When journalists are not journalists – Turkey’s trials

Ceylan Ozbudak

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s criticism of Turkey’s detention of certain “journalists” during her February 2012 visit to Ankara highlighted the political challenges which becloud relations between Turkey and her sister European states. Ms. Merkel cited these Turkish prosecutions as an obstacle to Turkey’s full membership within the European Union. Prime Minister Erdogan’s response was brief and meritorious: “They are not imprisoned for their journalistic work. They are imprisoned either for participating in coup plots, or having illegal arms, or for acting in coordination with terror organizations.” Thus, the two leaders parted, unfortunately, no closer to rapprochement than before the meeting.

Who is a journalist? And what is journalism? Easy questions you may think with clear answers, but not in Turkey. Why? Because in the name of journalism, some left leaning extreme secularists here tried to topple a democratic government, and create military rule. Western human rights organizations are too quick to condemn Turkey's alleged curtailment of a free press. But the view here in Turkey is more complex.

The official Turkish government reports indicate that less than ten of the incarcerated subjects are actually journalists. The rest are accused violators of Turkish criminal laws who happen to be employees of media organs. Secondly: None of these individuals are being prosecuted for anything they have thought or said. In every case, the charges relate to affirmative conduct in aid or counsel to a proposed military coup or some other violent unrest.

History of tention

The use of the civil liberties afforded in a democratic republic as avenues to destroy that same republic is a method both prescribed in Marxist writings and recorded on the pages of in a pattern of conduct world history since the Bolshevik Revolution. Here in Turkey, we have a history of this tension between pro-junta extreme secularists, and the rest of Turkey that is democratic and respectful of our secular state. Some people in the media-backed coups that began in Turkey in 1960 are a poor tradition. The 1971 coup, the 12 September coup, the 28 February post-modern coup and the 27 April e-coup were all carried out with media support. Newspapers and television were used instead of tanks and guns on 28 February.

The people of Turkey, who have elected the AKP three times since 2002, are not obliged to stand by while revolutionary agitators try to turn Istanbul into another Damascus. This is precisely the wisdom of Erdogan’s deference to the independent Turkish judicial process. It is simply not his place to detain and release individuals as to whom the judiciary has found probable cause to support a criminal prosecution. Being a center right politician in Turkey, whose recent history is blemished with military coups and junta, was not a job for the faint of the heart. Turkey even had to go through days when a Prime Minister was hanged due to so called crimes such as allowing the call to prayer to be recited in Arabic and encouraging foreign investment. That wasn’t all: Fourteen politicians were also hanged with him. We are living in a country in which the AKP had to receive an envelope containing a bullet. This was a message to the Prime Minister by the “Alleged Ergenekon Terrorist Organization” warning him of the consequences of his fight against them and reminding him of the end of Adnan Menderes.

‘Our al-Qaeda’

If we are ever to get past mere prejudice and condescension, it is essential that the political leadership in the West recognize the historical context of these arrests. In 1997, Erol Mütercimler revealed that Turkey has been infected for many years by a secretive cabal, the “ Alleged Ergenekon Terror Organization.” Think of this crew as a sort of “al-Qaeda,” a network of enemy combatants, which is infesting Turkish government, media, universities, hospitals, police force and almost every important manifestation of public life. In June 2007, bombs were discovered in a Turkish suburb, and the ensuing criminal investigation resulted in a massive wave of arrests. Some of the members of this alleged conspiracy happened to be members of media organizations—journalists. However, these are not neutral truth seekers who strive to reveal the facts and work for the public good.

Most people outside of Turkey have no idea how much pain this “deep state” government has inflicted on the Turkish people, but the recent investigation has laid all these calamities at the doorstep of the horrific organization, such as the mysterious death of Eşref Bitlis, the commander of the Turkish gendarme, the assassination of former Prime Minister Nihat Erim, the car bomb assassination of Cumhuriyet columnist Uğur Mumcu. The suspicious death of the former President Turgut Özal is still under investigation today, as well as the people who were set on fire in Madımak Hotel and the Basbaglar massacre. After Italy went through a similar experience, many chose to name the alleged “Ergenekon Terrorist Organization” ‘the “Turkish Gladio,”. When we compare the response of the Turkish government to America’s incarceration of enemy combatants at Guantanamo, or Italy’s own treatment of the “Gladio,” perhaps it is easier to understand the trial periods. This is our al-Qaeda. If they had their way, they would reduce Istanbul to Alleppo of now. And the fact that some of them are identified with journalistic organizations is not a badge of immunity from criminal prosecution according to the full weight of the criminal law.

Aside from all this, however, is the most liberal picture that Turkey can manage? Of course, not. Changes in the judiciary in the last two years in particular are good steps, but many more changes are still needed in judiciary. The fact that the AK Party government, which enjoys levels of popular support of around 60% has the power to make these changes of course raises expectations among people, such as myself, who take a close interest in the subject. In particular, the doing away with old cases brought in a politicized climate, the formation of groups of inspectors to re-examine decisions by the Supreme Court of Appeals and to monitor cases still being heard, either by request or else on a random selection basis, will be instrumental in making the Turkish judicial system more transparent and neutral.


Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

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