Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Turkish Reporters Struggle Against Repression

Der Spiegel
Daniel Steinvorth

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey has sparked international criticism over its treatment of journalists who dare to criticize the government, with many jailed on terrorism charges. The recent release of prominent reporters may signal change, but more than 100 journalists are still imprisoned in the country, more than in China or Iran. 

He has done things in the last 375 days that he would never have imagined doing before. He made dumbbells out of pipe sections, watched too much television, and at some point he discovered the sunflower seeds. That was when he realized that he was losing too much weight in prison. "I chewed those damned sunflower seeds like someone possessed," says Ahmet Sik.

The journalist is sitting in his living room in Istanbul, surrounded by his wife Yonca, daughters and closest friends. There is red wine and chocolate cake, and Sik, a youthful 42-year-old with a thin beard, still can't believe he's a free man. It is the evening of Tuesday, March 13, the day after his release from the Silivri high-security prison for presumed terrorists .
He was in pretrial detention for a year and 10 days on charges of being a "member of a terrorist organization." Sik is one of the most famous investigative journalists and authors in Turkey. His colleague Nedim Sener, another investigative reporter who has won several awards, had researched the reasons behind the murder of journalist Hrant Dink in 2007. A little over a year ago, on the morning of March 3, 2011, a special unit of the Turkish police arrested both men.

The journalists were charged with belonging to an ultra-nationalist secret organization called "Ergenekon," though there was no evidence to support the allegations. The notorious network, Turkish prosecutors claim, contrived a plan to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan several years ago. Since 2007, special police units have been trying to put a stop to the activities of the Ergenekon group, although its existence has never been proven.

Non-governmental organizations like Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch had long criticized Turkey for its repression of journalists, but a line was crossed with Sik and Sener's arrests. With their work, the two men had helped expose connections among politicians, the judiciary and organized crime in Turkey, the so-called "Deep State" that went back decades.

International Concerns 

Was the administration of Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) trying to silence two men after finding them useful at first but then changing its mind when their revelations became too embarrassing? After all, the two reporters had not just poked around among members of the old government elite, but had also dared to investigate the Islamists, the new people in power and their networks.

Shortly before his arrest, Sik was working on a book about the influential Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. According to his research, Gülen has successfully built his movement into one of the most powerful institutions in Turkey. In particular, Gülen's supporters had systematically infiltrated the police force, the journalist wrote. According to Sik, the movement makes a show of being charitable and apolitical, though its long-term goal is to achieve absolute power.

Gülen, who lives in exile in the United States, wasn't pleased, and he apparently tried to prevent the book's publication. On that count, at least, he was unsuccessful. The book, "The Imam's Army," was already available online shortly after Sik was arrested. It has been on the bestseller list for several months now.

Turkey's treatment of regime critics was sharply criticized in Europe and the United States. US author Paul Auster refused to visit Turkey a few weeks ago, saying that he would not travel to a country where so many journalists were in prison. In recent years, Turkey has slipped dramatically on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, where it is now ranked 148th among 179 countries.

The Turkish government downplayed the accusations for months. "Not one journalist," Turkey's Minister for European Union Affairs Egemen Bagis told the BBC, is in custody because of his profession. He noted that there are some "people with press credentials" who were convicted of rape or bank robbery.

'Climate of Fear'

But Turkey did an about-face last Monday, probably as a result of international pressure. In addition to Sik and Sener, two other reporters were released until further notice -- but they were not acquitted. This release is simply the equivalent of an act of mercy in the days of the Sultan, according to a member of the Turkish journalists' union. "The Sultan forgives, but he does not apologize to those who were unjustly imprisoned," he says.

More than 100 journalists are still awaiting trial in Turkish prisons -- more than in China or Iran. To make matters worse, the AKP government further tightened the anti-terrorism legislation in 2006. These arbitrary laws are used to target government critics on the left and the right, but especially Kurdish journalists suspected of being sympathizers with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In a large-scale operation underway for months, the government has been trying to solve the Kurdish problem in its own way. 
In addition to 68 Kurdish reporters, more than 6,000 Kurdish mayors, politicians and activists are currently in Turkish prisons. In many cases, their only offence is to have used banned words like "Kurdistan." The accused are often completely ignorant of what they allegedly commited. Their attorneys say that a "climate of fear" has taken hold, and that it is no longer clear what exactly can be written and thought, or even what the AKP government likes and dislikes.

"The prime minister defines who is a journalist and who is a terrorist, and that's our biggest problem," says Sik. He plans to start working again soon, saying that he refuses to be intimidated, although he knows that the feeling of freedom can be deceptive. "If the government wants to get someone, they'll get him."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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