Turkey’s War on Journalists
As Prime Minister Erdogan's government grows increasingly intolerant of dissent, the media is bearing the brunt of its effort to silence its critics.
ISTANBUL —When the terrorism trial of jailed Turkish journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener began in Istanbul on Nov. 22, only a handful of their colleagues — far fewer than expected — gathered in protest outside the courthouse that will decide their fate.
A mosaic of the smiling photographs of many of Turkey’s detained journalists was laid out on the ground at the foot of a swarm of TV tripods, their cameras aiming for a glimpse of the defendants. Sik and Sener’s case is perhaps the most high-profile example of what critics see as the Turkish government’s crackdown on critical voices, which has transformed it into one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists.
Some of the protesters wore T-shirts with a cartoon of a hand covering the mouth of someone trying to speak. Others carried signs written in English and Turkish. "TURKEY SET JOURNALISTS FREE; THERE CAN BE NO FREE SOCIETY WITHOUT FREE JOURNALISM," read the centerpiece.
Only one prominent columnist from the mainstream daily Haber Turk, Ece Temelkuran, was willing to risk joining those outside the courthouse. Already that morning, a colleague dropped by her office to tell her he was too afraid to go. He had moved his wife and children abroad and will join them as soon as he can.
"I too am afraid," Temelkuran admitted, eyeing the size of the crowd. "I’m freaking out." Having written repeatedly against what she sees as a crackdown on those who oppose AKP or Erdogan, she keeps a lawyer on stand-by should she be summoned.
Indeed, during the demonstration several people approached Temelkuran, a recognizable public figure, and said, "Next time, we’ll be here for you."
Sik and Sener have been detained since March, on charges that seemed at first too ludicrous to stand. They are accused of being members of Ergenekon, a shadowy, ultranationalist group that allegedly has been trying to foment a coup against the Turkish government – despite the fact that Sik is known in Turkey for having written the definitive exposé on the group.
Sik’s supporters believe he ran afoul of the Turkish justice system when he began to investigate the influence of the Fethullah Gulen movement, a powerful Islamist network that is one of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most important pillars of support. Sener’s research into the murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink — which asserted that the police and the state were involved in his killing — touched on another of Turkey’s taboo subjects.
Sik and Sener’s detention are hardly an anomaly in today’s Turkey. Currently, 76 Turkish journalists are in jail, more than in any other country. In a Dec. 20, roundup, several more journalists were among those newly detained when the Turkish government jailed roughly 40 people, accusing them of links to Kurdish militants.
In addition to journalists, Erdogan’s government has jailed lawyers, academics, and students, also ostensibly on terrorism-related charges that critics counter are transparent attempts to stifle freedom of expression and dissent.
The arrests, however, have yet to shock the conscience of most Turks. In June, voters returned Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in a landslide. The current narrative that dominates discussion about Turkey — both internationally and domestically — emphasizes its booming economy and regional ascendance. For admirers in the Arab world, the AKP’s devout orientation represents a path they seek to emulate. And for those in the West concerned by Arab Islamist parties’ success at the ballot box, Erdogan’s party is a comforting model for reconciling piety and democracy. Similarly, with the United States eyeing an opportunity to weaken Iran’s influence in the region, specifically in Syria, Turkey has become ever more strategically important.
With Turkey and Erdogan basking in the glow of such electoral and international approval, watch-groups and critics say AKP feels entitled to have an equally friendly media and public at home.
"AKP has started to act like a civil authoritarian regime," said a representative of Insan Haklari Dernegi, which monitors the human rights situation in Turkey. Currently, three of its four branch directors are in prison, and the organization requested anonymity for this article due to fears of persecution at the hands of the government. "Exactly when AKP gained its big electoral mandate, they felt themselves so powerful, that they could do what they want because the public legitimized their power; they are like a spoiled child."
Indeed, Erdogan has taken to lashing out at journalists that displease him and lecturing the media on its coverage. At a closed door meeting in late October, Erdogan met with media owners and executives regarding their coverage of the Kurdish conflict, in which he urged them not to become tools of the propaganda of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a long guerrilla war against the Turkish state. Almost immediately following the meeting, five leading Turkish news agencies issued a joint statement that they were going to "comply with the publication bans of the competent authorities." Reporters Without Borders described the development as "disturbing" and a "serious threat to freedom of information."
Meanwhile, the Turkey’s journalists remain on edge as they await the verdict in Sik and Sener’s case. Their trial has been adjourned till Dec. 26, and Sik and Sener will remain in jail at least until that time.
"There’s no free media when you have a government that wants all under their control," said Banu Güven, after hearing the news. A popular TV host, she lost her job at the Turkish news channel NTV after objecting to a ban on interviews with leading Kurdish campaigners. "The prime minister talks about a well developed and progressive democracy. He makes these concepts void."
Defenders of the government deny that these journalists’ arrests are about silencing opposition. "AKP are way too popular to need that," said columnist Mustafa Akyol, who has praised Erdogan while still being critical of Sik and Sener’s imprisonment.
Akif Beki, who was Erdogan’s spokesperson from 2005 to 2009 and has also been vocally critical of the arrests of Sik and Sener agreed. "The process would not start with them," he said. "[T]here are bigger voices to silence."
Erdogan’s supporters contend that Sik and Sener’s detention is the unfortunate result of an overzealous pursuit of what are, however, very real threats in Turkey: the armed conflict with Kurdish separatists and the frequency of military-orchestrated coups against democratically elected governments. AKP supporters contend that the government is dismantling what has become known as the "Deep State" — a group of military-controlled apparatuses that are the self-appointed guardians of Turkey’s secular political system.
However, critics say those organizations were left intact — and instead, Erdogan has used the trials to silence his critics and purge the military of career professionals. "Turkey did not undergo the liberal transformation we hoped for," said the representative of Insan Haklari Dernegi. "The process did not change, just those who are in power."
"What is new in Turkey is that before, media freedom was limited because of Turkey’s ‘integrity and security,’" explained Rusen Cakir, a prominent Turkish journalist for the daily Vatan who is an expert on the AKP. "Now journalists are harassed in the name of the ‘advanced democracy.’"
Even if elements of the Deep State are still plotting against the Turkish government, many of those arrested – including Sik and Sener — are unlikely members of this shadowy cabal. The weakness of the evidence so far presented by prosecutors has only increased critics’ suspicions that the charges are politically motivated. For example, in one seminal case, significant state’s evidence is found in documents that include information that could not possibly have been known at the time they were supposedly drafted, suggesting that they are forgeries.
Many of these cases are being brought under changes made in 2005 to the Turkish law on terrorism. These changes included the offense of "venerating" terrorism, which criminalizes speech that is considered favorable to organizations like the PKK. Terrorism charges are investigated and heard by courts where the process afforded defendants is much less rigorous than in non -terrorism criminal proceedings.
Indeed, an AP report released in September on global terrorism convictions since 9/11 found that more than half come from two countries that have been accused of using anti-terror laws to crack down on dissent: Turkey and China (and China is far more populous than Turkey). Turkey alone accounted for a third of all global convictions, with 12,897.
The day of the protest outside the courthouse, Temelkuran invoked these numbers in her column for Haber Turk. "Did we suddenly start breeding terrorists in this country?" she asked. "Is this country so crazy as to consist of one-third of the terrorists in the world?"
Supporters of Ahmet Sik believe his two-volume book on Ergenekon is a conclusive answer to any claims he is part of the conspiracy. Rather, they believe his imprisonment has been sparked by his latest, unfinished book — The Imam’s Army. In the book, Sik investigates how the followers of Fethullah Gulen — a Turkish preacher living in self-imposed exile in the United States — have infiltrated the police. He described the close-knit relationship between Gulenists and the AKP, and argued that without the Gulenists, Erdogan’s party would not have been able to bring the security forces under its control.
When Sik was finally questioned, according to Sik’s lawyer and the transcript of his interrogation, most of the questions were about the book he was currently writing.
Sik and his wife Yonca first realized he might be in trouble when news broke in February that an Ergenekon-related government raid on the offices of OdaTV had turned up a draft of The Imam’s Army.
They were shocked — initially by the fact that a draft of his book had ended up in those offices. And then reality quickly sunk in: Would the government really try to tie Sik to the organization he had worked for years to expose?
Weeks later, they woke to the barking of their golden retriever, Pablo. Eleven policemen were at the door with a warrant. Even as they searched their house for seven hours, Yonca still thought the absurdity of it all would bring the nightmare to a rapid end. So when the police prepared to lead Sik away, and the women who had come in solidarity — veterans of the days when the Deep State took people away — suggested she pack him a bag, Yonca didn’t think it was necessary. But she folded a fresh pair of underwear and an undershirt and sent it with Ahmet in case he stayed the night.
On Dec. 26, the next opportunity for a court to free Ahmet, it will have been 298 nights.
Yonca won’t say she’s optimistic, but she refuses to believe that all is lost. "I feel strong and that I have the power to fight this thing," she says. "I hope the Arab Spring is the model for us."