By Abraham Thicke
This week in Istanbul saw the start of the trial of a group of journalists working for the ‘Cumhuriyet’ newspaper. The journalists, who have already been detained for months, officially face terror related charges. Few independent observers doubt that what lies behind events is their newspaper’s independent and critical stance.
Turkey, it scarcely needs repeating, is the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Independent media outlets have been under attack for years by a regime that appears to imprison journalists and shutter or requisition the organizations they work for as a means of suppressing criticism. Trials such as that taking place this week are nothing new in Turkey.
Amongst the journalists on trial is Ahmet Şık, one Turkey’s few remaining investigative journalists. He has already spent time behind bars on trumped-up charges, being jailed in 2011 on similar accusations to those he faces now. Back then no-one doubted the real reason for his incarceration was a book he wrote detailing how the Gülen movement, which at that time was closely allied with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling AK party, had infiltrated various state institutions. Since then, as is well known, the relationship between Erdoğan’s regime and the Gülen movement has broken down completely, culminating in the failed coup attempt of 2016, the organization of which is believed to be largely the work of the Gülen movement.
An indication of the absurdity of the charges facing Şık is that he is currently accused of supporting the same Gülen movement whose modus operandi he was previously imprisoned for exposing.
On Wednesday Şık testified before the court.
What followed was extraordinary. An English translation can be found here and is highly recommended.
Little of the testimony directly confronts the individual charges of which he is accused. Rather, the bulk of it describes the events have led to a situation in which freedom of thought and expression have become, in Turkey, reasons for imprisonment.
Of particular interest are sections describing the relationship between the Gülen movement and the Erdoğan regime in the years leading up to their acrimonious falling-out. Erdoğan himself has been coy about the details, suggesting only that he was ‘deceived’. Şık’s testimony suggests that there is rather more to it than this. It lays bare how successive AK party governments colluded with the Gülen movement, enabling them to gain leverage in various state institutions, including the army, the judiciary and the police whilst also making no attempts, indeed rather the opposite, to hinder the movement’s use of nefarious and anti-democratic tactics to achieve their ends. In short, Şık’s defence is an account of how Erdoğan and his AK party worked hand in hand with the Gülen movement to destroy Turkish democracy.
If Şık’s claims are true — and there does not seem much reason to doubt his integrity or his evidence — it confirms that the charges he faces are a manifestation of the reflexes of an authoritarian state that seeks to suppress dissent, freedom of speech and independent media.
It also implies that the coup attempt Turkey faced last year, dressed-up by the regime as a triumph for democracy was nothing of the sort. Rather it represented the bloody culmination of a power struggle between two authoritarian factions who had for years collaborated to establish an authoritarian system, with the victors taking sole control of the former joint enterprise.
For many who follow Turkey, none of the above will come as a surprise. What makes Şık’s testimony remarkable are the circumstances in which it was delivered, its detail and its eloquence. Reading it leaves little room to doubt that the narratives the Turkish regime uses to explain itself are a half-baked farrago of lies and fantasies, as are the charges levelled against Şık and his colleagues.
Still, none of this will likely sway the outcome of the trial. As Şık himself acknowledges, what passes as a justice system in Turkey is, these days, little more than a mechanism for enacting Erdoğan’s authoritarian vision. In future, to avoid such embarrassing exposés, such trials may well take place behind closed doors.