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German PEN President Regula Venske: 'Turkey is the world's biggest jail for journalists'

The trials against journalists in Turkey are absurd - that's what the president of the German PEN Center, Regula Venske, told DW in an interview. In her view, these human rights violations must be criticized.

 DW: You have sent a sharply worded open letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım. What do you hope to achieve with that?

Regula Venske: First of all, I hope that as many people as possible will read my letter while fully realizing the significance of the numbers I mentioned in there. The objective of my letter is to show readers how many people have already been sacked in Turkey, how many people have been arrested on partially absurd charges, and how many journalists have been imprisoned. Turkey has become the world's biggest jail for journalists.These facts need to be mentioned as often as possible. I also wanted to express my own personal indignation, and perhaps also my concern, for my colleagues who have been imprisoned and groundlessly accused of crimes. Of course, I also hope that the politicians I addressed will read my letter, and that it will make them think self-critically about their handling of the issue. But there isn't much hope for that.

The trial against 17 staff members of the newspaper "Cumhuriyet" who have been arrested on the suspicion of supporting terrorism started on Monday, July 24 - the day of press freedom in Turkey. Isn't the choice of this specific date cynical?

Yes, it's cynical. After all, this date should rather be an occasion for holding celebrations in Turkey. On this day, in 1908, censorship was abolished in the country. Some years later, in 1924, the newspaper "Cumhuriyet" was founded. Since then, the paper has withstood several attempted coups and continued its work even under military regimes. During this time, many of its journalists have been arrested, tortured or even assassinated. But never before has there been such a broad attack against the paper whose name actually includes the Turkish word for "republic." Its former chief editor, Can Dündar, is in exile in Germany, where he speaks out on these issues in a very courageous and critical fashion. The accusations that were made against the staff members of "Cumhuriyet" are simply absurd. For example, they have been accused of having contacts to the Gülen movement whereas, just a few years ago, they were accused of having reported critically about Fethullah Gülen.

Türkei Cumhuriyet Journalists In Terror Trial - Istanbul (picture alliance/dpa/abaca/C. Erok)

Protesters in front of the court building in Istanbul where the trial against 17 members of "Cumhuriyet" started Monday, July 24, 2017

Some German citizens, among them human rights activist Peter Steudtner, have also been arrested in Turkey. As a reaction, German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel has announced moves against the government in Ankara. What precisely could the German government do in order to protect human rights like press freedom and freedom of opinion in Turkey?

I think an appropriate measure would be to take a critical look at some deals - especially the almost cynical deal in refugee policy. Up to now, roughly 145,000 people have signed our petition #FreeWordsTurkey that we initiated together with the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, and Reporters Without Borders. And of course, our politicians should think hard about what they themselves could possibly do, just as we, as authors and journalists, should think hard about what we could do. Our approach is the written word. We must not tire of continuing to write and to criticize things.

In your letter, you accused Erdogan of dividing people not only in Turkey, but in Germany as well. In what regard does the Turkish president jeopardize German-Turkish relations within our society?

Erdogan likes to provoke people by applying a divisive rhetoric - and that doesn't particularly help our citizens of Turkish descent. What matters to us is that we are able to live together peacefully, that we may have different opinions, and that we may vote for diverse political parties. Having different views is an integral part of democracy, as long as people respect the opinions of their political opponents - and that aspect is precisely what's missing in Erdogan's speeches. Some of his latest speeches included martial expressions, metaphors and images that I consider hostile. 

In the German and International PEN, we are committed to protecting peaceful relations between different peoples and nations, ethnic and religious groups. The Turkish president, however, seems to be committed to the opposite. He tries to muzzle everybody who differs from his own line.

At the end of your letter, you wrote that "in the end, truth and justice will prevail." Do you seriously believe that?

Looking at the history of mankind, I do see a lot of barbarianism - horrible wars, torture and homicides. But I also see the attempts that people have made for achieving freedom, justice, truth, compassion and love. I believe that this human trait cannot be subjugated, even if rulers, since Biblical times, have tried to eradicate it. The very best and most beautiful achievement of mankind is precisely the love for freedom, culture, and peaceful relations.

Regula Venske is a freelance author and moderator. In April 2017, she became the president of the German branch of PEN, the international association of writers. The interview was conducted by Felix Schlagwein.