Bored one night in a hotel room in a Turkish city, freelance interpreter Sebla Küçük began translating a series of live tweets from American reporters covering a November 2017 legal hearing in New York.
The case seemed curious to her, involving a Turkish-Iranian gold trader accused of evading US sanctions against Iran. She never imagined it would turn her into an instant internet sensation.
Almost overnight, the 34-year-old’s Twitter followers jumped from 50 to 15,000 and in just one month, her tweets were viewed 80 million times.
This massive public interest in a trial deemed a matter of national security by the government has served to highlight the shrinking space for press freedom in Turkey.
As a sign of growing self-censorship in an increasingly oppressive atmosphere, the trial – which implicated high-level Turkish officials in a multi-billion-dollar money laundering scheme – received very little attention by the mainstream media in that country.
Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab was arrested in Miami in 2016. He faced 95 years in prison before he pleaded guilty last November and became the main prosecution witness against Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla.
Atilla, who was arrested by the US authorities during a business trip to New York in March 2017, was the assistant general manager of Halkbank, one of the biggest state-owned banks in Turkey. US prosecutors accused him of conspiring with Zarrab and others – and with the approval of the Turkish government – to help Iran avoid US sanctions between 2010 and 2015. Turkish officials dismissed these claims and called the whole Zarrab-Atilla case a plot against their country.
The verdict in Atilla’s case will be announced on May 7. If found guilty, the 47-year old faces 30 years in prison.
Zarrab’s testimony included allegations that he bribed former Turkish minister of economy, Zafer Caglayan, with sums exceeding 50 million euros, and that President Reccip Tayab Erdogan himself –Turkey’s prime minister at the time relevant to the charges – personally approved the secret trade deal with Iran.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey is the world’s worst jailer of journalists, with at least 73 detained in 2017. Reporters Without Borders have warned that arrests and prosecutions are on the rise as the authorities become increasingly intolerant of all forms of criticism.
In this context, it was unsurprising that the Turkish media proved to be extremely cautious over reporting events that could be seen by their government as controversial or damaging.
Küçük did not consider these risks too closely on November 29, 2017, when – on a work trip in the north-western city of Kocaeli – she began translating live tweets from Zarrab’s hearing as it began in New York.
“I was in a small hotel room, with nothing to do, so I logged on to Twitter,” she said.
“I did not expect so much interest. I was surprised to see how many people followed me on Twitter,” she said.
During Atilla’s trial, which ended in January this year, Küçük dedicated eight hours a day to translating and posting the tweets on this case.
Her output was among the very few sources of information on Atilla’s case available to Turkish citizens. Compilations of her translated tweets were published by independent news outlets and left-wing newspapers, while some of her posts also appeared in pro-government newspapers and online news portals, without her name being revealed.
“Even some of my Twitter followers who support the ruling AK party said my effort [to cover this case] was respectable,” she said.
Zarrab: Sayın Başbakan bu ticaretin başlatılması için onay ve talimat verdi. https://t.co/9Cqn3zeL7A
— seblâ (@sebla_kucuk) November 30, 2017
Küçük, who said that in the past she had considered a media career herself, downplayed her citizen-journalist role.
Tanık, soruşturmada "1 Numara" dedikleri kişinin Recep Tayyip Erdoğan olduğunu söylüyor. https://t.co/nfuJKTnBfP
— seblâ (@sebla_kucuk) December 11, 2017
However, she acknowledged that she was afraid police would eventually raid her apartment as the subjects of the tweets became more sensitive.
“I was wondering whether I should translate or not the tweets implicating Erdogan, his son, and the minister [of energy, Berat] Albayrak. But I did, and these tweets spread very fast,” she said. “My followers told me to stop, but I was just sharing information. These days, anyone in Turkey feels uncomfortable when doing such things.”
Nonetheless, most of her feedback had been mostly positive, including offers of money and practical help from fixing her internet connection, to making her hot drinks or bringing her food. To Küçük’s amusement, some followers even offered to marry her.
“I received some threats and insults, but nothing really worth mentioning,” she said.
“People who identified themselves as Atilla’s relatives also communicated with me and thanked me.”
Küçük received job offers as well, but never seriously considered taking any money for her work. She admits there were times that her whole life seemed to revolve around translating and posting tweets from this trial, but she persisted until its end.
Now, she has no regrets. “I did my job and I feel good. I would do it all over again, even if the subject were riskier.”