The record number of reporters imprisoned in Turkey threatens to extinguish the flame of democratic reform.
A year ago, police burst into the homes of two of Turkey’s best investigative journalists, Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, and carted them off to prison where they remained until last night, charged with crimes so nebulous even prosecutors can’t explain them.
They are not alone. Turkey now holds the world record for locking up journalists, leaving Iran and China scrabbling in the dust, with by most reckonings 103 reporters behind bars, as opposed to 42 in Tehran and 27 in China. More journalists were arrested in Istanbul in one morning over Christmas than the Chinese managed all year – who says Europe can no longer compete?
Sik and Sener’s dramatic release on bail yesterday after an international outcry hopefully shows the Turkish authorities are finally coming to their senses. Both men are nevertheless still looking at up to 15 years in prison for basically doing their job.
The exact number of journalists in prison awaiting trial is hard to pin down – estimates range from eight to 122, with 103 being the most generally accepted – because the charges against them can be kept secret under Turkey’s draconian anti-terrorist laws. The lowest figure is a provisional one from the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists, which believes its final verified count may top 90. Another 30 press workers are in jail, rounded up under laws drafted by the country’s former military rulers and enforced by a judiciary cut from the same cloth.
Two columnists from the website Oda TV, who had also been held in solitary confinement in the same prison as Sik and Sener, were also bailed last night. But as they were hugged and cheered by their families and supporters, other journalists were still being arrested.
On Saturday night, Ozlem Agus became the 106th journalist to be jailed, accused of “spreading terrorist propaganda” by breaking the story of the rape and sexual abuse of minors charged with terrorist offences held in an adult prison near Adana. Having ignored his reporting for months, the government was forced to react to the scandal last week. The price was Agus’s freedom. The following day, another Kurdish reporter was remanded in custody accused of the same crime.
This has all come amid a blizzard of prosecutions of journalists that now tops 4,000, the latest brought this weekend by the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who claims the independent daily Taraf injured his dignity by imputing in an editorial that he had become increasingly “arrogant, uninformed and uninterested” in reform.
So how could a country that is held up as a poster boy for democratic reform and economic success, the model Muslim democracy for the Arab spring to follow, go quite so horribly wrong?
The answer, or much of it, lies in that police raid last March on the homes of Sik and Sener, and shows how Turkey’s once reformist government has succumbed to the same old repressive paranoia of the military-nationalist establishment it was elected to clear away nearly 10 years ago.
Sik and Sener have spent years winning international awards for excavating the Turkish “deep state”, the shadowy cabals within the military and civil service who staged four coups in as many decades in the name of protecting Ataturk’s secular legacy, and shackled Turkey with its present constitution, the most authoritarian this side of Pyongyang.
Yet they ended up in prison as a part of the 18th wave of arrests into another putative coup, the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy to overthrow Erdogan’s moderately Islamic AK party government – a plot revealed by none other than Sik and his colleagues at the Nokta magazine. Sener had meanwhile exposed staggering official negligence, if not connivance, in the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, and was in the process of linking the killing to Ergenekon. (To give you an idea of how surreally skewed press freedom in Turkey is, prosecutors initially demanded Sener serve a longer sentence for revealing the scandal than the one they demanded for Dink’s killers.)
It would be funny if the circumstances of the Dink case were not so horribly tragic. And then it got even worse. The police began bugging the two journalists’ phones, hoping to piggy-back on their inquiries, having arrested 700 military figures and other government opponents over four years with little or nothing to show for it investigating Ergenekon and another alleged coup plot.
In so doing, they discovered Sik was writing a book on a “second deep state”, one run in opposition to the Kemalist military by police officers, business leaders and AK party politicians loyal to the exiled theologian Fethullah Gulen, often hailed as the visionary behind Turkey’s democratic Islamic enlightenment.
The Gulen movement – a kind of sufi freemasons where secrecy and jobs for the boys are squared by good works and the common goal of a Turkey guided by a revived, scientific Islam – owns the country’s biggest selling newspaper, Zaman, controls hundreds of Jesuit-style schools turning out its new, religiously minded elite and various charities and TV channels.
Suddenly, Sik the man who stymied the nascent military coup against the government was accused of being part of it. Police not only seized his unfinished manuscript on the Gulen movement, The Army of the Imam,they destroyed it, and began a paperchase to destroy any other copies that might exist.
Gulen may preach openness and tolerance of other faiths, but the movement run in his name is a model of opacity – understandably so given the history of repression of similar dervish orders by the old, rigidly Kemalist elite. Sadly, however, the new observant elite appear to have inherited their secular predecessors’ love of conspiracy, as well as their fearsome arsenal of repressive laws. None of which bodes well for justice and transparency in the new Turkey Gulen and his millions of followers want to create, particularly when the prime minister and AK party luminaries brand journalists who criticise them as “criminals and terrorists”.
Turkey is a much freer country today than the day the AK party came to power, and much of that is also due to the Gulen movement. But it is a funny kind of freedom, one where the internet is tracked and restricted and where freedom of speech comes at a price. Turkey stands proud again on the world stage as a major player and model to the Muslim world, yet at home no one risks being entirely open, nor entirely honest.
In this atmosphere, with renewed violence and repression in the Kurdish south-east, chest-beating nationalism, and such public tension between the devout and the secular that MPs cannot debate an education bill without two mass brawls in a week, a new constitution to replace the old military one is finally being broached. Erdogan, the rock on which hopes of reform once rested, has entered his third term in power ill and ill-tempered, his absolute majority in parliament fighting yesterday’s sectarian battles. The Turkish enlightenment may not yet be completely dead, but its flame is fading, locked away in the jails where so many journalists are now being held.
Let’s hope for all our sakes it gets a second chance of life.