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Wed January 25, 2012
Middle East

For Turkish Journalists, Arrest Is A Real Danger

Originally published on Thu January 26, 2012 10:42 am

In the wake of the Arab Spring, some Muslims in North Africa are looking across the Mediterranean to Turkey as a potential model of a state that can be modern, Islamic and democratic.

But some analysts in the region say that model is flawed, and they are questioning Turkey's human-rights record and its dealings with the press.

Critics say the government is using Turkey's slow-moving and sometimes opaque justice system to stifle dissent. Turkish media advocates are frustrated both with the government and international media groups who in their view understate the number of imprisoned journalists.

Among them are Ahmet Sik and longtime investigative journalist Nedim Sener. Their arrests nearly a year ago provoked a large public outcry, but since then detentions of journalists have continued apace.

Yonca Sik says her husband's spirits seemed to lift when he was finally able to have his say in open court earlier this month. That hearing also featured the first public reading of the indictment against the journalists.

"When you read the indictment, you can't decide whether you should laugh or cry, or — it's just really, really embarrassing," Yonca says. "And when it was read aloud in court it was revelatory, it had a sort of epiphany, because the whole world could see what the allegations were and how they were just sort of silly and ridiculous."

Public Anger Rising

Prosecutors are taking the indictment quite seriously. The state charges the journalists with aiding and abetting a terrorist organization — an alleged behind-the-scenes power structure known as Ergenekon.

Hundreds of people — including military officers, academics and journalists — have been arrested in various cases involving alleged conspiracies to overthrow the government. In the case of these journalists, however, most of the actual evidence of their collaboration consists of news stories or books they worked on.

Many Turks believe the government was not prepared for the strong public reaction to what critics call its campaign against unfriendly journalists.

Turkish-Armenian writer Hrant Dink was murdered five years ago, gunned down by an ultranationalist teenager. He was the last journalist to be killed for doing his job.

Last week, tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets to commemorate his death — in another reminder of just how unpopular the government's treatment of the media has become.

Many in the crowd condemned a recent court ruling that found no official involvement in the murder. In the wake of that ruling, even one of the judges expressed discontent with the verdict.

Protester Yasemine Akbas scornfully dismisses the government's assertion that the appeals court may yet get to the truth in the case.

"I don't give a damn to what they say, actually. Their purpose is not democracy; their purpose is not equilibrium, is not brotherhood, is not this or that. All their concern is how to save their own asses, that's all," Akbas says.

The chorus of criticism includes the European Court of Human Rights, which last year said Turkey has violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

Many Jailed Journalists

The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists also weighed in, though with a twist. CPJ itself came under fire from local groups after it listed eight jailed Turkish journalists in its latest global survey. Turkish groups say the total exceeds 90.

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon says he was "very disturbed" to hear that the government was using the CPJ tally to rebut criticism at home. He says the sometimes murky Turkish justice system makes it hard to meet the clear evidence standards the group uses for its global survey, but in any case, the government has nothing to be proud of.

"The reality is, eight journalists in jail puts you in the company of countries like Syria, Ethiopia and Burma, before [the country's] most recent round of releases. Now Burma has far fewer journalists in jail than Turkey. So Turkey is one of the world's worst jailers of journalists. It's not, according to our research, on par with China or Iran, but it's still one of the world's worst," he says.

The government says it is encouraging changes in the drafting of a new constitution that will improve both the media climate and the judicial system.

But as Turkish columnist Mehmet Ali Birand wrote recently, the country's bid to be recognized as a modern, democratic power will inevitably be tainted as long as it arrests journalists for doing their job and then tries to portray them as terrorists.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the wake of the Arab Spring, many of the emerging democracies in North Africa are looking across the Mediterranean to Turkey, in search of a model. Still, that model may be flawed. Some analysts in the region question Turkey's human rights record, and its dealings with the media.

Critics say the government is using Turkey's slow-moving and sometimes opaque justice system to stifle dissent. Media advocates in Turkey are frustrated both with the government and international media groups, which in their view, understate the number of imprisoned journalists. NPR's Peter Kenyon filed this report from Istanbul.

YONCA SIK: OK, now you will have original Istanbul breakfast.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Yonca Sik welcomes a visitor to her Istanbul apartment on a recent morning, setting the breakfast table with cheese, homemade jam, tomatoes and the ubiquitous Turkish simit - a sesame-crusted cross between a bagel and a pretzel.

Also bustling around are Yonca's young daughter; an attention-seeking Golden Retriever; and John, a lawyer trying to get her husband, journalist Ahmet Sik, out of prison.

The arrest of Sik and longtime investigative journalist Nedim Sener nearly a year ago provoked a large, public outcry. But since then, detentions of journalists have continued apace.

Yonca Sik says her husband's spirits seemed to lift when he was finally able to have his say in open court. That hearing also featured the first public reading of the indictment against the journalists.

SIK: (Through translator) When you read the indictment, you can't decide whether you should laugh or cry. It's just really, really embarrassing. And when it was read aloud in court, it was revelatory - it was a sort of epiphany because the whole world could see what the allegations were, and how they were just sort of silly and ridiculous.

KENYON: Prosecutors are taking the indictment quite seriously. The state charges the journalist with aiding and abetting a terrorist organization - an alleged behind-the-scenes power structure known as Ergenekon.

Hundreds of people - military officers, academics and journalists - have been arrested in various cases involving alleged conspiracies to overthrow the government. In the case of these journalists, however, most of the actual evidence of their collaboration consists of news stories or books they worked on.

Many Turks believe the government was not prepared for the strong public reaction to what critics call its campaign against unfriendly journalists. Last week, there was another reminder of just how unpopular this self-described reformist government's treatment of the media has become.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING AT PROTEST)

KENYON: Five years after the murder of the last journalist to be killed for doing his job, tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets to remember the Turkish-Armenian writer Hrant Dink, gunned down by an ultranationalist teenager.

Many in the crowd condemned a recent court ruling that found no official involvement in the murder. In the wake of that ruling, virtually everyone - including one of the judges - expressed discontent with the verdict.

Protester Yasemine Akbas scornfully dismissed the government's assertion that the appeals court may yet get to the truth in the case.

YASEMINE AKBAS: I don't give a damn to what they say, actually. Their purpose is not democracy, their purpose is not equilibrium; it's not brotherhood, it's not freedom, it's not this or that. All their concern is how to save their own (bleep) that's all.

KENYON: The chorus of criticism includes the European Court of Human Rights, which last year said Turkey has violated the Convention on Human Rights.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also weighed in though here, there's a twist in the tale. CPJ itself came under fire from local groups after listing eight jailed Turkish journalists in its latest global survey. The count by Turkish groups reaches almost to three figures.

CPJ executive director Joel Simon says he was very disturbed to hear that the government was using the CPJ tally to rebut criticism at home. He says the sometimes-murky Turkish justice system makes it hard to meet the clear evidence standards they use for their global surveys but in any case, the government has nothing to be proud of.

JOEL SIMON: The reality is, eight journalists in jail puts you in the company of countries like Syria, Ethiopia and Burma, before this most recent round of releases. Now, Burma has far fewer journalists in jail than Turkey. So Turkey is one of the world's worst jailers of journalists. It's not, according to our research, on par with China or Iran, but it's still one of the world's worst.

KENYON: The government says it's encouraging reforms in the drafting of a new constitution that will improve both the media climate and the judicial system. But as one Turkish columnist wrote recently, Turkey's bid to be recognized as a modern emocratic power inevitably will be tainted as long as it arrests journalists for doing their job, and then tries to portray them as terrorists.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.