Protesters mark the fifth anniversary of the killing of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink in Istanbul January 19, 2012. (Reuters/Osman Orsal)
Protesters mark the fifth anniversary of the killing of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink in Istanbul January 19, 2012. (Reuters/Osman Orsal)

Turkey, jailer of journalists, hedges bets on democracy

More reporters are jailed in Turkey than in any other country in the world. According to CPJ’s recent survey, at least 61 are imprisoned directly for their work, representing the second biggest media crackdown in the 27 years we have been documenting such records. (Only Turkey itself has rivaled the extent of this crackdown, when it jailed 78 journalists in 1996.) In the country hailed as the model moderate Islamic republic, how is this possible?

The fact is that Turkey abounds in contradictions too dangerous for the world to ignore. Yet a strong and democratic Turkey has never been more important than today, as the region is rocked by turmoil and violence. Achieving it is impossible without a free and fearless press.

Here are a few examples of the confusing and sometimes disturbing political, social, and media landscape I observed on a recent mission on behalf of CPJ.  It is the third such mission I have undertaken in the past decade and a half.  The country I found this time is booming. Ankara and Istanbul’s skylines are dotted with more construction cranes than elsewhere in Europe. Three different ultra-high-tech trains zip me from Istanbul’s Taksim Square to the Beyoğlu quarter, filling my New Yorker’s heart with public transport envy.  On the surface, Ataturk’s secular state seems to have smoothly adjusted to rule under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s Islamic Justice and Development Party. I recall meeting the then-rising politician and his wife a decade ago. My husband, Richard Holbrooke, and I were surprised that this seemingly modern politician’s wife wore a headscarf and refused to shake Richard’s hand.  Today, Turkey’s first lady is still wears a headscarf, but now shakes men’s hands. Veiled and unveiled women jostle each other in roughly equal numbers on the subway. Giant billboards advertise chic ways to wear the headscarf–the veil seems a non-issue.

Major intersections feature news kiosks with dozens of colorful newspapers, in glaring contrast to U.S. cities, which can barely support one or two major newspapers. The press corps itself is a rowdy bunch, and the papers are salted with photos of curvaceous “personalities” and irreverent cartoons.  A recent one depicted  Erdoğan, asleep, a dream bubble over his head in which the tomb of Kamal Ataturk, the country’s revered founder, is being turned into a shopping mall.

Beneath this shiny surface of a modernizing Islamic republic, there are signs of a hedging of bets on democracy. If you want to find out just how pervasive the country’s security apparatus is, try taking a picture of a government building. I did, in Ankara the other day, and suddenly a scruffy youth in a t-shirt and ragged jeans jumped in front of me and vigorously shook his head. I quickly put away my camera, but he already had his walkie-talkie in hand. 

The works of Orhan Pamuk, the country’s Nobel Laureate, are displayed in every bookstore in Istanbul.  And yet this national treasure was recently tried, convicted, and sentenced for “unTurkishness.” Pamuk referred to the mass killings by Turks of Kurds and Armenians–two of the taboo subjects in this land of increasingly limited free speech. “UnTurkishness” is a crime–and an extremely elastic one. While the law is not always enforced, it nonetheless instills fear and encourages self-censorship in some journalists. In general, writing about the PKK, the Kurdish separatist movement, can get you in trouble. And yet, when Erdoğan assumed power, he vowed to reach out to the restive Kurdish population. Instead, he has cracked down on them and on those who cover them.

For one and a half hours, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin stubbornly disputed our report on his country’s jailed journalists. A thick pile of notes in his hand, it was obvious that the minister had studied our report carefully. Ergin refused, however, to address specific cases, merely asserting that many of our “reporters” are terrorists in disguise. He then reviewed Turkey’s history of military coups: 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1982. “My job is to keep the country secure,” he insisted. “That is as important as free speech.” Listening to him, you could easily believe that this is a country on the boil, not a regional powerhouse.

This being Turkey–a state with a split personality–the minister concluded our meeting almost apologetically. “I am not always like this,” he said sheepishly. He said the upcoming constitutional reform of the anti-terror law will improve matters for journalists. That is as close as he came to admitting there is a problem here after all.

Sometimes it seems as if this emerging democracy hasn’t really thought through the process it has embarked on. Democratization here proceeds in fits and starts: one-step forward, one step backward. The prime minster announced that it is ok to criticize public figures, just not to insult them.  But shortly thereafter, he compared the head of the main opposition party to the “unlucky Bedouin,” who, according to an off color Turkish saying, “gets f___ed” in the desert by a polar bear. Not to be outdone, his rival shoots back that Erdoğan knows a lot about deserts, having spent so much time in the Syrian desert (a reference to the prime minister’s controversial role in opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad). The next day, the papers are full of cartoons of this exchange, one depicting Erdoğan and his rival in bed, a smiling polar bear between them. In this confusing environment, there are no clear lines between free and “unTurkish” speech.

For journalists like Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık, none of this is a laughing matter. Both have served time and are prepared to be rearrested in connection with a vast conspiracy trial known as Ergenekon. Meant to deal with Turkey’s authoritarian past, the trial has now devolved into one more way to bring the government’s perceived foes to heel. But the prime minister is wildly popular, and is expected to stay in power for a long time to come. Though his supporters bridle at the comparison, Erdoğan has chosen a Putin-like route to guarantee his political longevity, pushing legislation to strengthen the ceremonial presidency, which he plans to fill once his term as prime minster expires. 

Erdoğan is supported by a population obsessed with the past, now reaching back beyond Ataturk to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, the subject of a recent spate of  books, movies, and soap operas. Erdoğan’s popularity is also fueled by the country’s hard-core nationalism, which seems at odds with an emerging democracy.

But prison seems only to harden his critics’ resolve. At a reception in CPJ’s honor hosted by American Ambassador Frank Ricciardone, I meet a pink-cheeked, lanky young man who tells me he spent his second and third wedding anniversaries in a cell. Barış Terkoğlu, of Odatv, matter-of-factly predicts he will spend his fourth there too.  

But the press is as divided as the population. At the same gathering, pro-government reporters peppered me with questions more hostile than any from the minister of justice. After I explained that my involvement with press freedom originated in my early childhood when my parents were jailed as spies for reporting the truth in Communist Hungary, one reporter sharply asks, “Were your parents terrorists?” No, I answer, they were neither terrorists nor spies, just reporters. The next day, this exchange is reported on the front page of an independent daily.

So many impressive strides have been made here, and Turkey is still the single best role model for a modern, prosperous, democratizing Islamic nation. But the fact that the country’s rulers often deem security and free speech as mutually exclusive is disturbing. Turkey’s friends have an obligation to speak out, to voice the hard truths that many of Turkey’s own journalists face prison for speaking.

[Reporting from Ankara]