Turkish journalist hit by water cannons explains story behind startling photo

Television journalist Husna Sari of Ulusal TV in Turkey was covering what she tells me was a peaceful demonstration in Ankara last Thursday when police opened fire on her with water cannons. The stark images of her being blasted off her feet quickly spread globally online.

I reached her by phone and after a quick conversation she agreed to answer my questions about the incident by email, which Poynter Online had translated from Turkish to English.

Husna said she had no doubt they knew she was a journalist. And how could they not have known? She was clearly visible to them, and then, there was the microphone. She was holding a large logo’ed microphone. “You can see what a person holds in his/her hand, when you are in a very close distance, right? I was holding a microphone. And I was showing it to the police on purpose, to show that I was a journalist. At that moment, I was trying to explain to our audience what was happening down there.”

There is also a video version of the incident here. At 1:18 into the video, you can see Sari and others get knocked to the ground, then she quickly picks herself back up.  Here is another version of the video in stop-action to make it easier to see Sari as she attempted to report, then was hit.

The protest in Ankara was just one of many that have formed across Turkey in recent weeks. Many involve public complaints over government censorship of Internet content. But this protest was different. Husna explained, “Turkey is now a country of censors but in that demonstration people didn’t protest the internet censorship. It was a demonstration set up to stop the unfair imprisonment of scientists, soldiers and journalists (who were jailed) by the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer (Balyoz) trials. As an observing journalist, I am seeing this everywhere that it was completely a peaceful demonstration. People out there only wanted to make a press statement. Police didn’t allow that. But what interests me is not the purpose of the demonstration but to make (report) news from there.”

Tompkins: Were you hurt?  We see others rescuing you. Were they also journalists?

Husna Sari: Yes, I was injured. I still have bruises and feel pain in my body. But not serious enough to effect my daily life. People who attended the demonstration were the ones who tried to save (help) me. And when I moved outside the area, a journalist from Aydınlık newspaper helped me.

Turkish riot police fire water cannons and tear gas at thousands of demonstrators who were trying to march to the Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. The protesters were demanding the release of army officers jailed for allegedly plotting a coup against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and were shouting: “Freedom to patriots, end conspiracies.” (AP Photo)

Tompkins: You were hit by water — what was the red colored liquid they were spraying at you?

Sari: It must be some kind of colorant that they have mixed with the water. I guess this is a chemical that leaves color on the demonstrator’s clothes after the demonstration. And according to some rumors, pepper gas was also added to the water. Because later on, that water burns your body as if the body is thrown into fire.

Tompkins-How dangerous is it there for journalists?  I see you were already wearing a gas mask when you were hit by the cannons.

Sari: I don’t think that the danger for journalists only exists in Turkey. But lately Turkey has become more dangerous than the older times. Because, in each demonstration the police are using excessive force. And especially the journalists are targeted. That day I was not the only journalist who got hurt, some of my friends were shot by plastic bullets. We needed to use gas masks, because the pepper gas terribly burns our eyes and throats. Otherwise we would not be able do our job in such an atmosphere.

Just imagine a hand grasping your lungs, and your ribs resist you each time you breath and oxygen; in that very moment, the only thing you need is some fresh air that will fluid from your throat into your lungs, clean air that doesn’t give you pain. You feel like burning as if a fire ball has been thrown at your body, your face and your hands. You suffocate while you are burnt. [...] This is how pepper gas and water cannon is.

Turkish riot police fire water cannons and tear gas at thousands of demonstrators who were trying to march to the Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. The protesters were demanding the release of army officers jailed for allegedly plotting a coup against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and were shouting: “Freedom to patriots, end conspiracies.” (AP Photo)

Tompkins: Why did you get so close and take the risk?

Sari: We were making (reporting) news at the forefront, between the police and the demonstrators. Our purpose was to transmit what was happening down there. This is similar to asking a war reporter, “Why did you go to war?”

Tompkins: What has the reaction been from your viewers?

Sari:  The feedback from the audience was wonderful. There were very positive messages on the social media. And the support coming from the Turkish public made me feel very happy. To know that the public and free press in Turkey is with me. Actually what I have experienced was not a personal situation. Because, many of my colleagues have faced the same violence that I have experienced, and the criticism was for the violence (used) against the press. What makes me happy the most is the forming of such awareness. And the news channel that I am working for is known as one of the free media organizations in Turkey.

Tompkins: Tell me about yourself. How long have you been a journalist? Do you have a lot of experience covering protests like these?

Sari: Actually I am a painter. I did my bachelor’s and master’s degree on painting. I am new to a journalism career. But I was working in the school newspaper when I was a student. I chose this profession because being a journalist was more appealing to being a painter.
 

Yes, but painters don’t have to wear gas masks to work and painters don’t come home soaking wet from being blasted by water cannons and pepper spray. And most painters don’t have the opportunity to tell the world about repression and censorship that her fellow Turks are willing to oppose, even at the risk of their very lives.

 

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