Journalists Nedim Şener, center, and Ahmet Şık, third from left facing camera, wave upon arrival at an Istanbul courthouse in March. (Reuters)
Journalists Nedim Şener, center, and Ahmet Şık, third from left facing camera, wave upon arrival at an Istanbul courthouse in March. (Reuters)

Q&A: Two of Turkey’s leading journalists speak from jail

The arrest of Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener in March this year has put press freedom in Turkey under the international spotlight. Authorities said the journalists had not been detained because of their reporting but as part of an ongoing investigation into an alleged ultranationalist plot to overthrow the government known as “Ergenekon.” On a recent visit to Turkey, I sent written questions to the reporters in their Istanbul jail through their lawyers and they replied in writing.

Both men reject the claim of the prosecutor who ordered their arrest that they were detained because of the Ergenekon probe. Şık says he was picked up because of a book he was writing on the Gülen movement titled The Imam’s Army. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan compared the book, which has not been published, to a bomb.

Şener believes his arrest is linked to his books on slain Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. Both journalists, who have been in pre-trial custody since early March, say they have not seen a shred of evidence to support the charge against them of “membership of the presumed terrorist organization Ergenekon.” They view their detention as a form of censorship. They have both filed cases with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for violation of freedom of expression and violation of personal freedom of security.

Şık has spent years reporting on the network of military officers and ultranationalist bureaucrats often referred to in Turkey as the “deep state.” Şener worked for the daily Milliyet. He received the International Press Institute’s “World Press Freedom Hero” award last year for his work on Dink. Şik says the Ergenekon probe started out as an investigation into perceived threats against the government but has now been turned into a tool to suppress political opposition. 

CPJ: Why were you arrested?

Şik: The official answer why I was arrested is simple–being a member of an armed terrorist organization. This is the only explanation given by both official figures and some part of the media for nearly five months. However, I want to emphasize that no evidence to support these claims has been presented and the supposed evidence happens to be my book which I was working on and, unfortunately, could not finish.

For people who follow developments in Turkey via translated news, it is very hard to understand the trial processes of Ergenekon and its related cases, which have marked the last four years of this country. Believe me, so is writing about them. If you look at the media outlets connected to the Fetullah Gülen community that have become highly effective in Turkey thanks to AKP rule, they insist on Ergenekon being an investigation into the deep state. As for the people who oppose them, these investigations seem just a tool to intimidate the opposition.

For me and people who think like me, who are unfortunately in the minority, the best thing is to stay at an equal distance between these two poles. Because the Ergenekon investigation is not something we can defend blindly as its supporters do, nor a farce that we can reject like its opponents.

It is a fact that there is a tradition of a deep state in Turkey which has its roots dating back to the 1950s and it carried out many bloody acts. However, I have a duty to point out that the story being told to the Turkish public that the deep state is being put on trial through the Ergenekon suspects is a big fat lie….The Ergenekon investigations have been turned into a tool to suppress the opposition….Criticizing the government and drawing attention to the dangerous network of people in the police and judiciary who are members of the Gülen community is enough in today’s Turkey to become an Ergenekon suspect.

CPJ: Is your arrest a form of censorship?

Şik: When you consider the reason for my arrest was a book which featured journalistic work, of course this is censorship.

CPJ: What impact has your arrest had on Turkish journalism?

Şik: Not raising a voice against this unlawfulness would be a sign to any journalist that anybody opposing the AKP and the Gülen community might end up in jail in the future.  

CPJ: Why were you arrested?

Şener:  For the last three years, the focus of my work has been the unsolved murder of Hrant Dink, a journalist of Armenian origin, which has mentioned the names of many state officials. I have written many news stories, columns and two books on the Hrant Dink murder since 2008.

The accusation against me on paper is “being a member of an armed terrorist organization.” However, my arrest by the police officials whose negligence I documented regarding the Hrant Dink murder is an act of revenge.”

CPJ:  Why have you been denied bail?

Şener: We are under arrest as a result of the coordinated stance of the police and the judiciary.  Zekeriya Öz, the prosecutor who had us arrested said after the reaction (to our arrest): “These journalists were not arrested because of the stories, books and articles they have written but because of some secret evidence which I cannot reveal now.” Almost five months passed since then, no such evidence was revealed. Actually, there was no such evidence.

CPJ: Is your arrest a form of censorship?

Şener: It is impossible to get new information and documents on the murder of Hrant Dink in detention. This may be one of the goals of the police who me arrested.

CPJ: What can the international community can do to help you?

Şener: International politicians can visit the prison. Press interest can be kept alive. Government agencies and journalism foundations can keep our names on the agenda through reports and news stories.

CPJ: What impact has arrest had on Turkish journalism?

Şener: All journalism organizations in Turkey reacted strongly. They organized protests and they still do. If people like Ahmet Şık and me, who are against all illegal structures like Ergenekon, can be arrested, everybody should be worried.