Turkey: For American Reporter Facing Jail, There’s Blame on All SIdes

(On June 10-after this article had been completed-Andrew Finkel was summoned by an Instanbul Criminal Court to answer charges that he had insulted the Turkish military — a crime under article 159 of the Turkish penal code. The charges stem from a story published in February 1998 in the daily Sabah, in which Finkel reported on conditions in a garrison town in southeastern Turkey where Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces have been battling each other for more than a decade. If convicted, Finkel faces up to six years in prison. )

Although it’s been a decade since I first came to Turkey as a correspondent, I remain puzzled by this country’s reluctance to shake off its reputation as Europe’s problem child.

Even as I sit down to write, I am confronted with the sentencing of Oral Calislar, a friend and colleague, to 13 months in jail. His offense was to publish in 1993 contrasting interviews with Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Kemal Burkay, head of the non-violent Kurdistan Socialist Party. Nor is the state’s reaction to Calislar’s journalistic work an isolated event. Tucked away in today’s newspapers is yet another item, reporting that Nazmiye Yilmaz, the news editor of Kanal 7–the television station that supports the Islamic-leaning Virtue Party–and Behi Kili, one of her reporters, are on trial in an Istanbul criminal court for insulting the Turkish armed forces and holding them in contempt. If convicted, the pair face a sentence of one to six years.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Turkey’s record of press freedom abuses is finding an interlocutor for one’s sense of outrage. TUSIAD, Turkey’s largest business confederation, condemned the Calislar verdict. Bulent Ecevit, the recently elected prime minister, said it saddened him. Even the military judge on the three-man state security court tribunal expressed a dissenting judgment.

So why does it happen?

The headlines dominating the press this week have not been about journalists in court, but about the attempts to nail together a government after the April 18 election. It now looks pretty certain that Ecevit–who has himself worked as a journalist and been in trouble with law–will lead a coalition that includes the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP). During the 1970s, the MHP harbored the violent “Grey Wolves,” the gangs of political toughs responsible for a large share of the violence that led to the 1980 military coup. The MHP’s current leader, Devlet Bahceli, appears genuine in his desire to lead a party based on the rule of law. The third partner is former Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz of the Motherland Party, who assured a CPJ delegation nearly two years ago shortly after he had assumed that post that the time when Turkey imprisoned people for what they wrote was coming to an end. Will this bunch be any better than previous governments?

Two Turkish elections ago, in January 1992, there was hope in the air that a newly forged coalition between social democrats and the center right would embark on a program of fuller democratization. Of course, the year 1992 turned out to be anything but the annus mirabilis for human rights or prisoners of conscience in Turkey. That cause became hopelessly compromised in the intensification of the Kurdish conflict in the southeast of the country and the perception among politicians that desperate times justified turning a blind eye to freedom of expression. That was the year that Musa Anter, the Kurdish intellectual, was killed–the ninth in a series of extra-judicial assassinations of journalists. This was followed by the still-unsolved bombing in December 1994 of the Istanbul offices of Ozgur Ulke, a paper sympathetic to the PKK. The police did not get away with the murder of the young journalist Metin Goktepe in January 1996–just a month after another Turkish election when politicians were trying to form yet another coalition–but most advocates of reform believe the sentences of between six to seven and a half years in prison for the convicted officers do not suit the crime of clubbing someone to death. At the end of 1998, Turkey again did its lap of dishonor for topping CPJ’s tally of journalists under lock and key.

Governments in Turkey will come and go, but the ultimate engine of reform has to be Turkish society itself. And that change is predicated on the acceptance of the existence of certain irreducible human rights. Until that acceptance takes root in Turkish society, international organizations such as CPJ must remain vigilant. In the case of CPJ, this involves debating its Turkish journalistic colleagues with the skill of medieval scholastics over who is a “real” journalist in Turkey (as opposed to political activists in journalist clothing), and therefore who has the right to be inscribed in the ranks of journalists in jail.

Turkey is a country that is passionate about politics, and it holds reasonably free elections. It possesses an increasingly assertive press. Its routine violations of international norms, then, must presume the complicity of a population that is both committed to democratic freedoms yet accepts infringement upon those freedoms in the name of a greater good, defense of the realm. It is instructive to remember that Turks regard the military as the bulwark of democracy. Since 1960, the Turkish military has intervened openly or indirectly on four occasions to “salvage” the political system, often with the approval of the population. So it just won’t do to blame state repression or the vigilantism of the police.

Clearly it would be a mistake to expect a government one of whose partners believes in the near infallibility of the Turkish state to be the one to embark on a wholesale program of reform. Both major partners converge on their suspicion of the European Union. In Turkish eyes, Brussels has let Greece get away with murder in helping Abdullah Ocalan on the run. The EU has no carrots to offer Turkey to get it to clean up its act.

Yet it is too early to be pessimistic. The MHP’s hard line is not a change in policy but merely a calcification of existing political attitudes of other governments. There is at least no immediate reason to expect things to get worse. Better, goes an argument now popular in Turkey, to have the MHP inside the tent micturating out, then outside pissing in. The MHP will have to be on its best behavior, and like the Islamic Party before it, must face the historic decision whether to move to the center of the political spectrum.

To see the glass half full, Devlet Bahceli has made clear his own belief in the rule of law; the party has called for the replacement of the military component of the state security court with a civilian judge–though this in itself will not make the judiciary more liberal. The government will command nearly two-thirds of the seats in parliament: the magic number needed to amend the constitution. But the politicians will only act if their constituents demand it.

Is Turkey a democracy that does not want to democratize? Certainly, there are at least three barriers to reform. The first has been the instability of successive governments. When in trouble, politicians tend to thump the nationalist card. And given the history of the last few years, with a series of fragile coalitions between unlikely partners, Turkish governments always seem to be in trouble. Second, the government’s continuing efforts to smother Kurdish nationalist sentiment has led to armed conflict in the southeast, poisoned the body politic, and been the excuse for repression and reluctance to reform. Third, the polarization over Islam has made the guardians of the ideal of secular democracy reluctant to abandon their arsenal of repressive legislation.

To this list, however, must be added another impediment: the Turkish press itself. In the day following Oral Calislar’s conviction I bought 10 national newspapers. It’s true–three, including Calislar’s own Cumhuriyet, did mention the trial on their front page.  Sabah, one of the largest-selling papers, did not mention it at all. Hurriyet, the other giant, mentioned the verdict in a deep inside page.

Other papers had a paragraph here or there. Two pro-Islamic papers forgot to mention it, despite their passionate defense of their own liberties. A third did so in a sarcastic vein–sniping that the rabidly secular Cumhuriyet was convicted for “Kurdish separatism.” In the following days, the news did gather some momentum as columnists weighed in to defend a friend.

The Turkish press is perfectly capable of hammering points home. One has only to look at the way the press savaged Merve Kavakci, the newly elected member of parliament from the Virtue Party who appeared for her swearing-in wearing an Islamic headscarf. In paper after paper, she was vilified and finally–in what was a genuine piece of investigative reporting–revealed to be a dual Turkish-U. S. national. In such a climate it was a simple matter for the cabinet to strip her of her nationality in record time.

Imagine the effect of such indignation and concerted coverage being brought to bear by the powerful proprietors and editors of the mainstream Turkish press on the country’s woeful press freedom record. Why they haven’t done so is a long story. Some are too compromised by their financial interests or just their own vainglory. Others don’t know how to do their job.

Why indeed should the Turkish public rise to the defense of a profession that itself often forgets how to be a champion of justice and fairness? The simple point is that it shouldn’t just be committees that protect journalists but the press itself. By all means, CPJ should write letters that begin “Dear Excellency.” But it should also write Turkish editors letters that begin “Pull up your socks.”

Andrew Finkel has worked in Turkey as a journalist for the last 10 years. Currently he reports for Timemagazine and the Times of London and appears on CNN. For three years he wrote a column in the Turkish-language daily Sabah newspaper.