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Digging too Deep: Journalist Arrests a Blow for Press Freedom in Turkey

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The dubious arrests of 10 journalists in Turkey for what the authorities claim is involvement in an anti-government conspiracy has thrown further doubt on the extent of press freedoms in the EU candidate country.

Photo Gallery: Turkey Protests follow Journalist Arrests Photos
AP

In the early morning hours of March 3, Istanbul-based journalist and university lecturer Ahmet Sik awoke to the sound of his doorbell. Fifteen men in dark blue bulletproof vests and black wool caps were standing in front of his apartment -- agents from Turkey's TEM anti-terror unit. "You have half an hour," one of them snapped at Sik, who was still half asleep. "No telephone calls." Then the unit led him away, right through a tight knot of reporters.

Nine other journalists received visits from the anti-terror unit on the same day. One of them was Nedim Sener, a reporter with the liberal daily paper Milliyet and one of the country's best-known investigative reporters. A critic of the Turkish government, Sener had been expecting to be arrested for weeks. He had received threats: "You're next, brother. Do you have your bags packed?"

Sik and Sener are currently the most prominent victims in a wave of arrests that began four weeks ago, when TEM turned up at the Istanbul offices of Oda-TV, a Web portal. There, too, employees were arrested and the website was temporarily shut down. The message sent was that journalists too eager to take on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the conservative party with Islamist roots currently in power in Turkey, would soon find themselves leading dangerous lives.

Calling to Mind McCarthy Witch-Hunts

What is going on in Turkey, a country that strives to set an example for the Arab world in terms of democracy and freedom of the press? Why has the country now put 68 journalists behind bars and why do Turkey's press associations describe an atmosphere that calls to mind the era of Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch-hunts? What crimes are these journalists actually being accused of by the government?

In Sik and Sener's case, prosecutor Zekeriya Öz himself commented on the case. The journalists' arrests, according to Öz, had nothing to do with articles they wrote, but rather with findings in connection with the so-called Ergenekon case. This case, which a court in Silivri, west of Istanbul, has been hearing for the past two and a half years, concerns a supposed group of conspirators accused of plotting a coup against Erdogan's government.

The most spectacular criminal case in Turkey's recent history, it has seen the arrest of more than 200 suspects, including army officers, politicians and professors. Many of these alleged Ergenekon members are considered to be ultranationalists, said to have been waiting for a chance to strike in tandem with like-minded forces within the army, but then caught by the police in the nick of time.

The existence of this ominous secret society, though, remains unproven. All three indictments contain gaping holes. And "due to the need for confidentiality," says Öz, the chief prosecutor for the case, it isn't currently possible for him to make the evidence public. That's a statement that doesn't bode well for journalists Sik and Sener.

Strategies for Toppling Erdogan

The pool of suspects seems to widen inexorably, casting serious doubts on the legitimacy of the Ergenekon case. Many in Turkey wonder if the prime minister might be misusing the investigations as a way to intimidate his opponents.

In the case of Sik and Sener, that suspicion seems likely. Sik is one of several journalists who helped expose mafia-like structures within the country's military and political elite. Sik also published "coup diaries" allegedly written by Admiral Özden Örnek, containing reflections on strategies for toppling Erdogan, in the magazine Nokta in 2007.

Sener, too, investigated the morass of Turkey's so-called "deep state," an alleged network of politics, justice and organized crime. It was Sener who exposed Turkish security forces' role in the murder of Turkish-Armenian author Hrant Dink.

Sik and Sener have both proved themselves opponents of the AKP government, which they accuse of undemocratic activities. "They both took on the Islamists," says Ertugrul Kürkcü, a colleague at an independent Web news portal called Bianet. "They were looking to prove that Erdogan and his people had started using the deep state for their own purposes."

Freer than in the US?

The AKP may have been especially upset about Sik's research into the Fethullah Gülen movement, an Islamic network he believes has penetrated the country's security apparatus, which in turn further strengthened the conviction on the part of the AKP's opponents that the party has remained truer to its Islamist roots than it pretends. "Journalists who dig too deep always have problems in Turkey," Kürkcü says.

Erdogan's critics aren't the only ones affected. Kurdish journalists in particular often run into problems with the Turkish justice system and are threatened with hefty prison sentences if they spread "propaganda" about the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- even if the crime consists of no more than using the expressions "Kurdistan" or "guerilla."

Where does Erdogan stand on the matter? "Our press is far freer than in the US," the prime minister claimed in a 2009 speech in the United States. "It has never been as free as it is today."

Just one year later, the European Union accession candidate Turkey slipped in the press freedom list published annually by the group Reporters without Borders -- to number 138 out of 178 countries.

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