Speaking Truth to Power in Turkey: An Interview with Ekrem Dumanli

02/17/2015 12:35 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

Last December, veteran Turkish journalist, newspaper executive and playwright Ekrem Dumanli made headlines after he was detained by Turkish authorities on charges of "forming, leading and being a member of an armed terrorist organization." Dumanli's supporters maintained that his only real crime was pressing for greater transparency and accountability from the government. Dumanli's appreciation for the importance of a free press has deep roots. Having worked for the Culture and Art Desk of the daily Zaman through most of the 1990s, he earned a Masters Degree from Emerson College in Boston, before returning to Turkey in 2001 to helm Zaman as its editor-in-chief. Through his vision and guidance, the newspaper's circulation grew, increasing from 150,000 to a million readers within a decade. Dumanli's influence has not been overlooked. In 2009, he earned a place on a list complied by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre and published by Georgetown University of the world's 500 Most Influential Muslims. Such prominence has come at a price. On December 14, 2014 he was among a number of journalists rounded up in government raids on media outlets. Despite the seriousness of the allegations against him and the dramatic way in which he and his colleagues were taken into custody, five days later he was released due to lack of evidence. I first became aware of the situation after Turkish protesters connected government repression in Turkey with the hash tag "We can't breathe". They were linking their efforts with the Black Lives Matter social media campaign related to the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in the United States. After his release, I had the opportunity to interview Dumanli with the hopes of shedding further light on what's happening in Turkey with regards to the freedom of the press, state of democracy, and the Hizmet movement. His words reaffirm the need for us to remain vigilante concerning threats to democratic practice both at home and abroad.

Williams: What is the reason for your recent arrest? What were you accused of? And why were you released? And as you are not the only media member to be arrested, what do you think is the motivation behind all of these arrests?

Dumanli: I was taken into custody in connection with two columns and a news report published in my newspaper. It was claimed that five years ago we published stories and articles about a pro-al-Qaeda organization, setting in motion a police investigation against this organization. Of course, this claim is wrong in its entirety. The police chief who supervised the police operation against that organization is now a member of Parliament from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Then-Interior Minister Muammer Güler, who was previously Istanbul governor, had held a press conference about that police operation. I was released because the evidence against me consists of two columns and a news report. And I wasn't the author of those articles, and the articles didn't have any incriminating content. The real aim is to intimidate us, preventing us from doing journalism.

Williams: This is not the first time that media members have been arrested in Turkey. In fact, Turkey ranks very high in the world in the number of arrested and jailed media members. Why do you think this is so? What has been your newspaper's position regarding those arrests that are not related to your organization (or to the Hizmet movement)?

Dumanli: Never before had the police raided the headquarters of a newspaper in order to detain its editor-in-chief. It was a daring move and intended to scare everyone. In the past, there had been other journalists who were detained and arrested, but there was specific, concrete evidence for the charges against them. Turkey saw numerous military coups in the past. Sadly enough, businessmen and media outlets collaborated with the junta during the coups. During the investigation into Ergenekon -- a clandestine organization nested within the state trying to overthrow or manipulate the democratically elected government -- we nurtured certain doubts. We hesitated, wondering if there was such a collaboration as was the case in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1998 and 2007. It is wrong to assume that this hesitation of ours attests to our lack of concern for freedom of the press. Unfortunately, there is a long list of concrete examples showing how the media shamelessly collaborated with the junta.

Williams: On that note, what is the particular relationship between the Hizmet movement and the state (the current one, or previous ones)? Zaman, for instance, is accused of both being pro and against the state within the last decade. What is your take on these criticisms?

Dumanli: The Hizmet movement existed even before the AK Party was established. The AK Party was founded in 2002, while Hizmet has been around since the 1960s. The Hizmet movement lent support to many political parties before the AK Party, but this support was contingent upon democratic moves. This attitude continued after 2002 as well. But when the AK Party relinquished its devotion to democratic reforms and grew more repressive, the Hizmet movement withdrew its support. It could do so because its support for the AK Party was a relationship based on mutual interests. If the Hizmet movement continued to lend support to the AK Party even after the party's reform policy changed, this would damage its prestige.

Williams: Although you brand the latest government crackdown of Hizmet-related institutions and individuals, including yourself and Zaman, as stemming from a larger problem of the current government's take on democracy, civil rights and free speech, it seems like most, if not all, of the arrests have been against those who are involved with the Hizmet movement. On what grounds do you suggest that the Turkish government's recent activities are not limited to the Hizmet movement and that they can spill over to other groups and individuals?

Dumanli: The picture is quite clear: hundreds of journalists lost their jobs. These journalists are from various ideological camps and are in no way connected to the Hizmet movement. If it had been all about tension between the AK Party and the Hizmet movement, then former Editor-in-Chief of the Milliyet newspaper Derya Sazak and seasoned journalist Hasan Cemal would not have been dismissed. A few months ago Editor-in-Chief of the Hürriyet newspaper Enis Berberoğlu was forced to resign. Last week the police raided the Cumhuriyet newspaper and took a copy of the unpublished newspaper and gave it to the prosecutor. The bans on Twitter are still in force, and some journalists are accused of being members of a terror organization in connection with their tweets. It follows that it is a problem that concerns the entire media sector...

Williams: Why do you think institutions such as Zaman -- related to the Hizmet movement - have been treated as threats repeatedly in the last few decades? I find it remarkable that the Hizmet movement is being constantly accused of similar crimes by different institutions, such as the army, media outlets, governments, etc., continually in the last three decades in Turkey. In other words, what does the Hizmet movement do to attract all these attacks and criticisms? Why do you suggest that the Hizmet movement should be treated as innocent?

Dumanli: The Hizmet movement is a civil society organization. Lack of its attachment to the state is a source of concern for those who are at the helm of the country. Unfortunately, the Turkish state tends to nurture unfounded suspicions about independent civic organizations. The current ruling party has established a number of associations and foundations that are directly attached to the government. And they call it civil society. Of course, this is ridiculous. The Hizmet movement has been conducting training activities for decades. The people who graduate from the schools run by the Hizmet movement get a job in the private or public sector of their own volition. However, the things these people do in their professional life independently of the Hizmet movement are attributed to the movement. Our public authorities have always disapproved of the independence of the Hizmet movement, and they now try to establish a defensive mechanism by putting the blame for anything they don't like on the movement.

Williams: As you describe the Hizmet movement to be similar to the American civil rights movement in your Washington Post op-ed, where do you locate the Hizmet movement in Turkey's decades-long struggle of balancing the secular-state establishment and civic engagement, which seem to be heavily preoccupied with the discourse of coups d'état? Can Turkey's democracy ever allow its citizens to have organized civic engagement without being accused of overthrowing the state?

Dumanli: In 1994, the Hizmet movement made a public statement stressing that there is no turning back from democracy. Radical Islamist groups had harshly reacted to this statement. Fethullah Gülen met with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew on April 6, 1996, to promote inter-religious dialogue. In 1998, he paid a visit to the pope in Rome. The support he lent to the Alevi community's efforts to open up cemevis -- cultural and religious centers for Alevis -- was criticized by certain Islamic groups. The Hizmet movement has been supporting Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union. Such moves by the Hizmet movement bother certain groups. Therefore, the Hizmet movement suffered from black propaganda. But the Hizmet movement's contribution to democracy is so precious that we should face up to those pressures...

Williams: Why do you think these arrests of Zaman & STV staff did not attract larger and more widely supported criticism by other groups in Turkey? It seems like the Hizmet movement is left alone in its struggle with the current government. Would you agree with this assessment?

Dumanli: Well, I have certain reservations. As a matter of fact, people from diverse social groups showed up during the protests outside the newspaper's headquarters and the courthouse to support us. Dozens of intellectuals from different ideological camps published a statement condemning our detention. In another statement intellectuals called on the ruling party to return to democracy, and this statement was published in eight newspapers. Mr. Erdoğan grew angry with these statements and threatened those intellectuals. We should analyze the lack of institutional support from the media groups correctly. They are afraid, and they are under duress.

The reactions could have been stronger, but I think people are concerned about pressures and they try not to show any attitude that might anger the ruling party. Yet everyone knows that the current pressures apply to everyone and show no sign of abating. That is, those who keep silent today will face the same pressures tomorrow. Media bosses have businesses in other sectors as well, and they see themselves subordinated to the government in connection with those trade relations, and they opt not to raise objections, but individual journalists maintain their struggle. Moreover, the social networking sites are heavily used in the effort to defend freedom of the press.

Williams: It seems like all of your non-Turkish interviews are treated as treason and a call for international pressure on the Turkish government. How do you interpret this? What do you think about Turkey's relations with the international world in light of these recent developments?

Dumanli: Words like "treason" are readily used from the arsenal of black propaganda to cause repression in the country. They know that I am a journalist with 20 years of experience and that I have never had any connection with any unlawful act. The Zaman newspaper has been in publication for about 30 years, and it has never been accused of involvement in any unlawful affair. The purpose of this black propaganda is to silence us. Of course we will turn a deaf ear to such nonsensical claims, and we will never keep silent...

The Turkish government has isolated itself from the outside world, making the country lonelier in the international arena. Due to the government's misguided policies, there is virtually no country that is friendly with Turkey. We have problems even with the administrations of some countries, although we are friendly with their people. I hope our country changes its course back to the EU with a rational foreign policy and a democratic domestic policy. Then, fundamental rights and freedoms will be back on the right track...