When Mathias Depardon was released by the Turkish government on 09 June, he had been held in custody for 32 days. Detained on 08 May in Hasankeyf in South East Turkey, the French freelancer had been shooting on assignment for National Geographic.
“It was my first day photographing the new settlement of Hasankeyf, 30km from Batman,” he explains, adding that he had been in the region for 10 days and was driving back from Diyarbakir when he was stopped. “I was shooting outside a facility, when the police saw me on the the CCTV. It was 8am, and the police asked for my credentials and my Turkish press card.”
At the time, Depardon’s card was out of date as, having lived in Istanbul for five years, he had just submitted his documentation for renewal at the Turkish Ministry of the Interior. He was interrogated for 16 hours in a police station in Hasankeyf then taken to a detention centre operated by the National Department for Migration, an interior ministry offshoot, in the city of Gaziantep.
The day of his arrest the Turkish police took screenshots of pages from his social media, which showed images of the PKK, the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, that he had previously published in French media outlets. Depardon was accused of having created “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”, though he was never formally charged. An order for his deportation was issued on 11 May, but Depardon was not released.
“For the first 10 days, I was in total isolation,” he tells BJP. “I could not read or write within the first five days, I had nothing to help me escape my mind.”
Eventually he was given access to a lawyer, Emine Şeker, who became his only contact with the outside world. “The cell was dirty, but I tried to clean it so I would not lose myself,” says Depardon. “The noise of the guards’ keys became an obsession. I was trying to memorise every sound that I could hear from my cell, from the cars passing through the prison’s car park, to the shifts of all the people working in the facility.
“In order not to lose track of time, I noted the dates on the wall with a small plastic nib made from the bed, and I marked the key points and useful contacts to use during the meetings with my lawyer…I remember that when I was looking out from the small window in the cell, I saw birds flying through the bars. Now I was the one in the cage.”
But still he remained in captivity, so on 21 May he began a hunger strike. Five days later, French President, Emmanuel Macron, got involved in the case, speaking with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about Depardon’s release and, apparently, being assured that Erdoğan would look into it. Two weeks later, Depardon was released. He suspects the entire affair might have been “a diplomatic game”, designed to test the resolve of the recently-elected French leader.
Now free, Depardon is building a new life in France – leaving his home in Istanbul and relocating to Paris. He still hasn’t been formally put on trial but has been banned from Turkey for 12 months, which could be extended to five years when his case is finally tried in court. He says the whole thing has been an unforgettable experience, “a bad dream”, but adds that what happened to him is nothing compared to what’s happening to Turkish journalists and photographers.
The Turkish government has become steadily more authoritarian – especially since the failed, and bloody, attempted coup in July 2016, after which the government declared a state of emergency. Reporters Without Borders has stated that Erdoğan has used the state of emergency to “step up a witch-hunt against critics”, and described the level of media freedom in the country as “abysmal”.
“Turkey, which is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, is now the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists, with more than 100 detained,” RSF states. “More than 150 media outlets have been closed without reference to the courts. They have been closed by decrees issued under the state of emergency. Media pluralism has been reduced to a handful of low-circulation newspapers.”