Turkish Scientist Sentenced To Prison For Publishing His Work

Dilovasi is one of many places in Turkey with high pollution and high cancer rates, but when a scientist reported these are linked he was sentenced to prison. Yasemin Yurtman Candemir/Shutterstock

For repressive governments, speaking unwanted truths is a revolutionary act, to be punished harshly. For scientists, it's their job. When Dr Bülent Şık found evidence linking soil and water pollution to cancer in western Turkey the government didn’t want to know. Şık responded by publishing his findings in a popular newspaper and has been sentenced to jail for “disclosure of prohibited information”, but is currently free while he appeals.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Şık’s situation is that his work was commissioned by a government department, the Ministry of Health. His brother being an opposition member of parliament didn't prevent Şık, then deputy director of the Food Safety and Agricultural Research Center at Akdeniz University being assigned to study whether pollutants in soil and water were increasing cancer.

Şık and colleagues found unsafe levels of hydrocarbons and pesticides in agricultural samples, and some water supplies were so laden with heavy metals they were deemed undrinkable. However, when he presented the report to the department in 2015, nothing happened.

After three years of frustration, Şık published his findings in a serialized report in Cumhuriyet, a newspaper his brother used to work for that suffers frequent censorship. By this time Şık had already lost his job for signing a petition calling for peace with Kurdish separatists.

Şık might have avoided jail if he had offered an apology for his actions, but he's not backing down. He is using his window of freedom until the appeal is heard to Tweet other examples of the government failing to address dangers to its citizens; for example, buildings made obviously unsafe by a recent earthquake being described as having “no risk-causing damage”. He is also making sure the world knows, retweeting statements of support for his actions in Turkish and English, and noting: "The Ministry of Health did not deny my data... The only thing the Ministry has done is sue me."

The appeal itself is something of a risk, since the maximum penalty of 12 years in prison is much heavier than the 15-month sentence Şık received.

Prior to the sentencing, Amnesty International stated: “Dr Şık publicized his findings because the authorities failed to act upon them. His actions are protected under the right to freedom of expression which includes the right to freely disseminate and receive information.

Scientists and activists campaigning against similar pollutants elsewhere have expressed support.

Turkey experienced a wave of repression following a failed coup in 2016. Academics, including scientists, have been particularly in the firing line, but the grounds have usually been less obviously tied to their research.

Producing findings that offend polluters, particularly in the petrochemical industry, is increasingly hazardous for the employment of government scientists in the USA, and other western nations are not immune. So far, however, it has only threatened their jobs, not their freedom.

[H/T: ScienceMag]

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