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Turkey’s jailed journalists: Shut up in a tomb. Can’t lift the lid

By Abraham Thicke 

On Sunday 9th April a group of journalists met in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district and marched the symbolic distance of 100 steps. Their protest marked the hundredth day Ahmet Şık’s detention by the Turkish government.

Şık is one of scores of journalists languishing in Turkey’s jails. Turkey is, by far, the world’s leading jailer of journalists. The scale of the detentions can be gauged by comparing Turkey with China, a country notorious for its lack of press freedom. Figures released by the Committee to Protect Journalists in December 2016 recorded a total of 81 journalists imprisoned in Turkey. Free speech campaigners Pen say the authorities have detained almost 150 writers and journalists. In second placed China the corresponding figure was 38. Given the enormous difference in population between the two countries, the per capita rate of imprisonment in Turkey is 40 times that of China. Since those figures were released, the number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey has risen sharply.

Turkish government officials, amongst them the Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ, say no-one has been imprisoned for journalism. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently went further, claiming that all imprisoned journalists were thieves, terrorists or child abusers. Taken at face value, these assertions raise interesting questions about differences in the criminal tendencies of Turkish and other journalists. But almost no-one takes these assertions seriously.

There may be a grain of truth in the claim that no-one has been imprisoned for journalistic activities, the reason being that Turkey does not have laws that permit imprisonment for journalism. But what is at stake here is not the particular offences that individual journalists are alleged to have committed. Rather it is the intentions behind the incarcerations. Many Turkish laws, particularly those relating to terrorism, are notoriously vague. Even in a country with a functioning and independent judiciary such laws could easily be abused. In a country like Turkey, where the last vestiges of judicial independence are rapidly being swept away, there is no doubt such laws are currently used as a pretext to jail journalists.

Baseless detentions

The detention of a number of journalists, among them Şık, working for the government opposing Cumhuriyet newspaper illustrates the point. Most were arrested in November 2016, though no indictments were released until the following March. The indictments appeared first in the pages of the pro-government Sabah newspaper and were only later released to the defendants’ lawyers. The lengthy delay reinforced suspicions that the real reason for the detentions stemmed from Cumhuriyet’s editorial stance.

The indictments have been panned by independent jurists. The charges make ample use of vaguely worded anti-terrorist laws, focusing on the contention that the accused ‘helped armed terrorist organisations without being a member.’ Evidence of such help consists of activities that, by normal standards, fall within the scope of journalistic activities. Consequently, it is impossible to interpret the indictments as anything other than post-hoc justifications for the arrests rustled up during the long internment period. Given the state of the judiciary in Turkey, this is to be expected.

The absurd case of Ahmet Şık

The specific case of Ahmet Şık further indicates that the detentions are an assault not merely on journalistic freedom, but on logic itself.

Şık, one of Turkey’s leading investigative reporters, has been in prison before. In 2011 he was jailed in connection with investigations in to the Ergenekon Organization, an alleged nationalist group plotting to overthrow the AKP government. Back then, few doubted Şık had actually been imprisoned for writing a book, ‘The Imam’s Army’, detailing how another organization, the Gülen movement, had infiltrated various state institutions. At the time Erdoğan’s AKP government was closely allied with the Gülen movement and was, in fact, instrumental in helping Gülen’s followers expand their influence within the Turkish state. Şık’s book, banned before it went to press, was therefore a considerable embarrassment for the government.

By the end of 2013 the relationship between the AKP and the Gülen movement had broken down. In December that year a corruption scandal engulfed the government. Evidence leaked to the press included the now infamous phone conversation between Erdoğan and his son Bilal, in which they discuss how to dispose of millions of dollars. Four ministers resigned, but Erdoğan and his government survived —  largely by claiming, correctly as it turns out, that the scandal was a Gülen orchestrated attempt to bring down the government and, more dubiously, that the evidence was concocted.

One consequence of the destruction of the AKP-Gülen alliance was that the Ergenekon investigations and the associated trials were exposed as another Gülen orchestrated plot, this time conducted with the AKP government’s blessing and fabricated evidence. Another consequence was that Ahmet Şık, thanks to his consistently critical stance towards the Gülen movement, was partially rehabilitated. Even so, the government still viewed him with suspicion: his ability to ask awkward questions represented a clear threat to government’s attempts to revise the historical record in such a way as to erase their former close cooperation with the Gülen movement.

Fast forward to today and Şık is back in prison, arrested for, amongst other things …. making propaganda for the Gülen movement or as the Turkish Government calls it ”FETO.”

Facts and fictions

If this makes your head spin then consider for a moment the plight of millions of Turks, not least AKP supporters for whom it is important to toe the party line and keep up with the government’s bewildering mental gymnastics. It wasn’t so long ago that Erdoğan and his acolytes were tripping over each in their haste to reach the plinth at the Turkish Olympiads, the Gülen movement’s annual flagship event. Now, at least in Turkey, that same organisation has been rebranded as a terrorist group, known by the acronym FETÖ. It wasn’t so long ago either that Erdoğan boasted he was the chief prosecutor in the Ergenekon trials. Today, in alliance with right wing nationalists, Erdoğan has embraced the people he was so eager to jail.

In Turkey it is not just the future that is full of uncertainty, but the past. Today’s close friend may be tomorrow’s enemy and tomorrow’s friend may be yesterday’s enemy. Even the present is fractured and unstable. The ground shifts underfoot. This is what happens when journalism is hijacked and perverted, when journalists who report facts get jailed and those who act as propagandists are promoted. The gap between the actual facts and manufactured truth gets larger and larger, until it takes a wilful looking away not to notice it. Most people stop looking, and those who still do are fed a big fat lie to span the gap. Few people remember the 2 Turkish soldiers incinerated by ISIS now and fewer still talk about. In the government’s version of the truth it never happened. Their screams were not real. Perhaps their mothers’ grief is also officially a fiction. The economic data shows an imminent collapse. The government simply invents new numbers.  On and on it goes. Once you open the floodgates they can’t easily be shut. In the bizarre world of AKP media, not so much post-truth as post-fiction, who would discount the possibility of Erdoğan and Gülen getting it back on, or perhaps having never fallen out in the first place?

And finally spare a thought too for journalists like Ahmet Şık and for their waiting families. A few of them may indeed be terrorists or child molesters or thieves. Others may have been in hock with the Gülen movement, churning out propaganda in the years when it was hand in glove with successive AKP governments. But many, we may be sure, are merely journalists who tried to do their jobs properly and have been caught up in Turkey’s own version of Kafka’s trial. It’s not just their imprisonment we should lament, but the uncertainties that have filled the space they left behind.

Let us sleep now…

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