Reports by human rights organizations have shown that the severity of rights violations greatly increased in Turkey in the 1990s. This radical escalation occurred in almost all categories, including the right to life, freedom from torture, the right to a fair trial, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Although the majority of these violations arose in the context of the Kurdish conflict, the re-organization of the state security apparatus and legal changes that continually restricted liberties also influenced the state-society relationship as a whole. From 1980 to 1990, forty journalists were murdered by either state authorities or unknown perpetrators. It is almost impossible to determine the number of cases in which journalists, writers, intellectuals, and human rights advocates were subject to other types of rights violations, including torture and restrictions on freedom of speech.
Metin Göktepe was one of the journalists tortured and killed by police officers. Since Göktepe was a leftist journalist, the police considered him and the news he wrote to be a threat to the interests of the state. Göktepe was killed on January 8, 1996 while reporting for the Evrensel newspaper on the case of two people who had been killed in prison. He was taken into custody at the funeral for those prisoners and taken to a sports stadium, where he was beaten to death. Hundreds of other people who had attended the funeral were detained at the stadium on that day, and almost all were subject to police violence. After his death, state authorities claimed that Göktepe had died after falling from a wall.
Five of the eleven police officers who had overseen torture sessions were tried and sentenced to seven years and six months’ imprisonment. Those officers remained in prison for 17 months, but were released following an amnesty for prisoners responsible for non-terrorist crimes in 2000. The high-ranking officers who gave the order to murder were never held accountable.
Scope and Purpose
Soon after Göktepe was killed, and in part as a result, journalists, human rights organizations and various pro-democracy forces began to organize to monitor these cases more effectively, since 36 journalists had already lost their lives. The civil society efforts commemorating Göktepe aimed to realize three objectives: First, to create greater awareness of state-sponsored human rights violations; second, to follow the trial closely to ensure that perpetrators would not enjoy impunity; and third, to keep Göktepe’s memory alive through a variety of memorialization methods.
The first memorialization effort began a year after Göktepe’s death. A “Metin Göktepe Award” was established on the anniversary of his birth (April 10), to be awarded to journalists who focus mainly on human rights violations and contribute to the democratization process. Moreover, journalists and activists began to come together annually at Metin Göktepe’s grave site and turned the Esenler cemetery into a memorial site. A march from the cemetery to the city center, amid demands for freedom of press, has become the ritual by which Göktepe is commemorated.
The first impact of these memorialization efforts was to increase political pressure on Turkish state officials to prevent similar violations. Supporters of the case worked to ensure that the police officers who killed Göktepe would not enjoy impunity, and they struggled to keep the case on the country’s agenda. This was achieved through coverage of the case in the news and through demonstrations and petitions protesting the government’s behavior. In this way, Göktepe became a symbol of state-sponsored rights violations targeting journalists in Turkey. Moreover, journalists began to become more organized, working to prevent the murder of journalists in particular, and in general to increase pressure on the state regarding all human rights violations. They formed a group called the Journalists’ Assembly Initiative (Gazeteciler Meclisi Girişimi) and began monitoring trials and presenting an annual review of similar rights violations during the “Metin Göktepe Awards.” When another journalist, Sinan Kara, was imprisoned following Göktepe’s murder, journalists responded in more organized and effective fashion, which ensured that police would not dare to disappear other journalists.
The main challenge to memorialization efforts for Göktepe has been state repression of newspapers and journalists who have advocated for freedom of the media and organized the memorial efforts mentioned above. On the fourth anniversary of the murder of Göktepe, in 1998, the newspaper he had worked for published articles on the trials that criticized prosecutors for not including Orhan Taşanlar and Kemal Bayrak, two top ranking Istanbul police officers who were believed to have given the order to kill Göktepe. State security courts thereupon imposed a one-week suspension on the newspaper. Also, many journalists taken into custody following Göktepe’s death were asked by police officers if they would “like to share the same fate as Metin Göktepe.” In addition to direct repression, state authorities also used any means available to keep activists away from the trial. Although the murder took place in Istanbul, the case was transferred to Aydın, which is quite distant from Istanbul, and the state made efforts to prevent any demonstrations around the courthouse.