Why Is Turkey Arresting Journalists?

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

As the Arab world smolders, the world has pointed to nearby Turkey — secular, democratic, stable, prosperous — as a beacon by which an embattled region might readjust its confused geopolitical compass. So it is no small irony that, booming economy aside, Turkey is looking less like a futuristic role model and, increasingly, like a country that is more enamored of the authoritarianism that others are so passionately trying to shrug off.

Two of my friends were among the seven journalists who were arrested in an early-morning police roundup in Istanbul and Ankara this past week. Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik are well-respected investigative reporters who have worked for leading publications in Turkey, and who have received international acclaim for their work documenting human-rights abuses. They were originally charged with "belonging to a terrorist organization and inciting the public to hatred," according to their lawyers, though the incitement charge was later dropped. Both men deny the allegations against them. Both are still under detention.

They were arrested as part of a long-running investigation into a shadowy network of military and ex-security men who allegedly planned to topple the Islamic-rooted government in the early 2000s. The investigation began in 2007 and was widely hailed at the time as a bold step forward for Turkish democracy, which has long wrestled with the specter of military involvement in politics. It was the first time former generals were called to task for their behavior, and it set a new standard for the supremacy of civilian rule. Ironically, Sik was part of the journalistic team that first published the diaries of a former navy general, which led to the investigation in the first place.

Yet nearly four years on, there have been no convictions, and the investigation appears to have turned into a campaign to silence critical media and the opposition. "In the absence of evidence that the police have credible reason to think Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener are responsible for wrongdoing, their arrests are a disturbing development," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It raises concerns that what is now under investigation is critical reporting rather than coup plots."

Both Sener and Sik had been critical not just of the government but also of a key government backer: a powerful Islamic brotherhood led by a reclusive Pennsylvania-based imam called Fethullah Gulen, whom some critics allege now controls the Turkish security forces. Before his arrest this past week, Sener was already on trial on charges of, among other things, revealing classified information in a book in which he alleges the complicity of the security forces in the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007; Sik was about to publish his own book on the Gulen network, provisionally titled The Imam's Army. "Whoever gets near this [issue] burns," Sik said as he was arrested.

This past week's detentions follow last month's raid on the offices of Odatv, a news website critical of the government; four Odatv journalists were arrested. "Journalists are being detained on the one hand while addresses about freedom of the speech are given on the other. We do not understand this," the U.S. ambassador to Ankara, Francis Ricciardone, said following the raid. He was harshly criticized by the Turkish government, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling him an "amateurish ambassador." Erdogan has refused to comment on the wave of media arrests, saying they are a legal matter.

There is more than just the arrests. The government's "you're either with us or against us" attitude has created a palpable sense of repression in the press, particularly since media and business interests are closely linked. The main government-critical news group, Dogan, was slapped with 4.8 billion lira ($3.05 billion) in tax fines in 2009 after a row with the government over corruption allegations involving members of Erdogan's party. "Young reporters are now intimidated to ask certain questions of the Prime Minister and some ministers," wrote Murat Yetkin, a veteran Ankara commentator for the Radikal newspaper. Reporters worry that they might lose their press card or be banned from further meetings. Erdogan has personally sued dozens of cartoonists and journalists for defamation. Under his administration, thousands of websites have been shut down at times, including YouTube, Vimeo and Blogger.

Turkey is now counting down to elections in June that appear likely to see Erdogan re-elected for a third time. Although the main opposition Republican People's Party has a new leader in mild-mannered former bureaucrat Kemal Kilicdaroglu, it is bogged down by years of stagnation and outdated rhetoric. If re-elected, Erdogan has promised to make a new and more democratic constitution drafted by broad social consensus a top priority. He'll deserve those plaudits from abroad if he follows through.