoğan’s party

By - 30.12.2018

Turkish editor in exile discusses Erdoğan’s authoritarian clampdown on the free press and his influence in the Balkans.

Abdullah Bozkurt was the Ankara Bureau chief of Today’s Zaman, the best selling newspaper in Turkey with 1.2 million copies sold each day.

But March 4, 2016 marked a life changing day for the editor, the paper and press freedoms in Turkey. While he was preparing to write the headline for the cover page of the next day’s edition of the newspaper, Bozkurt was simultaneously watching a live TV stream of Turkish special police forces using tear gas and water balls on protesters, and iron cutters to storm the Zaman headquarters in Istanbul, 350 kilometers from his office in Ankara. Although he did not know it at the time, Bozkurt would have to flee his country, fearing for his profession and his life, just days later.

The raid and closure of Zaman would be the tipping point in the Erdoğan administration’s war against critical media in Turkey, those who were challenging the government’s political and ideological line.

Then, around four months after the raid, Turkey found itself in one of the most dramatic and important nights in the last decades, when part of the state’s army attempted a coup d’état against Erdoğan’s government, one that was stifled within the night, but had overwhelming consequences for democracy in the country, as the crackdown on press freedoms intensified.

Since July 15, 2016, Erdoğan’s government has detained or arrested more than 300,000 people allegedly linked to the coup, dismissed more than 150,000 state officials, shut down 189 media outlets, and arrested 310 journalists. Two-hundred-and-thirty-nine of them remain imprisoned.

More than two years later, Bozkurt has not returned to Turkey, and the battle for press freedom continues. The last headline that he wrote for the cover page of his newspaper read: “Shameful day for the free press in Turkey.”

K2.0 sat down and spoke with the journalist about the deportation of six Turkish citizens from Kosovo, Erdoğan’s ever increasing authoritarian tendencies and being forced to live a life in exile.

K2.0: Let’s begin with your story. You left Turkey one day before police raided your office in Ankara and around 10 days after the failed coup. Authorities had already raided your newspaper’s headquarters in Istanbul during a massive crackdown after the coup. What did you think, during those difficult times, about the state of democracy in Turkey?

Abdullah Bozkurt: The crackdown on the free, independent, critical media started long before the failed coup d’etat in July 2016. I think we saw the dramatic turn back in December 2013 when then prime minister, now president, [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and his associates, both in politics and in business, had been incriminated in major corruption scandals.

Then, we saw that the government came down very harsh on the critical media in Turkey, using different tactics and means to suppress the coverage on corruption because there was overwhelming evidence on the complicity of senior government officials in two different corruption investigations that were made public.

The newspapers, including mine at the time, that were publishing details about these criminal investigations came under pressure from the government. I remember back then the prime minister, now president Erdoğan, coming out to the public rallies and asking people not to purchase my newspaper. So, that was kind of a scary moment, I think. Another tactic they certainly used is intimidation against advertisers, companies that were putting commercials in the newspaper. The same we saw [taken] on the broadcast media, even online media, as well, at the time.

Abdullah Bozkurt published this photo on Twitter on March 4, 2016, when Turkish special police units used iron cutters to enter the Zaman newspaper building in Ankara.

From then on, it started to escalate. I think right after the summer of 2015 when Erdoğan lost the majority in the Parliament for the first time in the 13 years of rule, they could not form the government alone, so they needed to form a coalition government and made a deal with another political party. Instead, Erdoğan opted for snap polls and sabotaged coalition talks. Right before the snap polls, on November 1, 2015 we saw the third major media group in Turkey seized by the government.

They [Akin-Ipek media group] had two broadcast [stations], two print media [outlets] and a radio channel, and they were a very popular broadcasting network, a 24-hour news cycle that was sort of a voice for the opposition parties in Turkey. It was a very calculated move by Erdoğan to silence critical media and to suffocate the access for the opposition political parties and the critical views from expressing themselves in those outlets. When they seized this outlet right before the elections on November 1, 2015, they pretty much limited the coverage and access for the opposition parties.

After that, in March 2016 they decided to seize my newspaper, which was the largest nationally circulated paper at the time. We were selling 1.2 million copies on a daily basis, and we were providing a platform for the critical voices at the time. After the failed coup d’état, they used that as a pretext to railroad what was left of the critical media in Turkey.

One-hundred-and-eighty media were shut down on a single day just with a government decree. That had nothing to do with the failed coup d’état at all, in fact most of these outlets were opposing the coup d’état and they were running stories opposing this attempt at the time. So it was a part of a pattern that we started to see from 2013 onward, and it escalated.

Now, unfortunately, we don’t have any critical media left in Turkey, maybe a few on the print side that has very limited reach to the audience in Turkey. On the broadcast side, I don’t think we have any left on the national level, so Erdoğan is pretty much controlling every media outlet at the moment.

I read that you were about to be caught before you left for Germany, and then Sweden. Were any of your colleagues at Zaman in Istanbul or in Ankara arrested?

Yes, they were. That was actually a turning point for me because even after the failed coup d’état, I wasn’t planning to move abroad. After they seized my newspaper, I set up my own company. It was a small media outlet in Ankara, but we were doing OK. We were managing to pay the salaries of reporters, I was managing the business, and we covered the failed coup d’état, as well. But, then the government decided to arrest 42 journalists on a single day in July 2015.

Many of them are close friends of mine, some of them I know only by the stories. It was not just in Istanbul, it happened in Ankara, as well. Some of the reporters were on vacations at the time, and they were spending time with their family members in their hometowns. Some of them turned themselves in to the provincial police departments, not just Istanbul and Ankara.

"I didn't know that the police were going to raid my office the day after I left. It was in the nick of time, I was lucky."

That was the day I decided it was no longer safe for me, otherwise I would have stayed in Turkey because I told myself, “We’ve done nothing wrong,” and even if they charged me, I could easily make my case in a court of law and get acquitted. But, when they issued arrests for so many journalists on a single day, I thought that this has nothing to do with the coup or with the prosecution and rule of law. This was just part of the pattern that was incremental before the coup, but gained speed after the coup.

The government wants to transform all the media landscape in Turkey so it was not safe for me, and I decided to leave and it was the right decision. I didn’t know that the police were going to raid my office the day after I left. It was in the nick of time, I was lucky.

Do you have any information on how your colleagues are being treated; are they currently imprisoned? How is the legal process going for them?

Well, when you look at the indictments, there is no evidence for any sort of crime at all. The government is charging them on the basis of abusing anti-terror laws and sometimes coup charges, but when you read the indictments, you don’t see any evidence at all, except published articles, commentaries they made on TV programs and, in some cases, messages they posted on social media, especially on Twitter. So they are basically accused of journalistic activity. It has nothing to do with criminal prosecution at all, it’s just part of the intimidation campaign by the government [which is] using the justice system in an abusive way.

On the treatment side, some of them went through torture during the detention period pending the trial. In prison, they usually don’t have access to the [necessary] health care, computers or books they want to read. In some cases, they don’t have access to lawyers to prepare a defense for themselves. There are very, very difficult conditions.

Do you think that this campaign is motivated specifically by the conflict between Erdoğan and exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen (who Erdoğan alleges was behind the coup attempt)?

Not necessarily. If you look at the profile of journalists — as of today there are 239 journalists in prison in Turkey — many of them used to work in media outlets affiliated with the Gülen movement, but so many of them have nothing to do with the movement at all, some are from the Kurdish political movement, some from the liberal media and some from the center-left, as well.

The main motivation of the government is not to go after the Gülen movement; it’s actually to go after the critical journalists who wrote, specifically, on two issues. One is corruption, as I mentioned before. The other set of journalists that the government is after are those who wrote about the links [between the] Turkish government and jihadist groups, especially in Syria.

"The Jamal Khashoggi case exposes the Erdoğan hypocrisy on the freedom of press and the freedom of expression, and that needs to be said loud and clear."

We have all been following the details in the stories in the media about Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who was murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. What do you think this case shows us, both in terms of the attack on a prominent journalist, and the response, during which grizzly details surfaced?

It’s heartbreaking, of course. I knew him personally, I actually joined a panel discussion with him back in 2014 in Abu Dhabi and we discussed where Turkey is heading. We were on different sides — he was very much defending the Erdoğan government in Turkey, a very pro Erdoğan guy, while I was on the other side criticizing the government. But he was an absolutely fantastic guy, and he did not deserve this heinous murder, it’s unbelievable that the Saudi government has gone to the extreme of doing this, and they need to be held accountable, not only in the court of law, but also politically.

But, when I look at the Turkish government manipulating the case and trying to exploit it for political purposes, it makes me sick. It’s sheer hypocrisy when you jail 239 journalists, some of them in very different conditions and you are saying that all of them are terrorists, but you are defending a guy who is close to you ideologically and trying to milk some political gain and have some leverage on this issue by using the case [of Khashoggi].

By the way, there are not only 239 journalists that are behind bars as of today; we also have 148 journalists like myself that the government has issued arrest warrants for, but they cannot be detained because they either fled or remain at large within Turkey. The Jamal Khashoggi case exposes the Erdoğan hypocrisy on the freedom of press and the freedom of expression, and that needs to be said loud and clear.

The Khashoggi murder, and those of other high profile journalists in Europe in recent times, are especially worrying because some of them seem to have been state-sponsored acts. Do you see this as part of a wider trend, in which governments are using increasingly extreme measures to clamp down on freedom of speech and media freedoms?

Yes, from Bulgaria to Malta. Actually, there is a case going on in Denmark [with a Turkish journalist] who has been living there for 25 years. He has been targeted by a death plot, and the Danish intelligence service traced it to a group that is working with the Turkish government. Can you imagine that Erdoğan is making all the fuss about the murder of a Saudi journalist for political purposes, but on the other hand, trying to harass, threaten and even kill a Turkish journalist living in exile.

Earlier this year, [the Danish authorities] had to move him to a safe house after the death threats he received by groups that are connected to the Turkish government.

In one of your social media posts, you suggest that Erdoğan’s government facilitated the ISIS attack on Turkish civilians on October 10, 2015, the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s history? You mention that the checkpoints around Ankara were removed before the attack, allowing the ISIS terrorists to move the suicide attack vehicle freely. What is the basis of this claim?

That was the deadliest terrorist attack, right before the early election, which actually helped the Erdoğan government to regain the majority in the parliament, which he had lost in the summer of 2015. During the court trial procedures much evidence came out. When you look at the evidence and read all the court papers, you can easily see that all the suspects were under surveillance. The government wiretapped their phones, and they knew what they had been talking about and planning.

There was an internal investigation report by the police department, by the Interior Ministry, after the incident to look into [what had happened and how it took place]. The government, itself, found out that all the checkpoints around Ankara were removed the night before the terror attack.

That was quite unusual because I have lived in Ankara for many years, I traveled to my hometown in the western parts of the country, and I always saw these checkpoints. There is no way you can get around them, especially after back-to-back ISIL attacks in Turkey — I think three of them happened before the deadliest one in Ankara — so everybody was alert. It doesn’t make any sense that they removed the checkpoints.

Another thing that you can see in this internal investigation report by the Interior Ministry is that the police department in Ankara received very specific intelligence, but they did not share this intelligence with the branches that were supposed to provide security for the rally that was scheduled to be held on the day of the attack.

This was another red flag, as was the fact that all the suspects were known by the government for many years; they had been tracking these guys since 2013 and 2014, and actually a European Union intelligence report that was leaked a while back said the same thing, they accuse the Turkish government of contracting this attack to ISIL so they can gain some political momentum and leverage out of it, which they did, it was amazing.

Right after the attack, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu appeared on public TV and said that they knew the attackers but they could not arrest them until after they had acted. Can you imagine this kind of bizarre approach: you know the suicide attackers, but you don’t arrest them until they act. There are so many indications that suggest that the Turkish government had something to do with this attack.

"The Balkans, of course, is a very fertile ground for Erdoğan's party."

During the time that so-called Islamic State was in its prime, hundreds of Kosovars joined the terrorist organization in Syria and Iraq, using Turkey as a transit country to get to the so-called caliphate territories? Do you think Turkey could have done more to prevent this?

Absolutely. I have been working on a detailed report that is going to come out soon. I was able to manage to get my hands on confidential documents, surveillance reports on the border between Turkey and Syria. When you read these wiretaps, when the government was tapping all these ISIL traffickers on both sides of the border, they knew every movement, they knew who they were going to pick up at bus stations or airports, they knew how many people were coming into border provinces like Gaziantep and Kilis, but they didn’t do anything at all. People from all over the world were landing in airports in Istanbul and from there used the buses to go to border provinces, and the government knew all of it. It’s amazing, actually, when you read the communication between the ISIL traffickers and people who were coming from abroad.

There are too many things that the government could have done, and they simply did not do it. In one of the wiretaps, for example, they had been discussing the number of people they had trafficked across the border because these ISIL traffickers on the borders were getting paid by the headquarters in Syria, in Aleppo, per the number of people they were able to get across the border.

So there was a fee for every person that they would be able to move from Turkey to Syria?

Absolutely, we can see the evidence, and the government knew this in 2013. In many cases the people who were transported across the border illegally were fighters and, in some cases, they also brought their family members along with them, even the kids, because they planned to set up a life in the so-called Islamic State in Syria.

I want to talk about Erdoğan’s influence in the Balkans, a subject you have written about recently. You’ve written that the Maarif Foundation, which also operates in Kosovo, has positioned itself to raise a new generation of political Islamists in the heart of Europe using Turkey’s leverage and influence in the Balkan states of Southeastern Europe. In Kosovo, there is also TIKA, an organization directly funded by the Turkish government. What do you think Erdoğan’s government is trying to achieve with these activities?

I think Erdoğan has managed to transform pretty much every institution in Turkey into sort of political and partisan tools that he can use to [achieve] political goals. Maarif, TIKA and many others, unfortunately, have been sort of turned into tools in his hands [used] to project his political Islamist ideology abroad.

The Balkans, of course, is a very fertile ground for Erdoğan’s party and they have been using Maarif and TIKA to finance not just educational activities, but other social activities as well, to indoctrinate young generations, especially Muslims, in order to align with this ideology. You can see that in many cases in Africa, for example. The Turkish government [also] made a land incursion in Afrin, Syria, and there, some of the schools were posting video messages with kids saying all kinds of praises for the Turkish military and saying that they were going to be supporting this global jihad and such.

Turkish Cleric, Nurettin Yildiz, is in the picture together with Hassan Abboud, former leader of the organization Ahrar al-Sham, one of the top organizations in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

This is the sort of global ideology of Erdoğan’s government, trying to project this Islamist narrative to different populations around the world. By the way, it’s not just Maarif and TIKA, there are many NGOs who are very much in bed with Erdoğan’s government and are also working in the Balkans, like Nurettin Yildiz, a very jihadist cleric, who has been coming to Macedonia — I know that for sure — and other Balkan countries, trying to bring and raise an Islamist group. [It’s] in many cases, very violent Islamist ideology.

Nurettin Yildiz is the guy who radicalized the police officer [Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş] who killed the Russian ambassador in 2016. This guy had attended his lectures many times and was radicalized in a very short period of time and killed the Russian ambassador because Russian forces had been intensifying the military campaign in Syria against the jihadist groups. When you look at the Maarif Foundation’s board of directors, some of the figures who run this organization were affiliated with Islamist groups in the past.

Like Osman Nuri Kabaktepe, the vice president of the Maarif Foundation…

Yes, this guy has been running the youth branches of the religious party in Turkey for many years and now he is effectively running the organization in many parts of the world. I think Erdoğan has a dream of being a ‘caliph,’ sort of a leader of the Islamic world, and he is using all the resources that he has, including the schools that run through the Maarif Foundation.

"Erdoğan is sending this message: You may be outside of Turkey, but you are still not going to feel safe."

There has been a series of actions undertaken by Turkish intelligence agencies to bring people linked with the Gülen movement from a number of countries around the world, back to Turkey. This happened in Kosovo, where six Turkish educators were deported under suspicious circumstances to Turkey, but the campaign is continuing in other parts of the world. What does this case tells us about the relations between Kosovo and Turkey?

That is the first incident that has happened in the heart of Europe, and that’s quite worrying. They tried to do the same in Switzerland, where a businessman who was affiliated with the Gülen movement, but had been living there for many years — one Turkish intelligence officer who worked as a diplomat in the Turkish Embassy and another guy plotted to kidnap this businessman.

The Swiss prosecutors took it very seriously and they charged these two Embassy officials who were actually intelligence officers and issued arrest warrants for them. So they failed in Switzerland. I know that in Netherlands they tried to do the same with a different tactic and they failed, but in Kosovo they managed to do so with the help of some of the elements of the Kosovo government, I think, and it sets quite a bad precedent.

This is part of the intimidation campaign by the Erdoğan government and he is sending this message: You may be outside of Turkey, but you are still not going to feel safe. We are going to come after you, to take you back to Turkey, torture you and put you in prison, so you better keep silent. That goes for journalists, as well. I get those threats all the time and I know the motivation behind this; they want you to be silent, not speak up and not speak against the Turkish government because they cannot abduct all the critics around the world, they know that.

In most cases, when you look at the profile of the people they abducted, these guys are teachers, for God’s sake, they are not high-profile people and we saw that in Kosovo. They had six people, but the identity of one of them was mistaken, they realized that after bringing them to the embassy, and they took him anyway and brought him back to Turkey! This is ridiculous and a quite worrying pattern. It is against international norms and laws.

The criminal cases against the critics are very weak, they don’t have any evidence to charge these people. If they would have, they would call, for example, the Kosovo government and if the evidence held up, every government would be willing to hand over the terrorists. But, they know these charges are ridiculous and absurd, and they know there is no evidence there, so they use these mafia tactics to kidnap people from abroad.

In this case, there are indications that some elements of Kosovo’s government played a role in the abductions.

The Turkish state news agency Anadolu published this poster in the Wild West style, where Abdullah Bozkurt was declared wanted as a ‘deserter’ and ‘terrorist’.

The Romanian authorities detained Turkish journalist Kamil Demirkaya on Wednesday [December 5]. He faced extradition to Turkey on the basis of a warrant issued by Ankara authorities. This also relates to your case. Are you worried that you might have to deal with a similar situation one day?

In the Romanian case, the judge decided to reject the case and he was released, but of course the guy had to go through all the procedures, maybe one or two days. It’s a headache, of course.

You always worry about this, because these mechanisms, especially through Interpol, they are designed to go after the real criminals, but the Turkish government is abusing the Interpol system or other intergovernmental bilateral security cooperation agreements to file charges and to try to bring people back to Turkey. They know that in many cases they are going to fail if the country we are talking about decides based on the rule of law. It creates trouble for many people.

"My mother, who is 79 years old, was detained on my account."

Last year, for example, there was a Swedish-Turkish journalist who had been living in Sweden for 30 years and the Turkish government came after him and used Interpol to issue an arrest warrant for him while he was vacationing in Spain. He spent some 30 days in a Spanish jail until the case was sorted out. Eventually he was released and came back to Sweden.

There was another German national with a Turkish background who also had to go through the same thing in Spain because of the Turkish government abusing the Interpol system. So, yes, you always keep that in mind, that one day you may be facing similar harassment, and it makes your life difficult. I’m not planning to go to Spain for the foreseeable future (laughs).

I select the countries carefully on the basis of [whether or not] they comply with the international rules and regulations, and if they are close to the Turkish government or not.

How is your family treated back in Turkey?

My immediate family members are with me. I managed to bring them with me here to Sweden. My extended family members are in Turkey. My mother, who is 79 years old, was detained on my account, but she got released.

Unfortunately, the Turkish government is using relatives as a harassment tactic against critics. My mother was detained sometime after I got back to Sweden and opened up an NGO where we document rights violations in Turkey. I think they were trying to send a message to me through my mother, you know, ‘You better behave, otherwise we’ll come after your family members as well.’

Do you plan to go back to Turkey anytime soon?

Hopefully, one day I’ll go back to Turkey, when everything goes back to normal and the rule of law gets restored.

What do you anticipate for the future of Turkish influence in the Balkans, particularly given that the U.S. appears to be becoming more isolationist, and the EU is struggling for credibility here in Kosovo given the state of visa liberalization proceedings and the stalled dialogue process with Serbia?

It’s difficult to say. I don’t think that Turkey has more room and leverage because it doesn’t have good relations with the European Union at the moment, it has outstanding differences with the United States on many issues, and the same goes with Russia and China, as well, although the Russians are using the Turkish government as a sort of trump card against NATO for the time being, trying to cooperate with Erdoğan. But in strategic considerations they don’t trust Erdoğan because they know what he’s up to.

From time to time, actually, the Russians are the ones who are exposing the Erdoğan government links to ISIL and other jihadist groups. Just last week the Russian military chief said that ISIL is still selling oil through Turkey. So, the overall picture is that Turkey is not playing a very constructive role, is not a rational actor in international politics.

That’s why, in some cases, the Turkish government is resorting to ‘hostage policy’ in some cases, detaining the foreign nationals from the United States and Europe and other parts of the world and trying to use them in the negotiations; because they don’t have any other card left to play in their arsenal, and that shows the desperation from parts of the Turkish government.

I think it’s very much isolated. You can also see it in the Eastern Mediterranean — Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel all coming together trying to build a coalition against Turkey in that part.

Also, I don’t think that the Erdoğan government has a lot to play with in the Balkan states, but they can be a spoiler, and that’s the most worrisome part. Turkish foreign policy is very much ideologically driven and is not a rationally constructed model, but they can use and invest in proxy groups as they have done in Syria and Iraq, and they can pose a threat and destabilize in Balkan countries very easily.

You need to be quite vigil, because there are many groups funded by the Turkish government and provided political and diplomatic cover, and they can create a lot of problems.K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.

Feature image: Courtesy of Abdullah Bozkurt.