Turkey is experiencing a record level of state-led censorship. Last week the government banned Twitter and Youtube ahead of local elections to stem the flow of dissent and criticism aimed at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But astonishingly while Mr Erdogan continues to crackdown on press freedoms and civil liberties, Istanbul's transgender community is finding a new voice.
During one of my recent return trips to Istanbul, I tracked down Michelle, a transgender activist who I had met the night of a hate crime murder in Istanbul in 2009. Since the anti-government protests erupted last summer over plans to redevelop a park, she has secured her dream job. Working for the liberal private channel IMC, Michelle has become Turkey's first transgender TV reporter.
'It's not easy. I get harassed sometimes by people and the police, but I don't care anymore because I love my job. I want to make documentaries and write books. Journalism is my dream,' says Michelle.
It's a sign of how far the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community have come in Turkey. But they are still often the target of hate crimes and violence by those who either want to control them or don't approve of their sexual identity.
The night I met Michelle was a dark night for Istanbul's LGBT community, March 10, 2009. Standing outside the apartment block of her friend Ebru Sokyan, a prominent transgender human rights activist, who was killed in her Istanbul home just twenty metres above our heads, hundreds of mourners had started to gather. It was emotionally charged, the fear evident on their faces. Ebru had filed reports with the police against the man who killed her in the weeks prior to her death. She complained that he had beaten her repeatedly, but the police did nothing.
A Human Rights Watch Report published shortly after Ebru's death reads: 'In 2007, Lambda Istanbul, an NGO working for LGBT rights, twice submitted a file of 146 cases they had documented to the Istanbul Provincial Human Rights Board, many dealing with reports of violence against transgender people, including cases of violence by the police. Several of these cases had been reported to the police. The then-deputy governor of Istanbul told Lambda Istanbul that the governor's office had found no records of these allegations and complaints in the police districts involved.'
This fits with Michelle's story. But in her case she says records of an arrest mysteriously disappeared. Michelle claims that the police entered her home one night, detained her and took her to the local police station where she was raped.
'When I returned with a lawyer to make a complaint, there wasn't even a record of my arrest. It's as if I had never even been taken there.' She says.
The government has promised to increase punishment for hate crime, however, Hurriyet Daily News paper reported in December 2013 that, 'The long-anticipated "democratization package" was finally submitted to Parliament on Dec. 5, but the 17-article package's content with regard to hate crimes does not touch upon the social and cultural aspects of hate crime at all.' Meaning that it doesn't define crimes carried out in the name of sexual orientation.
While it seems Turkey's LGBT community have a long way to go to ensure legal recognition and protection, Michelle's new role in the media is a courageous new front in the fight for equality. It hasn't been an easy relationship. I remember calling her a couple years after Ebru's death on one of my frequent return trips and she refused to meet with me, such was the fear of speaking to journalists. An attitude connected perhaps to the continual and rigorous censorship that exists in the Turkish media today. If you're not pro-government and therefore pro-conservative values, you eventually go out of business.
It's a miracle then that IMC is still afloat after being launched in 2011. These days Michelle's professional life is providing her with a fragile security. In the public eye, she is somewhat protected by those who support her but also vulnerable to those who do not.
Her attitude is inspiring and sheds a glimmer of hope that even with the government tightening its hold on personal freedoms in Turkey, that on a gut level Turks are pro-democracy and freedom loving individuals.
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