Steve Sweeney is foreign correspondent for the Morning Star, and when he spoke last Monday to a joint SSK/Morning Star public meeting in Glasgow about his experiences in Turkey, there were several moments when we realised how extra lucky we were to have him alive and well in front of us. Like when he described how he had realised that the man who had been fixing things for him and his colleagues was a member of the ultra-right MHP and had been planning to hand them over to ISIS. By that time they had already had guns pointed at them and just missed being deliberately run down by a car. Or when he told us about the occasion when security forces held them at gunpoint for eight hours in the heat without food or water, threatening to take them into the mountains to use for target practice. To add to their discomfort they had had to watch a stray dog being hosed down and fed – and before they were released Steve was made to pose with a gun, creating photographic ‘evidence’ for his file.
But, as Steve stressed, he had at least been left free to report. Of all the world’s journalists who have been imprisoned, 1/3 are in Turkey, and the crackdown has only intensified. In one week, 84 journalists were put on trial. Around 10,000 journalists have been deprived of their press cards, and those still working survive through self-censorship, so it is hard for people in Turkey to get access to alternative views. The last remaining liberal newspaper was stormed by armed police a month ago, and its board sacked and replaced by government supporters.
Of course the crackdown is not limited to journalists. After the failed coup, which President Erdoğan described as a ‘gift from God’, public sector workers, academics, activists and politicians have all lost jobs wholesale, with many under arrest for ‘terrorism’. Steve told us that he had made many attempts to attend the trial proceedings of the former HDP co-chair Figen Yuksekdag, but no observers have been allowed.
Steve covered Turkey’s constitutional referendum, where they counted unstamped ballots, and critical outside observers were dismissed as ‘terrorists’. And he described covering the subsequent election, where in every polling station he visited in the Kurdish area of Van voters had to cast their ballot under the watchful eye of a soldier with a rifle. He told us, too, how he managed to interview the families of people who had been deliberately burnt alive in Cizre basements as the Turkish security forces besieged and flattened their city.
Steve was scathing about the Tory government’s support for the Turkish government. He argued that the most effective way to help the people of Turkey is to bring down the Tory government here; but he also expressed disappointment at the lack of solidarity action from the Labour opposition. None of the international organisations have found it in their interest to restrain the Turkish government. The EU has handed Turkey billions of pounds in exchange for them keeping refugees out of Europe. Steve told how he had sent the UN video evidence of Turkey’s chemical attack on Afrin, but no-one came to investigate.
UK government callousness extends to the treatment of those who have had to flee from Turkey. With Steve was a young Kurdish journalist who had been in the UK when the Turkish government cracked down on her whole politically active family and took away her passport. Now, as an asylum seeker, she gets almost no help and is not allowed to work.
With journalists under such threats, the least we can do is make sure that every report is well publicised and read.