By ANDREW FINKEL March 13, 2012, 10:16 am
ISTANBUL — The British say it about the police force, but the same may be true of the press: that a country gets the one it deserves. Woe is Turkey.
Turkey recently marked the 15th anniversary of what pundits call the “postmodern coup”: the military’s success at pushing out the Islamist-led coalition that was in power back then. The generals managed that in large part by press-ganging the print media, even forcing newspaper owners to fire prominent columnists who did not support their campaign to discredit the government.
The tables have since turned. Now the politicians have the military in retreat. Some 15 percent of senior officers are on trial for participating in the Ergenekon conspiracy, an alleged campaign of really dirty tricks intended to force the ruling AK Party out of office.
Previous government coalitions depended on the press for support because they were politically weak. But the AK Party came to power, in 2002, with a strong working majority. Just as it was able to tame the military, it has shown the old press barons the door and created its own media empire. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law is the C.E.O. of a holding company that owns the Sabah-ATV television and newspaper conglomerate, which was purchased in 2008 for $1.25 billion with financing from state banks.
The incentives to play ball are great. The government continues to allow press groups to gain unfair advantage in other business sectors — never mind anticompetition laws. And it leans on potentially dissenting voices, sending in auditors and tax inspectors to keep opposition media outlets in line.
One lamentable result of all this is that some of Turkey’s best known commentators and television presenters have been fired for trying to raise issues the government would prefer to keep under the carpet.
That the media in Turkey are a poor champion of freedom of expression, I discovered for myself back in the old era of 1999, when, after reporting from the southeastern and Kurdish part of the country, I was charged with causing the Turkish military to be held in contempt. (Penalty: up to six years in jail.) My quarrel then was less with the courts — I was eventually acquitted — than with my Turkish newspaper, which failed to rally to my defense.
Reporters here still face jail terms for crossing red lines. The exact number of journalists in prison in Turkey is a unknown. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently cited the latest annual report of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which said there were only eight, convicted or awaiting trial. This had the New York-based NGO hopping mad. “Prime Minister Erdogan should take no solace” from these findings, C.P.J. director Joel Simon said. There may be only eight confirmed cases, but the group is investigating scores of others.
The Turkish Journalists Union claims that over 95 journalists are in prison in Turkey — more than there are in either Russia or China, according to C.P.J. tallies. The Turkish government disputes this, of course, arguing that many of the detainees are being held, not for how they report the news, but for being members of seditious gangs or terrorist conspiracies.
The problem is that the Turkish penal code defines terrorism very broadly. Many of the journalists who are detained work on politically committed Kurdish newspapers. Some are standing trial for being propagandists for the Ergenekon conspiracy.
Most international attention has focused on the very weak cases against Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, two investigative journalists with honorable track records. Sik appears to have been indicted for writing an unpublished book in which he challenged the integrity of a large religious movement.
Sik and Sener were released yesterday after spending 375 days in custody. A senior minister, somewhat piously, welcomed the decision as overdue. But Sik and Sener were not acquitted; they face another hearing in June. They won’t need to do much mulling to solve this peculiarly Turkish riddle: “When is a journalist not a journalist?” (Answer: “When he is in prison.”)