Detained Turks focus debate on press freedom
March 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
March 5, 2012; Daniel Dombey
Yonca Verdioglu has a clear memory of the morning, just over a year ago, when the police arrived at her Istanbul apartment to arrest her husband for writing a book.
Pablo, the family’s golden retriever, announced the visitors with a bark just before seven in the morning. Then the doorbell rang. Before long there were 11 police officers and five family lawyers in the flat, as officials scoured the premises for terrorist materials. “Some of the policemen were afraid of the dog,” Ms Verdioglu recalls. Seven hours after their arrival, the police left, taking with them Ahmet Sik, Ms Verdioglu’s husband.
Today, more than a year after the raid, he is still in a maximum security prison, in a cell with Nedim Sener, another journalist arrested on the same day. Neither man has yet been convicted in their continuing trial for terrorist-related offences, which, in Mr Sik’s instance, centres on the Imam’s Army, the book he was writing at the time of his arrest.
In the year since their arrest, Mr Sik and Mr Sener’s cases have become the focal point in a debate over whether recent detentions of journalists signal a turn towards greater authoritarianism and whether freedom of the press has suffered as a result.
The detention of the two journalists has overshadowed other developments in Turkish justice, such as the imminent trial of the elderly architects of the 1980 military coup.
Ms Verdioglu says her husband is being prosecuted – and kept in jail – simply for writing his book, which alleges that Turkey’s police force is infiltrated by the Gulenist movement, an Islamist organisation that is in uneasy alliance with the country’s government.
While sympathisers say the Gulenists are a non-political movement promoting education, interfaith dialogue and moderate Islam, its detractors depict it as an ever more powerful organisation with political ambitions of its own.
“There’s nothing else in the indictment [but the claims about the book],” she says. The book, unpublished at the time of Mr Sik’s arrest, has now sold more than 50,000 copies, with tens of thousands more downloaded on the internet, Ms Verdioglu says.
She argues that the arrests and other moves against media organisations have served to create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
“In terms of freedom of the press and freedom of expression we can’t talk of a democracy in Turkey,” she says, arguing that the heavy-handed power once exercised by the country’s military is now largely being wielded by civilian rulers.
About 100 journalists are in prison. But Turkish officials say that those detained are charged with terrorism or other offences, rather than being pursued for their journalistic work.
Some prosecutors and politicians argue that what appears to be journalism can actually constitute terrorism.
In a speech to the Council of Europe last year, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, compared Mr Sik’s book with a bomb. “It is hard for Western countries to understand the problem because they do not have journalists who engage in coup attempts and who support and invite coups,” he added this year.
Mr Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party has bitter memories of such coups. One of its predecessors was effectively thrown out of office by the army almost 15 years ago and many Turks – particularly in the ruling party – blame powerful media outlets for preparing the groundwork for its ouster through disinformation campaigns against political Islam.
The indictment against Mr Sik alleges that he was operating from a similar playbook, accusing him of writing his book under the orders of a shadowy conspiracy called Ergenekon, as part of an effort to destabilise Mr Erdogan’s government and its allies. Ms Verdioglu responds that her husband would have made an unlikely recruit for Ergenekon, since he co-wrote two books denouncing it.
More generally, the men’s supporters say the charges are absurd, relating to the writing of books. They say that the evidence, notably a computer file found on another organisation’s server setting out Ergenekon’s alleged instructions, is fake. They add that recent experiences have undermined equality before the law in Turkey.
For example, when another prosecutor last month moved against Hakan Fidan, the government’s chief of intelligence, Mr Erdogan immediately persuaded parliament to pass a new law giving him a veto over such probes. By contrast, attempts by supporters of Mr Sik and Mr Sener to have the two men released have been repeatedly dismissed.
Ms Verdioglu says that she thought of her husband’s imprisonment in terms of days, weeks and months but could never quite believe it would last a year. Now, however, she says, “the court case will take years – it’s very clear.” On that, at least, almost everyone agrees.