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‘They Fear Pens, Not Guns': Turkish Journalists Sentenced to Life in Prison

Demonstrators on World Press Freedom Day in Turkey, 2013. Image by Amnesty International Turkey.

After spending just over a year behind bars without charge, Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel was released from a Turkish jail on February 16. Just hours later, six other journalists in the country were issued a life sentence for “or attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”.

With 155 journalists serving jail time because of their work, these days of highs and lows are beginning to feel routine for Turkey's embattled independent media community.

BBC described Deniz Yucel's imprisonment as a long-standing “irritant” in the relations between the two countries. His release came shortly after Turkish PM's visit to Germany this week.

Deniz Yucel was arrested exactly 367 days ago on suspicion of “inciting the people to racial hatred and enmity” and “spreading the propaganda of a terrorist organization”.

Soon after his release was announced, crowd gathered outside the jail, where Yucel joined his wife who was waiting for him:

But the ordeal is not yet over. Yucel was charged and indicted upon his release, with the prosecution demanding that he be sentenced to 18 years in prison.

While colleagues and friends celebrated the news of Yucel's release, another court decision came down, this time affecting the fate of a different group of journalists.

Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Nazli Ilica, Yakup Şimşek, Fevzi Yazıcı and Şükrü Tuğrul Özsengül were handed a lifetime prison sentence after being convicted of involvement with Turkey's 2016 coup, despite a lack of direct evidence.

Five of the six defendants are journalists and intellectuals all had strong ties with opposition news outlets in the past. Ahmet Altan is the former editor-in-chief of Taraf newspaper and his brother, Mehmet Altan is an academic and journalist who once wrote for Hurriyet. Nazli Ilıcak has written for Hurriyet, in addition to other newspapers, and briefly served as an MP for the Virtue party.

Yakup Şimşek and Fevzi Yazıcı worked with Zaman newspaper, which was one of Turkey's largest independent daily newspapers until 2016, when the government seized its operations, alleging that the outlet had ties to Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Anadolu Agency reported that six people were convicted for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and of having communicated with associates of Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the July 2016 failed coup.

In addition to facing legal threats, all of these journalists have been subject to extralegal harassment. One year ago, President Erdogan called Yucel a terrorist in one of his televised speeches.

I filmed this speech one year ago. Deniz is finally free. I wish the same for the rest non-German citizen journalists friends of mine.

Video clip translation:
They are hiding this German terrorist, this spy at the embassy. They hid him for a month. And German Chancellor asked him from me. She said to release him. I told her we have an independent judiciary. Just like your judiciary is independent so is mine. It is [the judiciary] objective. That is why I am sorry to say, you won't take them from us. Finally, he was brought to court. He was arrested. Why? Because he is spy terrorist. Who cares he is a German citizen. It doesn't matter whose citizen you are, if you are spreading terror in Turkey, if they are secretly spies, they will pay the price.

Supporters in Turkey and around the world tweeted their shock at the decision:

On February 12, both Ahmet and Mehmet Altan were thrown out of the courthouse, for demanding to read the constitutional court decision which ruled for their release in January. The two brothers demanded that the decision which was overturned within 24 hours by the ruling of the 27th High Court is put on the record.

The next day, on February 13, speaking from high-security prison via video link, Ahmet Altan in his defense said the following:

Those in political power no longer fear generals. But they do fear writers. They fear pens, not guns. Because pens can reach where guns cannot: into the conscience of a society.

When the verdict was handed to Altan brothers today, one observer said cries and screams filled the courtroom.

Meanwhile, there are at least four other German Turkish citizens behind bars in Turkey, while the total number of imprisoned journalists and writers since the coup has now surpassed 150.

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