Freedom of the Press for Beginners

Why some Turkish journalists have been celebrating the arrest of their colleagues -- and why that’s a huge mistake.

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Once again Turkish police have raided media outlets. So far they’ve detained at least 23 people on charges of forgery, slander, and “establishing a terrorist group.” The detainees include Ekrem Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of one of Turkey’s largest daily newspapers, Hikmet Karaca, the head of Samanyolu private TV network, and several senior police officers. (The photo above shows Dumanli being taken into custody by counter-terrorism police.)

The raids immediately triggered an international outcry. Both the United States and the European Union have warned Turkey about imprisoning journalists. “As Turkey’s friend and ally, we urge the Turkish authorities to ensure their actions do not violate core values and Turkey’s own democratic foundations,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued its own statement: “Turkish authorities, who have a history of politicized prosecutions against the media, do not tolerate critical reporting. The heavy-handed actions this morning smack of political vengeance.” “The detentions are against the European values and standards Turkey aspires to be part of,” said Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, and Johannes Hahn, commissioner for EU enlargement. They warned that Turkey’s progress toward EU membership, which has stalled in recent years, “depends on the full respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights.” Some members of the European Parliament even suggested that the membership negotiations should be suspended.

Yet these strong warnings don’t seem to have impressed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He slammed the criticism from Brussels and told the Europeans to mind their own business. “We have no concern about what the EU might say, whether the EU accepts us as members or not, we have no such concern. Please keep your wisdom to yourself,” Erdogan said on Monday.

The Turkish president’s statements didn’t come as a surprise. What struck observers as more interesting was the celebratory tone assumed by some Turkish journalists on social media. Pro-government reporters seemed absolutely thrilled about the arrest of their colleagues.

The reason for the gloating has something to do with the past practices of the media outlets targeted in the raids. Both Zaman and Samanyolu are linked to the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, once a strong ally of Erdogan, now his sworn enemy. Erdogan, who habitually describes the Gulen movement as a “parallel structure” that has infiltrated the judiciary, the police, and other institutions, has often attacked it for manipulating public opinion through the media. Since the last year he’s accusing it of orchestrating a plot to overthrow his government. The government says Gulen’s followers were behind the corruption allegations that last year forced four cabinet ministers to resign.

Before the nasty divorce of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gulen movement, the two groups were inseparable. Last month the now imprisoned editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanli gave an interview to the newspaper Hurriyet in which he highlighted their once-close relationship. “If Erdogan accuses the Gulen movement of being a [criminal] organization,” Dumanli said, “he should just as well be prosecuted of being a member himself.”

It’s true that the Gulen movement once gave strong support to the AKP government during the Gezi protests of 2013 as well during the notorious Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases (controversial judicial procedures featuring massive forensic forgery against the foes of the Gulenists and the AKP). In the course of the two campaigns many military officers, journalists, activists, and academics were arrested and sentenced to heavy penalties. While it’s certainly a good thing that the army will no longer be intervening in Turkish politics, the witch hunts, smear campaigns, and extrajudicial arrests — in short, just about everything about those trials — was flawed.

Perhaps the best example of the questionable proceedings against enemies of the AKP/Gulen alliance was the case involving Ahmet Sik. Sik, an award-winning journalist and author, was arrested on March 3, 2011, along with another award-winning investigative reporter by the name of Nedim Sener. The arrests were widely viewed as political retaliation for their writings. At the time of his arrest Sik was working on a book entitled The Imam’s Army, an exposé of Gulen and his followers. On March 24, 2011, Turkish police raided the office of the newspaper Radikal in an attempt to eradicate all copies of the book before publication, which they characterized as an “illegal organizational document.” As Sik was being arrested, he shouted, “Whoever touches [them] burns,” referring to the Gulen Movement. Not surprisingly the Gulenist media defended the imprisonment of the journalists and Sik and Sener were prosecuted on charges of plotting to topple the government.

At the time of Sik’s arrest, Ekrem Dumanli, who was detained last week, wrote an article that seemed to justify the behavior of the authorities. “Using the concept of freedom of press people argued that journalists were being suppressed, that the Ergenekon investigation had gone overboard and that Turkey was turning into a police state. Do these people who make such harsh criticisms have any concrete information, document [sic], or evidence in their hands? No.”

So now that history is repeating itself with a twist, some of those who were targeted by Gulenist media in the past are now letting their feelings of revenge get the better of them, apparently reveling in the thought that Gulen’s followers are finally getting a taste of their own bitter medicine.

But this is not the time to settle old scores. Turkish journalists should stop acting like their own worst enemies and support the free and independent press regardless of their political affiliations, ethnicity, or religion. Such a stance by no means implies sympathy for the Gulenist media or their questionable practices; the reality is that the profession itself is on life support, and the only way to resuscitate is to leave differences aside and unite against the growing suppression of press freedom. For his part, Ahmet Sik, who ended up spending a year in jail on absurd charges, denounced the arrests forcefully. He tweeted: “What happens to the Gulen movement today, itself a powerful supporter of the fascism we faced a few years ago, is also called fascism. It is an ethical obligation to oppose fascism.”

Berivan Orucoglu is the Turkey blogger for Transitions and a fellow at the McCain Institute’s Next Generation Leaders Program. She tweets @beribo, and you can read the rest of her posts here.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Berivan Orucoglu is an award-winning Turkish journalist and a member of the Next Generation Leader program of the McCain Institute.