For the past several months, CPJ staff has been investigating pervasive press freedom problems in Turkey, including the widespread jailing of journalists. This month, CPJ will release an in-depth report on press conditions in Turkey. In advance of our report, we are publishing this interview with Nedim Șener, an investigative reporter who was jailed for more than a year in 2011-12. The interview was conducted via email and translated from the original Turkish.
Șener, who wrote a book alleging government complicity in the 2007 murder of journalist Hrant Dink, was charged in connection with the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy, which prosecutors describe as a vast plot aimed at overthrowing the government through a military coup. Șener, who denies the charges, says he was targeted in retaliation for his probing coverage of the Dink murder and other sensitive issues.
Nina Ognianova: Why, in your view, were you targeted by authorities and imprisoned? What angered them so much as to put you behind bars?
Nedim Șener: They are angry with me because I wrote that police officers in charge of the Ergenekon investigation were responsible for the murder of Hrant Dink.
Documents related to Ergenekon go all the way back to 1999. The first person to submit a testimony, in 2001, about the existence of Ergenekon was Tuncay Güney, who currently resides in Canada. The Ergenekon investigation started in 2007. In all those years, my name was never mentioned in relation to Ergenekon. Then, on May 6, 2009, an email was supposedly sent to the Istanbul Police Headquarters by a user named M. Yylmaz. The email said that I had been commissioned in Ergenekon’s propaganda unit.
I believe that email was fabricated by police themselves in order to falsely implicate me in the Ergenekon conspiracy. Here’s why:
I published my first book about the murder of Hrant Dink, The Dink Murder and Intelligence Lies, in January of 2009–a few short months before the email allegedly implicating me in Ergenekon materialized. In my book, I wrote that the police officers running operation Ergenekon were responsible for Dink’s murder; I backed my allegations with valid documents. After my book was published, the police officers I had written about were annoyed with me and sued me in April 2009, calling for a sentence of 28 years. [Editor’s note: Șener was later acquitted in that case.]
On May 6, 2009, I believe those same police officers created the alias “M. Yylmaz” and sent the email claiming I was involved in Ergenekon. That email mentions 10 names, yet police tapped only my home and mobile phones for six months in a row. When they could not find an element of a crime that way, they arrested me based on Word documents I had no knowledge of, and which were allegedly found in a computer at Odatv‘s offices during a February 2010 raid.
NO: Were you allowed to study the authorities’ evidence against you? What was it? How would you assess it?
NS: I was not allowed to study any evidence in prison. From the very beginning, Prosecutor Zekeriya Öz publicly declared the evidence secret and I was allowed to view it only after the indictment. What was claimed to be proof of my crime turned out to be nothing but telephone conversations made for the purpose of newsgathering; an article I had published in Posta newspaper; and two articles published by another journalist that for some reason had been added to the indictment as evidence against me.
NO: How were you treated in prison? Describe a typical day in jail.
NS: I was not mistreated, but the conditions at the prison were terribly bad. I felt trapped in a concrete box. No green, no trees. You don’t get to see the soil, you cannot touch the earth. It is terribly cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. The food is way below average.
I used to wake up at 6:30 or 7 a.m., show up for roll call at 8, then walk in the open common space–10 meters long by 4 meters wide. I would walk the area for two hours at a time. Then there was breakfast, after which I would do some reading and more walking in the common space. I would stay as long as possible there, then have dinner, do more reading. … That was the routine.
NO: How long were you held before you knew what you were being accused of? Were you allowed access to a lawyer right away? How would you describe the legal procedure that unfolded after your arrest?
NS: We [Șener and the other Odatv suspects] were kept under arrest for a full six months before learning what the accusations were. After learning what the charges were, we were kept under arrest for another six months. We were kept under arrest for 376 days in total. We had access to a lawyer. I can describe the process that followed our arrest as embarrassing for the state.
NO: While in prison, were you able to have communication with the outside world? Were you able to get visits from family, friends, and journalists?
NS: We were allowed to be visited by only three persons in addition to close family members. The most important thing keeping our morale high was the support we had from outside the prison.
NO: Did you know while you were in prison that your friends and colleagues–and many media rights defenders worldwide–were calling for your release? Did you have hope?
NS: Yes, I knew that and that was my only hope. As a matter of fact, I believe I was released because of that support and with the help of that hope.
NO: You are free now, but your freedom is only conditional. You can be re-arrested if convicted. Do you fear that may happen?
NS: Why not be concerned? After all, this is Turkey. The rage of any politician may provide a pretext for me to be arrested again. But as for fear–I am long beyond that.
NO: What is the first thing in Turkey that must change so that press freedom can thrive?
NS: First of all, press freedom must be guaranteed by law in an unequivocal way. Second, the judiciary should go through training to act in full compliance to the spirit of that law. The public should also be educated about the importance of freedom of thought and freedom of expression.
(Translated by Çiğdem Girgiç Çalap)