What happened to Serena Shim in Turkey last year?

What happened to Serena Shim in Turkey last year?
6 min read
21 Oct, 2015
Comment: The death of the journalist has never been fully explained, writes Vijay Prashad.
Shim, 29, was killed last year in a road collision [Anadolu]

In a cemetery in Bourj el-Barajneh, one of the southern suburbs of Lebanon's capital, is a grave for a young reporter - Press TV's Serena Shim.

Shim was killed in a road collision, aged 29, on October 19 last year.

Shim and her cousin, Judy Irish, drove in a rental car north from the Turkey-Syria border. They had left the area where Shim had been reporting on the ongoing and heated battle in the Syrian town of Kobane.

Kurdish militias had fiercely tried to defend the city from a protracted IS assault. The rental car was en route to Suruç in Turkey when a large truck collided with them. It killed Shim immediately. Her cousin survived the collision.

Was the death of Serena Shim merely an accident? Turkish authorities say that this was a tragedy and that the truck driver was arrested.

Local authorities are vague about the whereabouts of the truck driver, Sükrü Salan. They deny that the driver was responsible for the death, since - they say - the rental car was speeding.

Local officials even hinted that they wanted to arrest Shim's cousin, Judy Irish, for her death.

I have not yet been able to get hold of the investigative report from Suruç, if indeed such a report exists. Hurriyet said it they had such a report, but this has not been corroborated. There was no trial. Neither against Salan nor Irish. The investigation seems to have disappeared.

Was Shim assassinated? Car crashes have historically been a commonplace method of the Turkish intelligence agency (MIT) to get rid of uncomfortable people. The most famous such crash led to the 1996 Susurluk scandal, when a car crash in Susurluk revealed an assassination plot that implicated the police, the mafia and politicians alike.

     Local officials even hinted that they wanted to arrest Shim's cousin, Judy Irish, for her death.

Was Serena's crash merely an accident, or was it more than that? Was Serena Shim killed for some reason? Conspiracies are fed when governments are economical with the truth.

About ten days before she died, just after her 29th birthday on October 7, Shim was sent by Press TV to cover the conflict on the Syria-Turkey border. She told her friend Farah Atoui in Beirut that she was "excited about going to Turkey".

Atoui told me that Serena Shim "simply fell in love with the atmosphere and the Turkish people". This was not her first reporting trip to Turkey. Even at her young age, Shim was a professional - she had reported from Iraq and Ukraine. War was familiar.

When Farah Atoui asked Shim to come back to Beirut, Shim replied on Facebook: "Farah, you are crazy. When I was in Iraq, I had bombs around me while reporting. You had asked me to stay. Nothing happened to me. Now that I am in Turkey, a safer area, you are asking me to come back!"

Nonetheless, Shim did tell Atoui that this was going to be her last reporting trip. She had two young children - a girl, then two, and a four-year-old boy. She wanted to spend more time with them.

Serena Shim's mother, Judy Poe, remembers that her daughter - whom she calls "Sassy" - enjoyed war reporting. "Sassy lived the war with the people," she said. "She was aware of the importance of the information that she obtained. She literally filmed with her cell phone" if there was no camera with her. Nothing deterred her from getting the story.

The war in Kobane had been at full tilt. Shim arrived at the border and began to cover a very disturbing story. She found trucks with a "World Food Organisation" logo crossed the border freely.

These trucks did not seem to be from any such organisation, but seemed to carry armed fighters into Syria. Shim's reports showed that the jihadis seemed to have complete freedom to move across the border, despite what the Turkish government had been saying in public.

What Shim reported was not so unusual. Barzan Iso, a Syrian Kurdish journalist, showed that a Qatari charity had used the Jarabulus crossing to get aid to IS-controlled areas.

Can Dündar, editor in chief of Cumhuriyet, published pictures of trucks believed to be from the MIT carrying arms into Syria. I had also reported that the airports had been used by IS. Oğuzeli Airport in Gaziantep had come to resemble the old airport in Pakistan's Peshawar.

Dündar faced the music from the Turkish justice ministry. Gültekin Avcı of Bugün had also made allegations over links between Turkish intelligence and radical Islamists. He was arrested and charged with subversion. Others whom I know worked on this story had visits from Turkish intelligence.

One officer reportedly said plainly: "Either you take a flight home or we'll put you across the border into IS territory."

On October 17, on air, Shim told her anchor at Press TV that Turkish intelligence had accused her of spying. She said that this was probably due to her coverage of the porous border. She was very frightened.

Her friend Fatah Atoui worried for her, but could not get speak to Shim in Suruç. "She was very busy," Aroui told me, "and we didn't have time to talk."

Shim's mother, Judy Poe, did speak to her. Shim told her she was scared. Two days later, she was dead.

     Shim told her mother she was scared. Two days later, she was dead

Shim's family and friends have heard nothing of what happened. The Turkish government, Shim's mother says, "never responded to my inquires". When she persisted on twitter, the government blocked her. Press TV has failed to respond to her either, she says.

Most strikingly, despite Shim's US citizenship, there has been no help from the US embassy in Ankara or from the State Department.

"The silence from the US government speaks volumes to us as a family," says Poe. No US official would go on record about the death of Serena Shim. The banalities of grief have also not been shared by the government. This is what deepens the mystery.

Turkey has been unkind to its journalists. On October 14, the Turkish government arrested Bülent Kenes, editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman for insulting Turkey's president on Twitter. He was taken to Silivri Prison.

Earlier this month, another popular critic of the Turkish government, Ahmet Hakan of Hürriyet and Tarafsiz Bölge, was beaten on the streets of Istanbul. Abdurrahim Boynakalin, a Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy and close ally of the Turkish president, is reported to have led an assault on the Hürriyet office, and even said that he would "wait" for Hakan at his home.

Cem Küçük, who writes for a pro-AKP paper, wrote of Hakan in his column: "We will crush you like a bug if we wish. It is only because we have been merciful to you until now that you are still alive."

This is the climate of animosity against the press from the Turkish government's deputies and press. This is the context in which we have to see the death of Serena Shim, a brave woman.

Vijay Prashad is a columnist at Frontline and a senior research fellow at AUB's Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs. His latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2014 paperback).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.