a photojournalist’s witnessing act

  • Post category:News media

Abdurrahman Gök is a photojournalist who is a correspondent with the Mezopotamya Agency in Turkey. In the early morning of March 21, 2017, he was preparing his day on the job of following the Newroz meeting in the city of Diyarbakır, the southeastern city in Turkey where the Kurdish new year celebrations draws thousands from neighboring cities each year. This is 2017, two years after a series of bomb attacks took the lives of hundreds and almost a year after a coup attempt. The meeting areas are now enclosed with security fences where the police check the bags and clothes of everyone entering into the meeting area. It was before 8 o’clock in the morning, Gök was standing close to the entrance that is reserved for the press and the VIP where dozens of police officers and as well as vehicles were already stationed.

What took place next was a photojournalist doing his work. Abdurrahman Gök has been persecuted ever since for having been there, for having taken the photographs that he had taken, which falsified the official statement of the Governor of Diyarbakır, who is the highest official in a city responsible for the police force in the city. Gök later wrote and narrated what happened that day, here is a recent video in Turkish. Gök took a series of photographs that show a young man of 23, Kemal Kurkut, being shot and killed by one of the police officers who were stationed at that entrance.

According to his statement, Gök took 28 photographs until he was shoved by the police. He checked the last image and removed the memory card from his camera, put it in the back pocket of his pants. When the police officers stopped him and asked to see his camera, he told that he was still getting ready and had no memory card in the camera yet, and that he pushed the shutter release out of habit, as an occupational twitch. (Securing your footage is another professional twitch that is learned in line of work of journalism in Turkey). The officers didn’t believe him and checked the camera and formatted the extra memory cards he was keeping in his bag. Later that day, the Newroz meeting went on as planned, and the office of the Governor released a statement about the incident, stating that a person carrying a back bag refused to be searched by the police and attempted to attack them holding a knife, shouting “I have a bomb in my bag and I will kill you all.” This official statement claimed that the person posed a security threat since he was running toward the meeting area with a knife in his hand, and the security officers intervened, considering that he might be a “suicide bomber.” The suspect was injured, and was brought to the hospital where he died, according to this statement.

This incident was reported as such by the mainstream corporate news media who often do not make a distinction between an official statement and a news story, such as in this news report by the national Hürriyet newspaper. In this general news report on the Newroz meeting in Diyarbakır, the same narrative is repeated twice: once as an official statement, and once as a news story reported by the newspaper. There is no indication that a reporter or a local correspondent of the newspaper had investigated the story, talked to witnesses, shopkeepers, or any journalists who were also witnesses there. The newspaper just transformed the direct speech of the official report into reported speech and reproduced both of them one after another.1

Having secured the memory card in his back pocket until he reached the office, with the full awareness that he was being followed, Gök uploaded the photographs to a computer and then his news agency shared the images and the story. The news story and the photographs were published by the critical and independent news media in Turkey. And as happens with such grave news stories, once a news outlet publish, and in so doing, break the invisible wall of silence, other news outlets publish the story, and eventually the pro-government news media as well.2

The photographs show a shirtless young man, holding a water bottle in one hand and a knife in the other, surrounded with police officers with some pointing the gun towards him. One photograph show him facing towards the photographer, with police officers behind him, showing him leaning sideways and an expression of pain in his face, probably right after he was shut. The series of photographs contradict the official explanation, as the claim of threat of bomb attack seems untenable. The physical distance between him and the officers around him also throws suspicion on the claim of imminent threat to the officers.

The news agency dihaber3, where Gök was working at the time, published an investigative news story on March 23 in which the journalist traced the steps back of the deceased and talked to shopkeepers and eyewitnesses. The young man who was killed by the police on the morning of March 21, 2017 at the press entrance to the Newroz meeting area in Diyarbakır was Kemal Kurkut, a university student studying music in Malatya, who came to the city two days ago to attend the meeting and was staying at his brother’s house. Prior to the moment when the photographs were taken, according to eyewitnesses reported in this news report, he arrived at the checkpoint and the officers wanted to search him and asked him to take his clothes off. There was an argumentation between them but he put his bag down on the ground and removed his shirt. They asked him to take off his undershirt as well to which he reacted shouting. A butcher, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the reporter that Kurkut came to his shop and took the knife from his counter when the butcher was not looking. But having noticed that he took the knife, the butcher went after Kurkut and followed him toward the square, where the event took place few minutes later.

The next day, on March 22, after the photographs had been published on numerous newspapers and news outlets, the Governor of Diyarbakır, Hüseyin Aksoy, made the following statement when asked by the journalists:

“As we stated in the statement yesterday, the person said that he had a knife in his hand and a bomb in his bag. The security forces also intervened in such a way, considering the safety of the citizens attending the Newroz celebration. We did not want it to end like this. It is a sad event, the matter is being investigated in every aspect.”

What is the weight of the words of witnesses who would rather remain anonymous against the words of a governor? Who is doing the weighing? The office of the governor first claimed that the young man was suspected of being a suicide bomber, which should have justified the “intervention” of the police officers and exonerate them from misconduct on duty, if not in front of the current criminal law then in front of the public. What was actually in the bag remained a mystery for days, for which journalists again resorted to eyewitnesses. When the photographs challenged the official statement of the Governor’s office by showing a barechested young man with no vests or bags on him, and the police officers facing him and pointing guns at him rather than paying attention to a bag on the ground allegedly suspected of having a bomb, the next day the Governor made the dead speak: “he said he had a knife in his hand and a bomb in his bag.”

What is the weight of photographs against words? And whose words? For whom do photographs speak?

Let’s state the obvious: if it wasn’t for these photographs taken by the journalist Gök, a university student was going to be remembered as a suicide bomber, a narrative which was going to be defied by his family, his friends, maybe few eyewitnesses, and the local human rights defenders. At best, he was going to be described as “psychologically unstable” at the court or in an internal report. When no traces of bomb would be recovered at the scene, then this murder was going to recalled as a “sad event.”

a court case

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story of the photographs that brought together a 23 year-old music student, a veteran photojournalist, an anonymous butcher, a Governor and the police officers who were positioned at the entrance to the meeting area reserved for the press and the VIP. The photographs taken by Gök and surveillance video footage that were retrieved from the surrounding buildings and police vehicles, a total of 118 image recordings, were included in the criminal investigation into the murder of Kurkut, according to this news story that reported the progress of the court case in Evrensel newspaper. The report by the Institution of Forensic Medicine concluded that the bullet retrieved from Kurkut’s body had bounced from the ground, which meant that he was not targeted directly. This report was challenged by Kurkut family’s lawyers, and so a second forensic report was provided by an independent institution called Ulusal Kriminal bureau, which studied these image recordings and identified the officer who shot Kurkut. Yet, this institution later sent the court an addendum upon the request from the court, signed only by the director, which conflicted the outcome of the bureau’s initial report: the bullet which hit the body of Kurkut had bounced from the ground and so it didn’t originate from a gun that directly aimed at the deceased.

Aside from the conflicting reports and the failure of the prosecution to collect evidence and of the police organization to conduct an internal investigation (ibid.), the court had shown the type of lenience to suspects that are not extended to those who were charged for insulting the president on their social media account or for other similar articles in the law that relate to crimes of expressing the “wrong thoughts.”4 From the start, the court removed from office the two suspected police officers, after which they returned to work as regular personnel and were not arrested. A criminal charge was made against one of them who was allowed to return to work after being removed from office for three months. The Governor of Diyarbakır at the time, Hasan Basri Güzeloğlu, didn’t allow the court to prosecute or investigate 72 police officers in relation to this case. At the end of three years of court hearings, which included a video reporting by the forensic experts, the officer who was the murder suspect, based on forensic reports, was acquitted on November 17, 2020 on the grounds that there was no evidence that had shown, persuasively and beyond suspicion, that the suspect committed the crime and that he had to be punished. Diyarbakır branch of the Human Rights Association (IHD) followed the trial and defended the victim from the very beginning.

Abdurrahman Gök
Journalist Abdurrahman Gök at the court house

another court case

Going back to the photographs and their maker, on June 3, 2021 Wednesday, Abdurrahman Gök was at the second court hearing in the trial in which he is accused of “being a member of a terrorist organization” and “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization” and faces of up to 20 years of prison. The indictment is based on his telephone conversation, his social media posts, the news stories he had produced, and the statements of a “hidden witness” who has been given the alias “Patience” (Sabır) in the court file.

Back in 2017, 8 days after the photographs were published, Gök had given his testimony to the prosecutor’s office about the killing of Kemal Kurkut and handed over the photos he had taken. About a month later, on April 20, 2017, his house was raided and searched by the police when he was not at home and police seized some books, a journal and two phones he was not using. They told his roommates that the investigation was Ankara-based and Gök needs to go to Anti-Terror Bureau Directorship to testify or else a detention warrant would be issued (ibid). Later, Gök was taken into custody on October 9, 2018, along with more than a hundred people among whom are journalists and local politicians in Diyarbakır. This time he was home and he and his housemates were ordered to lie on the floor facing down and their house was searched. Again the police seized some books, some journals, and Gök’s equipment. According to the statement released by the Ministry of Interior, this operation was conducted to “decipher and prevent the activities of PKK / KCK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party / Kurdistan Communities Union) terrorist organization. Later that evening, the Batman MP of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) and Human Rights Commission Spokesperson Ayşe Acar-Başaran stated that 151 people had been detained as part of the operation. Gök was released from detention with four other journalists on October 15, 2018.

Two years later, it was this accusation on which a lawsuit was filed against Gök, whose first hearing was held on February 23, 2020. The protected secret witness claimed that both Gök, who took those photographs, and Kurkut, who died that day, were members of a terrorist organization and Gök was instructed by the PKK to take that photo to bend the truth, according to the statement that appeared in court. Gök’s attorney Resul Tamur underlined that the journalists arrested on October 2018 were also arrested as a result of statements by the same secret witness. Tamur told that the statements of secret witnesses cannot be confirmed by the defense. Tamur demanded that the statements of the anonymous witness to be opened for inspection and taken into the file but this request was rejected by the court. Tamur said: “We want this witness to be questioned in our presence and to be able to ask questions to him. This request was also rejected” (ibid).

Three years after being killed by the police, this time Kemal Kurkut was accused to be a member of a terrorist organization and to walk to his death by an anonymous witness. The Reporters Without Borders follows the trials of journalists in Turkey. Bianet, an online news outlet publishing news stories in three languages (Turkish, Kurdish, and English), keeps a media observation database5 that also includes trials against journalists in Turkey, as well as Gök’s trial. The next hearing of Gök’s trial will be held on September 30, 2021, where his lawyer(s) will defend him against the allegations made by a secret witness. Who is going to defend Kemal Kurkut from such allegations and slander?

* All the images reproduced in this post are taken from the news stories shared in this post and their image credit belongs to the agencies and journalists who first disseminated them.

1) This is a decisive feature of news stories that are provided by the non-critical news media that act as the spokespersons or, let’s say, the loudspeaker of the officials, by simply reproducing the official statements by the rulers, courts, governors, experts, i.e. those who are in power.

2) Since the summer of 2015, there is a certain level of “critical mass” that plays a role in the dissemination of news on critical stories in Turkey, especially those that undermine or challenge the official discourse. This is an another decisive feature of the news-making climate under this repressive regime.

3) Dihaber was established on November 14, 2016, after Dicle News Agency (DIHA) was shut down by a legislative decree on October 29, 2016. Following the coup attempt of 2016, many news and media organization were shut down by such legislative decrees under the state of emergency, and thousands of public employees were dismissed with similar decrees, without due process. Dihaber was later shut down by a similar legislative decree on August 25, 2017.

4) “The highly politicized judiciary, through broad interpretations of the Press Law, the Internet Law, and the Broadcasting Law, as well as application of the Penal Code and Anti-Terror Law provisions, criminalizes media practitioners, bans and confiscates publications, shuts down websites, and prosecutes writers, publishers, and artists. Among the charges brought against media and cultural producers (as well as individuals who express their opinions on social media) are for spreading Kurdish propaganda, harming Turkey’s national security and territorial integrity, inciting hatred and enmity among the Turkish public, insulting state institutions, undermining the moral values of Turkish society, and insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.” Yesil, Bilge. Media in New Turkey: The Origins of An Authoritarian Neoliberal State. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016, p. 8.

5) The Media Monitoring Database of Bianet is supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), Heinrich Böll Stiftung, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and aims at monitoring and reporting violations of freedom of expression towards the media employees and organizations in Turkey.