Deported journalist Zeynalov tells his story: 'How I was smeared, hunted and chased away'

Here is the story, as told by Mahir Zeynalov, an Azeri colleague, who was forced to leave Turkey, for tweeting against Erdoğan:


”On the first day of my exile, I was occupied with explaining to Turkish and foreign print media and TV stations about how I was deported and if I am considering fighting back. The interest in the story was huge, largely because it is an unprecedented incident in the history of journalism: deporting a journalist over tweets.

It is a futile attempt to look for a rationale behind the government’s actions anymore because they’re not based on well-calculated strategies but sudden reflexes depending on challenges they face. Considering solely the fact that the government tried to prevent me from tweeting about Turkish politics is clear evidence that it did not even think that I could tweet from abroad — and without any fear of being made a target by the government itself and its deeply slanderous media at that. “Will he not be able to tweet from abroad?” Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu asked rhetorically. “Yes, he will,” he answered.

The saga began when the government reportedly financed hundreds of what I would call “virtual militants” after anti-government protests took place in Gezi Park in İstanbul’s Taksim Square in an attempt to counter anti-government tweets. Mostly in their early 20s, the pro-government social media trolls started to incessantly attack those who express views critical of the policies pursued by the government. I also received my share of attacks, particularly when I called on Turks to reject the military coup in Egypt in principle rather than standing behind ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

The attacks continued for several months and culminated on Dec. 25, when I pushed the tweet button on two news reports published in our newspaper. One of the articles was on a Saudi businessman who is on the US global list of terrorists. He was one of the 45 suspects to be detained on the order of prosecutors investigating corruption, but the police chiefs refused to comply. Pro-government media immediately launched a ruthless smear campaign against me and my newspaper for “attempting to portray the Turkish prime minister as protecting al-Qaeda militants.” “Turkey, beware of this traitor” and “Treacherous tweet from a TZ journalist” were some of the headlines of stories published in the pro-government media as part of the smear campaign.

Several days later, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan filed a complaint against me for “inciting hatred and animosity among the public.” Given that I tweeted to an audience that is overwhelmingly foreign, one wonders how my tweets could incite animosity in Turkey.

The tweet I posted on Dec. 25 is the basis for Erdoğan’s criminal complaint, which says the tweet included “heavy insults and swear words in a bid to provoke the nation to hatred and animosity.”

Erdoğan’s lawyers said in a petition they submitted to the Ankara Public Prosecutor’s Office in December that my tweets constitute a “blunt assault on Erdoğan’s honor and reputation and his personal rights.” They said I had made false and provoking posts on Twitter and “committed a crime by going beyond the limits of criticism.”

In December, I applied to extend my press card. An official from the Prime Ministry’s Directorate General of Press and Information (BYEGM) told me over the phone that all my documents are in order and that he is putting them into the system. He told me that I could get my new press card within a week. In early January, I called the Ankara office of the BYEGM. An official told me that she can see I was accredited but that she is not sure why my card had not been delivered. She told me she would get back to me after learning about the fate of my press card. She never did. All officials with whom I spoke later in January told me the same thing but would never call me back. On Jan. 17, however, when I called the İstanbul office several times, an official from that institution told me over the phone that they had received a notice from Ankara ordering them not to issue me my press card. He refused to share any further details, only saying that they had used their discretion when making that decision.

In line with a law on the right to access information, I e-mailed, phoned, faxed and filled out a special form online to demand notification in writing that I had been denied my press card. They never responded.

Several days after this incident, the police called me to testify, where I said dozens of other newspapers and news portals had also published articles with similar content and that my sharing of two published articles should not be ground for criminal charges.

It became clear that the prosecutors would have difficulty pressing further charges against me because there is a lack of evidence to back them up. Four days after testifying, the Interior Ministry issued a directive to deport me for my tweets. Today’s Zaman learned from its sources about the decision. On Feb. 6, an official from the İstanbul Police Department’s Foreigners’ Branch phoned Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş to ask him to help them take me into custody.

A few hours after the phone call to Keneş, I went to İstanbul Atatürk Airport and surrendered to the police. They told me that they had never before seen a situation in which someone who has been ordered to leave surrenders. They told me the official procedure requires police officers to go to my house and bring me to the airport for deportation. Otherwise I had to pay a fine of more than TL 100 to leave the country. By default, my residence permit expires on Dec. 31, 2013, but I had extended it to March 10, 2014. In this period of less than three months, I have the right to stay but must pay a fine if I leave the country.

I told the police it was them who are deporting me and that I do not want to leave so that asking me to pay any fine is unfair. They reiterated that I had acted contrary to official deportation procedure and that I should have waited at home for police officers to detain and deport me. To avoid further trouble, I paid the fine. The airport police unit tasked a police officer to escort me to my flight. Without having to wait in line for passport control, the officer escorting me gave my documents to another police officer who would stamp my passport and order me to leave the country. The escorting police officer told his colleague to stamp the passport for deportation. The exit stamp in my passport, however, is a normal one and does not say that I was deported.

When people both in Turkey and around the world expressed outrage over my deportation, the pro-government social media trolls circulated a directive allegedly issued by the Interior Ministry, stating that my residence permit had expired on Dec. 31, 2013, ignoring the fact that I had extended my right to stay in the country for another two-and-a-half months. The directive also noted that the press body responsible for issuing the press card refused to do so, which makes it impossible for me to extend my residence permit on March 10.

The Interior Ministry directive is dated Feb. 7, a day after the police called Keneş and
demanded to know my whereabouts so that I could be detained and deported. Later on Friday, another Interior Ministry directive, this time dated Feb. 4, was leaked to the media, saying that I was deported over my tweets.

The Interior Ministry cannot argue that I should be deported because I will not be able to get my press card extended simply because I can present other types of documents that could allow me to stay here. I am married to a Turkish citizen, which gives me the right to stay and work in Turkey. If I refuse to show up with new documents on March 10 and do not apply for a residence permit as someone who is married to a Turkish citizen, then the Interior Ministry could say that my residence permit has expired and that I have not taken any action to extend it. Without that March 10 deadline, the Interior Ministry cannot predict what I would do and order my deportation. This explanation is for those who argue that I was deported because my residence permit had expired. The original document, however, shows that the residence permit claim is simply a way to avoid criticism and that I was deported for my tweets.


The decision to deport me also indirectly equals the deportation of my Turkish wife, who is supposed to live with me. She also left Turkey for Azerbaijan on Friday.

A well-respected senior journalist once said, “You can only be a real foreign journalist if you are prosecuted or deported.” Thank God I faced both in Turkey. What saddens me, though, is that it happened in a country I am deeply attached to.”