How shrinking freedom of press in Turkey brought me closer to Pakistan
In Pakistan, during my second year as a news correspondent for Turkey, four of my Turkish friends and I decided to take a vacation to Istanbul, via Islamabad. The scorching Karachi sun could do nothing to subdue the excitement I was feeling since I was going back to my country after quite some time.
Planning was underway and we converted all the money we owned to dollars, except for Rs1000 each, in case of an emergency. Since we had decided to travel by train, we booked a six person compartment on the Tezgam Express. The sixth person in our compartment was a Pakistani gentleman in his 40s, who we struck up an interesting conversation with during the journey.
Midway, we realised we had enough money to only hail a cab from the train station to the airport. We hadn’t kept any money aside for food. As the train was nearing the Lahore railway station, we were wondering if we could buy some food at the station using dollars. Our empty stomachs convinced us to go ahead and try.
Upon arriving at the Lahore railway station, we bade farewell to our Pakistani travel mate, since he was supposed to get off at the Lahore station, and we at Islamabad. The smiling gentleman shook hands with each of us, gathered his luggage and stepped out. After a few minutes, we got up and decided to finally go buy food, when suddenly, the compartment door slid open and our Pakistani travel mate was standing at the doorway. Except this time around, he had food in his hand, ranging from biryani to karhai to handi. He told us he had called his family during the train ride and informed them of the Turkish brothers he was travelling with. In return, his wife prepared all these scrumptious dishes especially for us. We were deeply touched by this gesture.
That day, I looked out of the compartment window to see the people of Pakistan busy with their work and thought to myself,
“Pakistan is smiling at us.”
It was a great feeling having an entire country, along with her citizens, smile at us.
I have been living in Pakistan for almost a decade now. During the last mount of my stay, I felt Pakistan smile at me, but this time around, I could not hold my tears back thinking about how Pakistan and its citizens treated me while my country was going through one of the harshest times.
Until four years back, I used to proudly boast about the economy and social development of my country. Within three to four years, Turkey witnessed a political upheaval. Media organisations too, were pelted by black clouds of oppression. We were being scrutinised as well, as was every other organisation in this field, for criticising the government. We weren’t even permitted to cover official press meetings.
Let me illustrate this by an incident I witnessed in Pakistan. The Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, visited Pakistan in February 2015 and was invited to give a lecture at a private university. I arrived at the lecture hall long before the starting time and set up my equipment. One of the Turkish security personnel approached me and said,
“You cannot cover this event!”
When I asked him why, he simply shrugged and said,
“This is what they ordered me to do.”
Without much delay, he told me to pick up my equipment and then herded me outside the hotel. He waited with me for a long while, only to check if I would try to sneak into the hotel again.
As a result, while other news agencies covered the event, I could not fulfil my press duty.
Such incidents started occurring frequently and eventually peaked with a repulsive end. Under a strange pretext, which seemed more like terrorism, our media organisation – along with its news agency and newspapers – was rumoured to be taken over by a politically motivated board of trustees.
March 3, 2016
The ‘trustees’ were expected to arrive after office hours that night. I could not sleep at all. I wasn’t the only one, considering hundreds of thousands of other readers could not sleep that night either. A large group of readers gathered in front of the office gates and held placards demanding democracy and justice.
Soon, the rumours began to turn into reality and around 1 am, police squads and water-cannon vehicles staged themselves at the gates, awaiting to protect the trustees when they arrive. Despite the prevailing cold weather, the police used cold jet water and tear gas to disperse the peaceful crowd.
It was even cold in Islamabad that night. As I was watched these events unfold live on the Internet, I was ashamed of offering myself the warmth and comfort of a pullover, whilst my colleagues were facing such brutality. I tiptoed towards the bed where my baby daughter lay asleep and kissed her gently on her forehead. I looked at her innocent face with abundant hope and utter agony.
With no words to express my state of mind, I held my phone in my hand and continued to watch the brutal take-over of our media group. One after another, editors and photographers were pushed and shoved. Journalists were treated as if they were stone-cold murderers. My legs went numb and it took me over two hours just to manage to stand up.
At one point in time, we used to believe in an institutional culture rather than our physical facilities. We were more focused on inner harmony and not the din on the streets. My office in Turkey was a safe haven for me; it used to welcome me with open arms and warmth. I would love sitting with my editors, individuals who I used to admire, whose experiences I would take inspiration from.
Post the take-over, all that came out of their mouths were swear words. Cigarette smoke permeated the once clean environment of the building. I was completely dejected after witnessing this.
I would have liked to be in Istanbul with my fellow colleagues during this unfortunate incident, rather than watching them on a small screen, thousands of miles away. But I was not.
March 4, 2016 Saturday
Bad news travels fast.
The next day, Kamal Siddiqi, my teacher, also the editor-in-chief of The Express Tribune, and I had a conversation regarding the incident. He told me he was shocked to hear the tragic news and – more caring about the issue than my father – he sympathised with me and asked if he could do anything for me other than publishing this particular news.
Soon after, another friend from Geo called and before I could utter a tired hello, he said,
“I heard the news and I don’t know what to say…”
Silence ensued when words failed to construct sentences. However, as I hung up, I felt as if I had poured my heart out for hours.
My sorrows were banished by a hope and feeling of being on the right side of things. As I looked out at the lush-green sprawling Margalla Hills of Islamabad, I felt elated being on the same page as my teacher, who had taught us about the sanctity of press freedom. My friends, who are also Pakistani journalists, offered me words of consolation that soothed my heart and brought a smile to my face.
Yet again, I looked out of the compartment window at the people of Pakistan, busy with their work and thought to myself,
“Pakistan smiled at us.”
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