Back in November, thousands of Turks flocked to Twitter to follow in real-time a momentous trial taking place in New York. Standing in the dock was a senior Turkish banker accused of collaboration in a scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran, while Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, the key suspect in the case, became the star witness after cutting a deal with prosecutors. International dimensions of the case aside, the Turkish audience’s interest was driven more by what Zarrab had to say about his ties with Turkish politicians and bureaucrats who allegedly facilitated his dealings in return for massive bribes.
Turks were already familiar with Zarrab. He had been detained in a large-scale corruption probe in Turkey in December 2013, which Ankara managed to thwart, claiming it was a plot by Gulenist police and prosecutors to undermine the government. The case in New York was similarly depicted as a plot against Turkey, but many Turks were unconvinced and believed the trial would expose what Ankara had covered up earlier.
Among those who flocked to Twitter to follow live reports from the courtroom was Sebla Kucuk, a 35-year-old Istanbulite who made a living as a translator, providing mostly simultaneous translations at business and civic society functions. Little did she know at the time that her life was about to change — and not in a positive way.
The Turkish media’s coverage of the trial was rather timid, as the case cast suspicions on the role of the Turkish government as well. Wary not to anger the government, the handful of mainstream media journalists present at the trial provided only shallow reports, focusing mainly on what Zarrab said regarding his conversion from a defendant to a confessor.
American reporters were also present in the courtroom — several of them instantly tweeting Zarrab’s words and other developments. Kucuk began to translate those tweets into Turkish and share them from her account.
Asked how she came up with the idea, she told Al-Monitor, “Like many others, I was following the trial. Reports of Zarrab’s decision to become a confessor had grabbed much attention. The opening of the trial coincided with a relatively quiet period for me. I was following the posts of foreign journalists covering the trial and decided to translate the developments I found to be the most striking.”
Kucuk’s translations found a big audience. Some Turkish users even began to send her tweets that she had omitted, asking for the translation. The number of her followers shot up to 57,000 from 850. “The mainstream Turkish media provided very limited coverage of the trial. There were very few journalists reporting in Turkish,” Kucuk said, adding that the huge interest and thirst for news from the trial led her to start translating all details from the proceedings.
In May, months after the hearings ended, Kucuk received a summons to testify to prosecutors, meaning she was under investigation. This was something she had always kept in the back of her mind, she explained, because Zarrab’s confessions had put the Turkish government in a tight spot. “During the trial, many of my followers had said they feared I could be put on trial for the translations,” Kucuk said. “The trial possibility, however, appeared distant to me because I was simply sharing information.”
Kucuk’s story took an even more intriguing turn on the eve of Turkey’s June 24 elections. The prosecution proceeded to indict her; the charges, however, pertained not to her translations from the sanctions-busting trial, but to the Turkish military operation against the northern Syrian city of Afrin, during which she had shared translations of Reuters stories on the issue.
The military operation, carried out in cooperation with Syrian rebel militias, began in January and ended in March, wrestling Afrin away from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara sees as a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization.
The Turkish authorities showed little tolerance for social media users criticizing the operation. Close to 1,000 people who voiced dissent were detained, and about a dozen ended up in jail and are pending trial. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, for his part, convened a meeting with executives of major papers and news channels to lay out guidelines on how the offensive should be covered.
For Kucuk, those charges did come as a surprise. She now stands accused of “spreading the propaganda of a terrorist organization” for simply translating Reuters reports, risking up to 7.5 years in jail.
Kucuk is confident she did nothing wrong and sees herself as just another victim of Ankara’s crackdown on dissent. “Many journalists, writers, lawyers and even ordinary citizens have faced incredible charges of membership to a terrorist organization or spreading terrorist propaganda,” she said. “What I translated was just information reported by news agencies and well-known journalists. Reason dictates that I should be acquitted in this case, but reason rarely works in Turkey’s judicial system nowadays.”
Kucuk’s trial is scheduled to kick off Nov. 22. Asked whether she feared conviction, she said, “I come from a modest family and they are not really used to such things. Of course, we are all worried that I could be convicted, but whatever happens, my family is standing behind me.”
Kucuk’s dismay grew with a story in the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, which described her translations from Reuters as translations of “reports from sources close to the YPG-PKK terrorist organization.”
She was angered, but the distortion hardly surprised her. The raison d'etre of pro-government media is “to justify the deeds of the government, no matter how unjust they are,” she said. “Thankfully, the messages of support I received have appeased my anger. Even the newspaper had to remove that story upon the strong reactions on social media. In public conscience, the case has already been dismissed.”