INTERVIEW: A Conversation With Nadire Mater
Nadire Mater is a founder and advisor of BIA, the Independent Communication Network, a ten-year-old project that brings together more than 130 newspapers and TV and radio stations to offer honest, locally based reporting on Turkey. Much of the content is available online at Bianet.org. Mater is also known for Mehmet’s Book, a collection of testimonies from Turkish soldiers who served in the southeast, which she published in 1999. In July, TimeOut sat down with Mater for a conversation about her work and her perspective on the current environment for freedom of expression in Turkey.
In your last book, The Street is Beautiful, you wrote that “the street is the address of freedom.” Can you explain what you mean by this?
To start uprisings, to object, to be heard, to have a voice, you have to be in the street. You have to be there together with others who have the same demands, the same unrest. That’s why I believe the street is beautiful.
How did you first get into journalism? Talk about your early career.
The year before the 1980 coup d’état, I started working at a newspaper called Democrat, a leftist one. My job was to prepare the children’s page. That was my first step into journalism. After the coup d’état I moved to Izmir, where I worked at a local newspaper, and several years later, I moved to Istanbul. I started at what was then a very important, oppositional weekly, called Nokta, which always tried to test the limits of censorship. Then I continued with a daily, called Söz, and then a weekly, Tempo, and then in 1989, together with some friends, I founded an alternative weekly called Sokak. But we had very limited money, and after seven months we had to close down. Then I started working for international press. Until 2000, I worked at the Inter-Press Service, and in the late nineties, Ertuğrul Kürkçü and I began thinking about starting something outside of the mainstream media. That was the beginning of Bianet!
What topics were you writing about?
Mostly human rights, human issues, and the Kurdish issue, of course. In a way, I was lucky; during the worst years of the Kurdish war, while I was working for IPS, I got to travel around the southeastern part of Turkey as well as Iraqi Kurdistan. I had the opportunity to talk to people and really go into their villages, and then convey what I had seen, although there were always limitations.
One young soldier I often spoke to worked in a finance office. One day he was suddenly gone. I found out that he’d been sent to the warzone. When he came back and we met again, before I’d asked any questions, he started talking about his experiences: his fears, his sadness, and so on. After that, I started to realize that I didn’t have to talk to the soldiers while they were actively serving. I could talk to them afterwards.
When soldiers who serve in the southeast are interviewed on TV, they always give the official version of the story. Officially, everyone has to say, “I want to go to the mountains for my military service. I’m going to fight these terrorists and rescue my country.” But I had a strong feeling that this wasn’t the full story.
What did you find from talking to these soliders?
Most of the soldiers are unfamiliar with the southeast. They come from all parts of Turkey, but one thing is clear: this war is being fought by the poor. Since my book, more journalists have started writing about that. Some soldiers don’t realize this when they start their service, but they begin to think about it. For instance, I was once talking with a young man from Edirne about what he’d experienced and what he’d thought about in the army. He said, “I was there to fight and protect my homeland, the land of Turkey, but I suddenly realized that I don’t even own a piece of land as big as this ashtray.”
Most of the soldiers I talk to thank me for talking to them, because nobody else is asking them these questions. There’s a real hypocrisy with this: when they die, they are heroes, but if they manage to survive, they are nothing. Most people don’t want to listen to these soldiers.
Talk about the reactions to Mehmet’s Book.
For the first two months, it was very well received, and I gave a lot of interviews to journalists in both domestic and international media. When I heard that the police had gone to the office of my publisher, I was giving an interview to Stephen Kinzer from the New York Times. After that, the army’s chief of staff sent an official letter to complain about the book, and then they opened a case against me. It became a kind of symbol of freedom of expression in Turkey. The eight hearings that were held in Beyoğlu court felt like a garden party. Everybody was there: journalists, human rights activists. There was such strong solidarity. It was really important, because I didn’t know what would happen in the end. But I was acquitted.
After the translations into other languages started, though, the nationalistic circles got really crazy. They began a slander campaign, first with rumors that I was a CIA agent, and then a series of columns by Emin Çölaşan in Hürriyet. He wrote about me nonstop for 11 days. I was really worried about my life during those days.
How has the environment for freedom of expression in Turkey changed since Mehmet’s Book?
It’s still problematic. The biggest crisis we’re facing right now is the Hatip Dicle crisis, which is, at its source, a crisis of freedom of expression: the speech he made, for which he was imprisoned. But of course many things have changed. In some circles, in the army and the police force, people are now more willing to give journalists information when something goes wrong. Then cases can be opened. I don’t know how many cases like this are in the courts now, but there are more than there were ten years ago.
The Kurdish struggle, of course, is continuing. Over the last thirty years, it’s estimated that 50,000 people have died. This includes guerillas, soldiers, village guards, civilians, children, everyone. But as a result of the ongoing struggle, the government began to recognize Kurdish as a language — we got TRT-6 [Turkey’s first Kurdish-language television station] in 2009.
Now we even have conscientious objectors. There aren’t many, maybe 100 or so, because it’s still very difficult to refuse to serve in the military in Turkey. But who knows. In the future, conscientious objection might be legalized here. All of the countries that are members of the European Union have legalized it.
What other important political and legal changes do you see occuring in Turkey today?
There is an interesting discussion starting about the grounds on which people are held in prison during their trials. Cengiz Çandar wrote an article about this in Radikal recently, actually, discussing Aziz Yıldırım and Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener and others. There are conditions that must be met in order to arrest a person, and with these individuals, there’s no reason to put them in prison. In Turkey, this is becoming an important discussion. These problems are going to be solved, sooner or later.
As a journalist, I’m especially concerned with the anti-terror law. It’s the number one law that should be changed. More and more people are being charged under it, and it’s extremely flexible; it allows the judge a lot of discretion regarding the verdict in a case. It’s one of the biggest obstacles to those who want to express themselves in Turkey.
Another very important trend that must be checked is self-censorship by media owners. Nowadays, just seven or eight groups control almost all of Turkey’s media, and they also control the banks, the energy sector, the construction sector, the textile industry, and so on. If you are working at a newspaper, and your boss is simultaneously involved in the energy sector, how can you write objectively about hydroelectric dams or nuclear plants? So I prefer — although both are terrible choices, of course — external censorship, because at least with that you can talk about it, and try to push the boundaries that are imposed on you. But the other one is inside your own head, and restricts your personal freedom even more.
In addition, everyone is starting to be forced into closer relationships with the government, and the journalists or media who don’t are getting shut down. This isn’t just happening in media, it’s going on in all sectors. One day, everybody will be AKP’li in Turkey, they think.
All journalists should be alarmed right now. And it’s important that we get organized. In Turkey, there is a trade union for journalists, but just TRT and Anatolian News Agency journalists are members of the union. All the others aren’t, because if they join, they’ll lose their jobs.
What do you think will happen with the Internet filter law?
At Bianet, we’ve brought a lawsuit against the Internet filter law. But there still hasn’t been a reply from the court. This is a terrible law. In government circles, they say, “It’s not censorship, it’s just necessary to protect families.” But I don’t want the government to protect my family. If it’s necessary, I can do it by myself. But I’m very hopeful about our lawsuit. Time is running out, and they have to say something. If the law doesn’t get passed, we’ll celebrate. We’ll be in the streets.