Erol Önderoğlu, Turkey’s tireless free speech advocate

The media freedom principles defended by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have been represented in Turkey for the past 20 years by Erol Önderoğlu, who was placed in pre-trial detention yesterday in Istanbul along with two fellow journalists. Today, their second day in prison, RSF reiterates its call for their immediate and unconditional release.

Önderoğlu’s now greying curls hide a tireless intellectual rigour and a will of steel. The prison in which the Turkish authorities locked him yesterday will not make him change course. For more than 20 years he has campaigned for media freedom and for more than 20 years he has worked for RSF, the NGO he represents in Istanbul.

He began his career as a campaigner in 1996, in the wake of the murder of Metin Göktepe, a reporter for the left-wing daily Evrensel (“Universal”) who was beaten to death by the police. It was a time of great tension in Turkish society and frequent clashes between the armed forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In an irony of history, Önderoğlu’s arrest has come at a time of renewed intense fighting between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels.

What is Önderoğlu’s crime in the Turkish justice system’s eyes? Having acted, like other journalists, as temporary editor of the Kurdish daily Özgur Gündem in a gesture of solidarity with the Kurdish media, which had been especially affected by President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan’s increasingly frenzied crackdown and arbitrary use of an anti-terror law to gag any criticism of the government.

It was under this anti-terrorism law that Önderoglu has been jailed because of his actions as a journalist. The same goes for the other two journalists jailed yesterday – Ahmet Nesin and Şebnem Korur Fincancı, who is also president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey.

Journalism was Önderoğlu’s first profession. In 1997, he began working for Bianet, a news website that pioneered human rights reporting. He was its editor for several years and has stayed faithful to it, nowadays sharing his time between RSF, Bianet and his wife and young son, a soccer fan.

Now aged 46, Önderoğlu spent most of his youth in France, where his parents settled when he was a child, and it was in France that he met his wife, also the offspring of Turkish immigrants, before they went back to live in Turkey. He has kept his French passport and is still fluent in French.

Staunch defender of the right to inform

Önderoğlu recounted his career in 2014 in one of RSF’s books of photos. He spoke of Metin Göktepe, the newspaper Özgur Gündem and other milestones such as the map of the world that RSF displayed in Paris in 2002. It identified Turkish army chief of staff Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu as a “predator of press freedom.” “I will never forget the threats I received from Turkish nationalist circles and media,” he recalled. “Phone calls, defamatory articles and summonses by the Istanbul police.”

This tireless activist does not boast about his unflagging determination and impartiality. His defence of the principle of media freedom applies to everyone, whether they are Islamists, republicans, nationalists, Kurds or leftists.

He spends several days a week at the Istanbul law courts observing the hundreds of trials of journalists, and often goes on field trips, producing widely-read reports like the one he wrote about journalist Cihan Hayirsevener’s murder in northwestern Turkey in 2009.

His quarterly reports on free speech in Turkey for the Bianet website are also widely read. As a result of his detailed research for these reports, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chose him as an expert on imprisoned journalists. He is also member of IFEX, the global network defending and promoting free expression, and was in Berlin last weekend for an IFEX strategy meeting. Last month, he and RSF secretary general Christophe Deloire met officials at the Ministry of Justice in Ankara on the subject of freedom of expression, alongside several international and Turkish NGOs.

Trial of strength

The decision to target RSF’s representative in Turkey was no doubt partly symbolic. By targeting him and the others, the Erdoğan government is clearly sending a message to all Turkish journalists and human rights defenders, a message that says no one is safe from persecution.

The jailing of Önderoğlu, Nesin and Fincancı marks a news stage in the criminalization of human rights activism and the continuing decline in media freedom in Turkey, which is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 17.05.2018