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Still banned from Turkey

For the second time since 2007, Turkey denied an Al-Monitor contributor entry because of his work as a journalist on Kurdish issues.
U.S citizens returning from Libya arrive at Ataturk international airport in Istanbul February 25, 2011. The United States announced on Friday it would soon impose sanctions on Libya and bluntly said the legitimacy of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had been "reduced to zero." REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR2J4AK

On March 2, for the second time since 2007, I was deported from Turkey — this time from Istanbul Ataturk Airport when I made a stopover en route to Iraqi Kurdistan to attend the Sulaimani Forum at the American University. The reason: writing about Kurds.

My plan was to go to the conference where many prominent analysts and officials were scheduled to speak, including Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and fellow Al-Monitor columnist Cengiz Candar. But I wasn’t allowed to make a "domestic" transfer through Turkey, despite telling customs control in Turkish, “I am going to Iraq, not Turkey.”

I was locked up for the night as an inadmissible traveler with a Kurd and two others. The Iranian Kurd who was planning to travel to Erbil to see his family told me in Kurdish that because the Kurds have no country, they have "no friends, only enemies."

The airport security officers must have been wondering whether I was speaking Kurdish with my roommate. However, they were quite friendly, and even served us a McDonald's meal twice, including the traditional yoghurt drink, ayran. “Drink ayran, it is a great Turkish drink,” one of the officers told us.

The next day, when I was escorted to the plane, the security officer asked me, “Why are you banned?” I told him that I write about Kurds. He then wondered if I reported on "terrorists." “Don’t worry, I'm not so racist," he said.

At home two days later, I watched Davutoglu via a live stream speaking some words in Kurdish at the conference. He told the audience that states in the region cannot survive without respecting individual rights and freedoms.

Sadly, I remain banned from entering Turkey since the state considers me a threat, for no reason.

I'm not the only one banned from Turkey. On Feb. 7, Azeri journalist Mahir Zeynalov was deported to Azerbaijan as a result of the internal power struggle between the Gulen movement and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Zeynalov was quite critical of the AKP administration and reported for pro-Gulen media.

In addition, US freelance journalist Jake Hess was deported in 2010. This shows that Turkey is still sensitive about foreigners writing about Kurds. But Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink disagrees. “Jake is not in the first place a professional journalist. He came to Turkey as an activist for the Kurdish cause …,” she blogged.

Geerdink moved to the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey a few years ago. She hasn't faced many difficulties as a foreigner in the Kurdish populated areas of Turkey. “As a foreigner you are safe,” she told me.

Hess cares more about the situation of local journalists and activists in Turkey than his own ban or those of foreign journalists. “When Turkey imprisons no-name democracy activists or lawyers under false pretenses, few people write about it or otherwise show concern,” he said.

Last year, Turkey blacklisted the award-winning Dutch journalist Bram Vermeulen. His ban surprised me: If Turkey wasn’t afraid to ban such a well-known Dutch journalist, why would they care about delisting me?

Vermeulen told me via Skype that many of his colleagues were afraid to help him, fearing a similar ban. But he solved his problem by contacting the EU rapporteur on Turkey, Ria Oomen-Ruijten, who convinced Turkey’s interior minister to delist him. “If I wouldn’t have done something, then I would never have been able to return to Turkey again,” he said.

Vermeulen said he knows for sure his ban was "related to my journalistic activities."

My ban actually dates back to May 2007, when I was notified at the airport in Izmir that I was banned from Turkey. I had discovered the Kurds in 2004 as part of a project in secondary school, and then studied Turkology and journalism. I had never thought I would be banned from Turkey. But when I was locked up at the airport in Izmir before being deported, I realized I couldn’t write about Turkey’s Kurds in the future.

A letter from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained why I was banned. Turkey's officials had told them I was writing journalistic articles for Kurdish websites, and that I had connections to a Kurdish TV channel.

“You have ties to a terrorist organization, and therefore you were placed on the blacklist,” the letter said. “You have ties to Roj TV. This organization is known in Turkey as a terrorist organization,” it continued.

I didn’t know that an interview with Roj TV would lead to a ban. Turkey, however, saw it as a pro-Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) organization. Still, many foreigners were interviewed at that time by Roj TV, including Dutch experts and journalists who write about Kurds. I had also interviewed people who opposed the PKK, although I wrote for Kurdish websites.

In 2005, the United States pressured Europe to take steps against the PKK and Roj TV. WikiLeaks cables show that the United States proposed to help Turkey “develop strategies to assist the efforts for neutralizing the foreign media support provided (such as ROJ TV in Denmark).”

On the advice of some journalists, I got in touch with the Turkish Embassy in The Hague in 2008 and explained my situation. But despite friendly diplomatic chats, nothing changed.

Robert Soeterik, veteran expert on the Kurds and Palestine, told me then that it was better to change my focus to the Iraqi Kurds. “You should think about it. It is unlikely you will be allowed to enter Turkey any time soon,” he had said.

I finished two master's degrees in Kurdish and Conflict Studies, and I worked as an intern in 2009 in Iraqi Kurdistan with the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw. I’ve met many Kurdish politicians since then, and after I graduated I started writing for Al-Monitor.

Since 2009, I’ve seen Turkey change as a result of the talks between the PKK and the Turkish state. Although many problems remain, several taboos have been broken as a result of the talks and new economic relations between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. Even Turkish officials managed to utter the forbidden words "Kurdistan," and Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani visited Diyarbakir together with Erdogan.

Suddenly, Turkish journalists started interviewing PKK officials, and to my surprise I noticed the Turkish government news agency at a PKK press conference in April 2013, where the PKK announced the withdrawal of their fighters from Turkey.

Ironically, the Turkish government TV channel interviewed me a few times on Kurds, while Rudaw was often accused by the PKK of having links to the Turkish state. But the ban continued.

As a result of these changes, I renewed my efforts to be delisted by talking to Turkish diplomats from 2011 onward. But this hasn't ended my ban. “Isn’t the Turkish state talking to the PKK themselves now? So why are you still banned?” a foreign diplomat asked me in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq a few days ago. I also wonder why.

More from Wladimir van Wilgenburg (Iraq Pulse)