Glimmers of free speech remain under Erdogan’s rule, but for how much longer?
S ome 90 journalists and other media figures have gone on trial in Turkey in the last two weeks alone, while those who have managed to avoid arrest live in unabated fear that they might be next.
Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world, according to data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Critics of the government accuse it of overseeing a massive campaign to silence dissent, using terror legislation to prosecute writers and other activists.
Politically charged trials are nothing new in Turkey, but the events of the last year have led many to worry that the country’s justice system has been captured by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters.
Tens of thousands of Turks have been detained since President Erdogan faced down a bloody military coup in July 2016, in which a faction in the Turkish army attempted to overthrow state institutions including the government. The events claimed the lives of 249 people.
Mr. Erdogan’s government blames the coup attempt on Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish religious leader and businessman who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US for the best part of twenty years. He heads a widespread religious movement which includes various foundations, media organisations and schools in Turkey and elsewhere.
The movement was once allied with Mr. Erdogan, with many of its adherents taking up public office. But relations between the two broke down after a series of corruption disputes culminated in 2013 with the president accusing the Gulenists of setting up a “state within a state”, or “parallel structures”.
Since the coup, Mr. Erdogan has vowed to wipe out the Gulen network, now labelled by the government as a terrorist organisation under the moniker ‘FETO’. The government has imposed a state of emergency under which some 50,000 people are thought to have been arrested, and 150,000 people, including tens of thousands of public servants, have been suspended from their jobs.
Abuse of power?
Opposition figures and many in the international community see the mass prosecutions as an abuse of power aimed at consolidating President Erdogan’s position, buttressed by the constitutional overhaul he brought in after winning the public’s support in an referendum earlier this year.
The prosecution of journalists is key to this strategy, say government critics. Undesired voices are said to be lumped in with FETO in often tenuous ways.
In an interview with the BBC in July, Mr. Erdogan said: “Those people who are in prison now have no title as journalists. They either acted in tandem with terrorist organisations or were imprisoned because of illegally carrying a gun, or they vandalised cash machines and robbed them.”
“There is a great difference between trying to bring those responsible for crimes committed during the violent events to justice, and silencing all critical voices,” says Zeynep Oral, head of the Turkey Centre at PEN International, a pro-free speech NGO.
The government has let the mask slip on several occasions. When Ahmet Sik, a reporter for the renowned opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, was arrested in 2016, he was not initially told his charges.
Then, state-run news outlet Anadolu Agency revealed it was for "openly insulting the Republic of Turkey, its judiciary bodies, the military and police organisation as well as making propaganda for terrorist organisations" - namely FETO, a revolutionary communist party and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The report revealed that the charges concerned his social media output and some of his articles for Cumhuriyet. Mr. Sik’s arrest also came despite the fact that he had openly criticised the Gulenists in the past. He was previously detained for one year after writing a 2011 book investigating the Gulen network. At the time he was charged with having links to another purported network accused of plotting to overthrow the Turkish government, Ergenekon, before being released awaiting trial.
Another 18 Cumhuriyet employees are on trial, including a member of the paper’s accounting department. One Twitter user who does not work for Cumhuriyet is also being prosecuted in the same trial.
The justice ministry’s criteria for membership of ‘FETO’, according to pro-government Turkish daily Milliyet, include: the use of ByLock (an encrypted smartphone chat application said to be popular with Gulenists), being promoted in an “exceptionally” short span, giving support to ‘FETO’ on social media, being subject to “reliable denunciations, testimonies and confessions”, and “information” given by colleagues and associates.
‘Cloak of fear’
The government insists the purge is necessary to root out the Gulen network and restore democracy. “All of those in the state’s high levels have been dismissed, but there are still hidden people,” Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said in July.
Nothing will stop in its way, it seems.
The Turkish constitution says a state of emergency can be declared for a maximum of six months. Nonetheless, last month the Turkish Parliament extended the state of emergency for the fifth time, adding another three months under which the European Convention on Human Rights is suspended.
The extensions have sailed through Parliament thanks to Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) large majority and the support of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Not even elected officials are safe from the purge. In June, a court sentenced Enis Berberoğlu, a parliamentarian and himself a former journalist, to 25 years in prison - the first MP from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to be jailed.
The CHP’s dogged resistance has picked up strength at times, however, with a march on Istanbul following the conviction amassing some 10,000 protesters. “We aim to take off the cloak of fear that was draped over society after [the coup],” said party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
President Erdogan lashed out at the CHP, accusing it of “acting with terrorist organisations and the forces inciting them against our country.”
There were reportedly few counter-protests, but the indifference of Mr. Erdogan’s supporters towards the CHP’s efforts is comfortably matched by their silence on the government’s crackdown.
Newspapers across the country are reportedly self-censoring in response to the government threat, with senior staff at independent and government-critical outlets telling their reporters to take a softer line, particularly when covering the trials. Some press bosses are thought to have threatened overly critical staff with dismissal in order to avoid them taking their colleagues down with them.
The purge has not gone entirely unchallenged, however. Three prominent pro-government journalists brought in to testify at a trial of journalists from opposition daily Sözcü have slammed the indictments.
One of the defendants, Bekir Gökmen Ulu, was charged after reporting on President Erdogan’s holiday location shortly before the coup attempt.
“Frankly I don’t see any evidence in the indictment,” said Fuat Uğur, presenter at AKP-aligned ATV Europe, at a recent hearing. “I don’t know anything about Sözcü’s links to FETÖ. This case should be closed before more damage is done to the concept of the rule of law” in Turkey.
Yet, says Ms. Oral, “around 150 journalists are still in prison for exercising their profession and their right to freedom of expression.”
“I attend most of the trials,” she told The World Weekly, “and what I see is like a nightmare.”
Meanwhile, some civil servants have been allowed to return to their positions, though they are likely to be intensely monitored.
Battered as it may be, freedom of expression in Turkey is not quite dead yet. But it seems to be weak enough to allow the government to bend the law to its will, with the stories it tells in the process left unchallenged.