Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis

3. The Anti-State Prosecutions

Journalist Ahmet Şık found himself behind bars for writing a book that was not even published. So explosive was the subject of The Imam’s Army that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likened it to a bomb. Şık was probing too far into one of the most influential and underreported forces in modern Turkish politics—the Gülen movement.

“I was arrested before I had the chance to put something new in the book,” Şık told CPJ of his March 2011 detention on initial charges of participating in the alleged Ergenekon anti-government conspiracy. Şık had been looking for evidence to support claims that the Islamic movement headed by the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen had infiltrated Turkey’s powerful police and judiciary and was exerting a growing influence over the Erdoğan administration. Erdoğan has been prime minister since 2003 at the head of the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, a neoliberal, socially conservative group with roots in Islam.

“There would have been more documents in the book, but I was being followed, my news sources were being followed, were being bugged. … So because they didn’t want those documents in my book, I was arrested,” Şık said.

SIDEBAR: No Justice for Hrant Dink

Şık was swept up in the 18th wave of arrests that followed the 2007 launch of an investigation into Ergenekon, an alleged underground network of ultranationalist, secular military officers, and civil servants plotting to overthrow the government. Şık’s arrest was especially curious because he is one of a small group of journalists and authors who have attempted to reveal the scope of the plot. He has also spent much of his career writing about the influence of the “deep state” in Turkish political life, the shadowy ultranationalist military and civilian administration establishment that for decades has defended what it believes is the secular legacy of the founder of Turkey’s modern republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Along with Şık, police arrested another prominent investigative journalist and author, Nedim Şener. He, too, was at first accused by special prosecutor Zekeriya Öz and police chief Ali Fuat Yılmazer of membership in Ergenekon. Their detentions caused uproar, both domestically and abroad. Many dozens of journalists, particularly Kurds, had been jailed before but the prominence of Şık and Şener seemed to galvanize opposition to what many saw as the government’s growing hostility to the independent media. Amid a storm of negative publicity, prosecutor Öz was taken off the Ergenekon case and police chief Yılmazer was transferred soon after.

Yet despite the international spotlight, both Şık and Şener spent more than 12 months in detention as the courts held initial hearings in their cases—and, with the charges still pending in mid-2012, they faced the possibility of additional prison time. Their arrests came weeks after a government raid on the offices of Odatv, an online news outlet fiercely critical of the AKP and the Gülen community. The raid, which resulted in the arrests of several Odatv journalists on charges of participating in the Ergenekon plot, also forged an improbable link between the ultranationalist news outlet and the two investigative reporters.

Police claim they found the digital manuscript of The Imam’s Army on a seized Odatv computer. Şık’s lawyer, Tora Pekin, said his client was accused of writing the book under the direction of Odatv staffers to further the aims of the Ergenekon conspiracy. The authorities also claim to have found electronic documents saying that Şener was assisting Şık with the book and had already helped a former regional police chief, Hanefi Avci, write a 2010 book alleging that the Gülen movement had infiltrated the police force.

When the indictment eventually came down in August 2011, the charges against both Şık and Şener had been reduced from membership in Ergenekon to “aiding and abetting” the organization, Pekin told CPJ. Şık and Şener are among 12 journalists charged in the Odatv case. The others are being tried on a variety of charges, including membership in Ergenekon and instigating violence. The case is before a “special authority court,” which hears terrorism and sedition cases. Defense lawyers claim Şık’s book and other electronic documents were planted on the news portal’s computers by hackers they suspect were working for the authorities. Experts hired by the defense concluded that Odatv’s computers were infected by Trojan files that left the machines vulnerable to outside manipulation. The experts also found that the documents themselves were altered on the day of the raid, further raising the possibility of a setup.

Şık, a leftist, says it’s laughable for the prosecution to accuse him of working under the orders of an outlet such as Odatv, whose views are at the opposite end of the political spectrum from his own. “I have some problems with Odatv about their editorial stance and ethics, but why are they in prison? Because they wrote about the [Gülen] sect,” he said. Şık denies writing the book as part of the Ergenekon plot or having help from Şener.


The Ergenekon investigation has spread a long way from the original probe of a potential military coup to the behemoth it is today, one that encompasses journalists and government opponents, more than 400 defendants in all. The government’s theory is that the conspirators sought to use the news media to create an atmosphere of political and social chaos conducive to a military coup. (In fact, a number of journalists and analysts, including some interviewed for this report, said they believe the 2007 assassination of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink was part of this plan, one in which prominent figures, including non-Muslims such as Dink, would be targeted to create political and sectarian turmoil. The prosecution has not introduced evidence supporting this theory, however.)

At first, the inquiry into Ergenekon was welcomed by many ordinary Turks who saw a democratically elected government pushing back against the “deep state.” “This was the first time the military had been judged and even jailed. Before that nobody could ever touch the military,” said Turkish political analyst Maya Arakon of the Center for Defense and Strategic Studies at Strasbourg University in France. But that initial public acceptance of the investigation has turned to skepticism with each new round of arrests, she told CPJ. “After the first or second wave of arrests, we said OK. But by the 13th and 14th wave we asked: Is it really this big or is it an excuse to get all political opponents too?”

Şık believes the answer to that question is obvious. “There are lots of people among the accused I believe are guilty, but they are not being tried for their actual crimes. This is political score-settling. I believe that if there were an honest investigation in Ergenekon it would lead to democratization, but that is not what is happening.”

Şener thinks he was accused of involvement in the conspiracy because of his investigations into the Dink murder. In 2010, he was tried and acquitted under anti-terrorism laws on charges of revealing secret documents in a book he wrote alleging involvement by the national intelligence service MIT, the police, and gendarmerie in Dink’s murder.

“The police officers responsible for the murder of Hrant Dink are the same officers that are running the Ergenekon investigation, and they are also from the Fethullah Gülen movement. They included me in the operation they were running because of things I wrote in my book,” Şener said. Commenting on the current accusations that he helped both Şık and police chief Avci with their research, Şener noted wryly, “For the first time I have been arrested for books that I neither wrote nor helped to write.”

Being arrested or harassed for reporting is nothing new in Turkey, especially for Kurdish or leftist journalists. But all independent journalists are now under attack on multiple fronts—from an AKP administration intolerant of media criticism; from ultranationalist prosecutors armed with an array of laws intended to stifle free expression; and from media owners reluctant to risk business interests outside their media holdings by openly challenging the government.

“The biggest problem is the Turkish Penal Code,” Şık said. “There are about 30 laws restricting freedom of speech in Turkey.” Indeed, in July 2012, Şık was indicted on additional penal code charges of “threatening judges and prosecutors and making them targets of a terrorist organization.” His crime? He had publicly criticized authorities, saying they deserved imprisonment for unjustly prosecuting him and other journalists.

In today’s Turkey, a person who believes they are speaking truth to power can also find themselves in violation of the sweeping anti-terrorism law, which was introduced in 1991 at the height of a Kurdish insurgency. During its first term, the AKP government pursued some legal reforms as it sought to join the European Union. But the EU accession process has effectively stalled, leaving the state’s legal arsenal against the media largely intact. Besides continuing to harass large numbers of Kurdish journalists with draconian anti-terrorism laws, prosecutors across the political spectrum have opened thousands of cases against non-Kurdish journalists during the AKP’s tenure in an attempt to stifle critical reporting on both the administration and the “deep state.”


Some of the most frequently used articles of the penal code go to the very heart of newsgathering, such as talking to security officials and obtaining documents. These include Article 285 (violation of confidentiality) and Article 288 (attempting to influence a trial). Some of these offenses carry prison terms, but the purpose is not so much to jail reporters as to intimidate them into self-censorship.

When cases are brought, reporters have to hire lawyers and show up in court, sometimes twice on the same day. “Since 2008 there have been 75 cases against me. I have been acquitted in about half,” said Hanım Büşra Erdal, a reporter with Zaman, a daily viewed as generally supportive of the government. The other cases against Erdal remain open, an uneasy situation for a reporter following the explosive Ergenekon case and another anti-government conspiracy known as Balyoz, or Sledgehammer. Nearly 200 serving and retired military personnel have been put on trial in connection with the Sledgehammer plot, which dates to 2003. Press reports in 2010 first revealed allegations that plotters planned a bombing campaign to prepare the ground for a military takeover. (The defendants, along with other senior officers, said the “plot” was nothing more than a seminar on war game scenarios. The chief of the armed forces, Işık Koşaner, resigned in July 2011 along with the heads of the army, navy, and air force in an unprecedented protest over the Sledgehammer prosecutions.)

Simply covering a sensitive case such as Sledgehammer is filled with legal risk. “Typical cases are filed under penal code articles that cover violation of the secrecy of an investigation and attempting to influence a trial,” Erdal said. When she wrote an analysis examining the qualifications of the judges in the Sledgehammer case, for example, Erdal was indicted on charges of “insulting the judiciary,” “violation of secrecy,” and “attempting to influence a fair trial.” 

Besides the cost of hiring lawyers and the disruption to work schedules from having to attend multiple court hearings, continuous prosecutions can have a chilling effect on reporters. Some said the possibility of prison or pretrial detention is never far from their minds, and that the authorities use this to their advantage.

Pekin, Şık’s lawyer, said the legislative landscape is becoming more restrictive for free expression even as Turkey is growing in economic and diplomatic muscle and opening to the outside world. In addition to charges under the penal code and counterterrorism law, journalists like his client have increasingly faced a third category of charges: belonging to or assisting the organization that is the subject of their reporting.

“When you take these three categories together, it is possible to say that the government has an iron fist over journalism in Turkey,” Pekin said. “Turkey does not have real press freedom. I have been a newspaper lawyer for 12 years. If you ask me, there has been no progress compared to the situation 12 years ago. In fact, if you look at the third category you could say the situation is going backwards.”

Some analysts believe that the authorities, having sent a chilling message to the press in their anti-state prosecutions, are now turning back to suppression of Kurdish media. “The government is not talking so much about Ergenekon now because they have reached a certain level of satisfaction with this case,” the analyst Arakon said. “Nobody is left outside the circle of imprisonment. Now they have moved on to the KCK trials,” she said, referring to a wave of criminal prosecutions of Kurdish journalists, academics, and politicians accused of membership in the Union of Communities in Kurdistan, or KCK, which the government has designated a terrorist group.

“Turkey has shown that an unprinted book can be confiscated and a journalist can be arrested for two books that he had no part in writing. We have turned into such a strange, paranoid country,” said Şener. But referring to the plight of Kurdish journalists, he added: “The people in southeast Turkey are being arrested as terrorists just for writing. Their situation is much worse than ours.”

(Photo by Reuters)

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