Ugur Mumcu: 27 years after murder, Turkey's journalists still face violence

Years after the high-profile killings of journalists Hrant Dink and Uger Mumcu, Turkey's journalists still face violence while their attackers receive impunity

A handout photo released by the Turkish President's press office shows Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaking to journalists in Istanbul on October 18, 2019.  RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP/TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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This week marks the murders of journalists Ugur Mumcu and Hrant Dink, names synonymous with both the struggle for press freedom in Turkey and a climate of impunity surrounding violence against the media.

The anniversaries of their killings — Mumcu was killed by a car bomb 27 years ago on Friday – come after a spate of attacks on journalists following last year’s local elections.

According to BIA Media Monitoring, 26 journalists were assaulted last year, including one shot in the leg and another beaten with baseball bats amid the febrile atmosphere surrounding the March vote and a re-run in Istanbul three months later.

In most cases, the attackers were either not caught or released after a short period.

This apparent impunity has echoes in the Mumcu and Dink cases, where, despite convictions, there are widely held suspicions that others linked to their murders have not been brought to justice.

“There are cases where journalists are attacked and people escape justice because they’re protected,” said Yusuf Kanli, a friend of Dink and director of the EU-backed Media for Democracy project.

“Ugur Mumcu was a victim of a plot and the perpetrators were never found. The real criminals were out. Hrant Dink as well. Yes, a young kid was sentenced but who ordered the assassination and who was behind the plot?

“These killings were not resolved. The ones who pulled the trigger or planted the bomb are important but who ordered them to do it?”

Mumcu, a veteran journalist for Cumhuriyet newspaper, was reportedly investigating possible links between Turkish intelligence and the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) when he was killed outside his Ankara home.

Three Islamist militants were jailed for life for the killing but the case is still referred to as one of the “unsolved murders” of the 1990s, a period when elements of the Turkish state allied with gangsters, right-wing extremists and PKK turncoats to carry out murders and disappearances.

His daughter Ozge Mumcu Aybars told The National that "the power beneath the assassination has remained a mystery".

Similarly, Dink’s case has been clouded by claims of state involvement. An outspoken ethnic Armenian and editor-in-chief of the dual language Agos newspaper, Dink was shot outside his office in Istanbul on January 19, 2007.

By the following day, police arrested a 17-year-old who was later jailed for nearly 23 years. More than 70 suspects, including senior police officers accused of allowing the murder plot to go ahead, remain on trial.

However, most observers fear the full scope of these killings will never be revealed. “Nothing will come out of it,” said Mr Kanli, referring to the Dink case. “This impunity makes things worse.”

Others say attacks have been legitimised by public threats made against journalists by politicians.

Idris Ozyol, a journalist at the Akdeniz'de Yeni Yuzyil newspaper, was beaten by three men in May shortly after he was threatened by a local politician from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which is allied with Turkey's ruling party.

He was one of half-a-dozen journalists targeted that month.

Yenicag columnist Yavuz Selim Demirag was beaten with baseball bats outside his home. He blamed the assault on a full-page newspaper notice taken out by the MHP a year earlier naming around 70 critical journalists, including Mr Demirag.

“We will never forget what they have written, what they have done, what they have destroyed,” it read.

Such implied or open threats, mirror the Dink case, according to Mr Kanli. “He was made a target,” he said of Dink. “It appeared to be an orchestrated and well-planned character assassination and then a real assassination.”

Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, claimed many recent attacks related to a split among nationalists, which led to the formation of a new party opposed to the government.

“Last year we saw the specific involvement of ruling coalition actors,” he said. “More than a dozen local journalists were systematically targeted after the division of the MHP, which created a very hostile climate.”

Free speech advocates point to a report from the pro-government SETA think tank last year that profiled journalists working for foreign media outlets.

Reporters Without Borders, which ranked Turkey 157th out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, condemned the report as “harassment” and an attempt to intimidate journalists.

Turkey still holds one of the world’s largest numbers of journalists in prison, according to monitoring groups. The P24 press freedom website says at least 101 journalists are currently behind bars.

“Turkey has never been a safe place for journalists,” said Ms Mumcu Aybars, adding that instead of protecting journalists, “state instruments such as think tanks were targeting the media or labelling them terrorists.

“This type of mindset has to change,” she added. “To do so we need an impartial and independent judiciary that is, unfortunately, lacking in Turkey.”