Banned from Turkey: Q&A with Journalist Mahir Zeynalov
The longstanding fight over media rights in Turkey intensified earlier this month after Ankara put Azerbaijani journalist Mahir Zeynalov, a reporter for the English-language daily Today’s Zaman, on a list of undesirables. The move, attributed by Zeynalov to his tweets about a government corruption investigation, came amidst a push for tough restrictions on Internet usage in Turkey, ranked by Reporters Without Borders among the world's worst offenders of press freedoms. (A claim the government denies.) Yet, given the close ties between Turkey and its Turkic cousin, Azerbaijan, the measure hit many outsiders as a surprise.
EurasiaNet.org spoke with Zeynallov in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, where he is now living.
What stands behind your deportation? Is it the next step by [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s government to silence the media?
This is the first time in Turkish history since World War II that an elected government has that much influence on the Turkish media and putting [a] tremendous amount of pressure on media bosses to fire critical journalists while co-opting others. My deportation is part of this troubling trend, no doubt about that. It has resonated around the world because the deportation came over a pair of tweets, which the government of Erdoğan claimed to be portraying his administration as . . .one protecting al-Qaeda. My English account is followed by foreign journalists, activists, academics, politicians and other public figures. Erdoğan was disturbed to see I was spreading a news report that he didn't want to be displayed.
Why an Azerbaijani journalist?
My nationality doesn't really matter. But I believe it would be much more difficult to deport a journalist of a Western country. As I said, I'm being followed by tens of thousands of foreign Turkey watchers and the government was disturbed that I'm critical about them.
It is claimed that Today’s Zaman is pro-Gülen*. Could your deportation be connected?
Erdoğan's government has ramped up [its] ruthless assaults on the Gülen movement, but we should view this as part of Erdoğan's fierce crackdown on the media. I would be deported even if I worked for another media organization. It would be even much easier for them to get me fired. The government has no power to influence the newspaper I'm working for. The only thing they can do is to deport me with a police escort.
Will you try to go back to Turkey? Will you defend your rights [to freedom of expression]?
I have a valid residence permit. In addition, I'm married to a Turkish citizen. The press body [of the prime minister’s office] approved [m]y press card, but refuses to deliver it. Nearly a dozen laws were violated when they deported me. An army of lawyers [is] now preparing to file a complaint against the government over my deportation. I would like to return to Turkey, but we need to first win the case.
Did anyone from [the] Azerbaijani government contact you? Did anyone try to investigate your case?
I [believe] that they are looking into the incident. I've seen several officials speaking on the media about the deportation. I have no other information besides that.
You are in Azerbaijan now. Any plan to work in Azerbaijan as a journalist?
I'm working for a Turkish newspaper [Today’s Zaman] to cover its foreign and domestic politics. We have reporters [from] a sister newspaper who are covering Azerbaijan for us. It is beyond my [responsibilities] at the moment.
*Influential Islamic cleric Fetullah Gülen, now living in Pennsylvania, is a former Erdoğan ally denounced by the prime minister on February 11 for allegedly running a "parallel state" to the Turkish government.