Hamza Yalçın: “Freedom of expression doesn’t exist anywhere at the moment”

By Jaz Allen-Sutton

Hamza Yalçın is free. After two months in Spanish prison the government decided against extraditing the Turkish-Swedish journalist to Turkey. How does he feel? What are his plans?

Hamza Yalçin Hamza Yalçin, editor of "Odak Dergisi" (picture: Odak Dergisi)

“You were in prison for 56 days,” I said.

“Really, is it that long?” Hamza Yalçın replied.

He had heard only a few hours earlier that he was going to be allowed to return to his home in Sweden after being arrested whilst on holiday in Barcelona. Charges of insulting the President and disseminating terrorist propaganda wouldn’t lead to his extradition to Turkey. Two months already spent in prison though was punishment nonetheless.

Out of my window clumps of people were retreating back to their cars with more shopping bags than they could easily carry. My meeting with Hamza had been hastily arranged and I was holding the phone interview in the car park of a shopping centre in Catalunya where I had been canvassing opinion on Sunday’s referendum. The suppression of journalists in the run up to the October 1st plebiscite was a theme in that morning’s Catalan papers. Hamza’s story added weight to the growing body of evidence of media censorship in Europe. Who would want to be a journalist today?

“Does freedom of expression exist in Europe?” I asked.

Hamza chuckled. His levity was reassuring me.

“Freedom of expression doesn’t exist anywhere at the moment,” he said. “But Europe is better than Turkey.”

Incarcerated in Turkish prisons today are 240 journalists. The sheer size of the group makes it hard to imagine any particular instance of suffering.

“Why did they arrest me? Why did they put me in jail? It was unnecessary. I just worked with peaceful methods openly and legally. I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t injure anyone. They accused me of terrorism. If I was deported, I would have spent the rest of my life in prison. One of my punishments in Turkey was a life sentence. I tried to be ready…I asked [if I was taken to Turkey] to be put in Kirikkale to be with my friends.”

As I listened to Hamza I gazed towards a national police van that had pulled up near the car park exit. I wondered if the men in the front seats would take part in the crackdown to stop Sunday’s referendum on Catalan independence. The officers were wearing sunglasses, so I couldn’t see who they were looking at.

“Hamza,” I said. “Hamza. “Do you want revenge?” I asked.

“No, I don’t want revenge.”

“How did it feel to be in prison?”

“When the guards closed the door, I shouted, “I am a human being… If you have hope, ideas and a will to contribute to a better world then you are free and you have a chance to be happy…In prison, I couldn’t sleep at night. I was tired, but I was free. I was already punished. I could say what I wanted…they used humiliating methods…If your name is revenge, then it is a good. Erdoğan…”

I took a swift intake of breath at the naming of the Turkish president. I didn’t want Hamza to say anything that might get him into any more trouble. Our conversation was probably being covertly recorded somewhere in the world.

“I continued to criticize Erdoğan,” he continued. “I was already punished. I could say what I wanted. I felt free Jaz. Maximum freedom in my cell.”

I thought of Gramsci, Oscar Wilde and Dostoyevsky – writers that had made something of being locked up by the state. It wasn’t healthy to retain the idea that prison was an undiluted hell hole that should be avoided at any cost.

“Did you write while you were inside?” I asked.

“I wrote letters to my friends. Murat Karayel and Erol Zavar have been in prison since 2001 and Sinan Tepe since 1995.”

“And lastly Hamza, what are you going to do with your life now?”

“I am going to write, and I am going to contribute to education and solidarity and resist oppression. You should question everything. I will continue to travel in Europe and meet people to help the Turkish left to fight for freedom and unite the opposition against Erdogan.”

The gentle timbre of Hamza’s voice – void of the merest hint of malice – carried grave purpose. 

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