This is not the story of the overcoat of the impoverished government clerk in 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece “The Overcoat.”
This is the story of the overcoat of a Turkish journalist in prison.
That journalist is Kadri Gürsel, a long-time friend and colleague, and also the head of the Turkish chapter of the International Press Institute (IPI), of which I am also a member.
Dec. 17 marks Kadri’s 43rd day in Silivri Prison, west of Istanbul, together with nine other colleagues from the center-left daily Cumhuriyet. He is one of 146 journalists, writers, editors and publishers currently in jail in Turkey, as revealed by the Turkey Journalists’ Association and shared by the IPI. The government denies these figures on the grounds that they are not held because of what they wrote or said, but rather on suspicion of “assisting terrorism.”
Kadri, like his Cumhuriyet colleagues, is accused of assisting not one but two outlawed organizations - and two ideologically opposed groups at that.
With the kind of imagination that would make Gogol envious, Kadri is accused of helping both the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ). The PKK has waged a campaign of terror in Turkey for the past three decades, while FETÖ is the secret network of the U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused of masterminding the defeated coup attempt on July 15.
The jailed Kadri recently asked his wife, Nazire Kalkan Gürsel, to bring him an overcoat in order to keep him warm in prison, as the weather got colder.
As Hürriyet Daily News columnist and editor Barçın Yinanç quoted on her Facebook page, Nazire tried to take her husband a coat. The coat was rejected by the prison administrators, who said it was against regulations.
She then tried to take other coats in the following days, but these too were rejected: One because of its hood, one because of the shape of its buttons, another one because of its color.
“We decided to buy new boots and a coat, so I went to a shopping mall,” Nazire wrote on Facebook. “In both of the stores I entered I explained specifically what I wanted. In response, the assistants asked very politely: ‘Are you planning to take these to prison?’
“Of course, I was very surprised. They explained: ‘A lot of people like you come here. We can recognize them as soon as we see them. A group of people entering a store and asking for a specific product is obviously not how women shop under normal circumstances.’
“They asked a second question: ‘Is your husband a journalist or an academic?’ When they learned about Kadri, they said they would like to have wrapped it up as a gift but they know prison administrators do not allow gift wrapping.
“I don’t think there can be a better depiction of the state of the country,” she concluded.
Another story concerns Barbaros Muratoğlu, who is not a journalist but is an executive officer of the Doğan Media Group, the publisher of Hürriyet Daily News. He was also put in Silivri Prison on Dec. 15 after being arrested on charges of having links with FETÖ. Muratoğlu’s arrest came after he was targeted by a number of pro-government media outlets as being the “crypto right hand man” of Aydın Doğan, the honorary chairman of Doğan Holding.
One of the pieces of evidence cited by the prosecutor was Muratoğlu’s telephone contact with a police officer in Ankara who is now in jail for using ByLock, an encoded messaging application used by members of the Fethullahist network. Barbaros himself was not using ByLock, and it was natural that as an executive in charge of the security of the Hürriyet and CNN Türk building in Ankara, which is under round-the-clock police protection, he would be in contact with a number of police officers.
Another piece of evidence against him was that he had buttoned up his jacket during a visit to Gülen in his Pennsylvania home, as a part of a business group. That gesture was considered by prosecutors as a mark of respect to Gülen during the visit that took place in 2012, when ministers of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government were themselves still publicly praising Gülen.
On the same day as Muratoğlu was arrested, journalist Hüsnü Mahalli was also arrested, increasing the number of jailed journalists in Turkey to 148. Mahalli is a Syrian-origin journalist, who married and settled in Turkey for many years. Back when Tayyip Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad of Syria were still calling each other “brothers,” Mahalli was found so useful by both Ankara and Damascus that on (then prime minister, now president) Erdoğan’s suggestion he was given Turkish citizenship in 2011.
Mahalli was arrested on charges of “insulting” the president and government officials in a tweet, in which he accused them of being responsible for the ongoing human tragedy in Aleppo.
On Dec. 16, Mahalli’s partner on their TV show on private broadcaster Halk TV, Ayşenur Arslan, announced that she was ending the show in protest, saying that “sometimes the loudest cry is to remain silent.”
As for me, I’d rather keep telling you these stories as much as I can, keeping my faith alive that democracy and the rule of law will prevail.