Turkey faces questions about free expression

AP News
Posted: Apr 14, 2011 7:55 AM
Turkey faces questions about free expression

Journalist Ahmet Sik was preparing a book about the alleged infiltration of Islamists into the Turkish police, a sensitive theme in a nation divided over the role of religion. Now he is in jail, suspected of links to what authorities say is a secularist plot to topple the government.

The arrests last month of Sik and Nedim Sener, an award-winning reporter for Milliyet newspaper, fed growing concerns about threats to press freedom in Turkey, a democracy with a mostly Muslim population that seeks membership in the European Union.

The Islam-based government dismisses international criticism that it seeks to muzzle challengers, citing a record of Western-backed reforms and the need to prosecute an alleged network of hardline secularists known by many Turks as the "deep state."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cited the role of some media sectors over the decades in fanning support for coups led by the Turkish military, a staunch supporter of the secular system. On Wednesday, he told European parliamentarians in Strasbourg, France, that 26 reporters were detained in Turkey for activity unrelated to journalism.

"The process against these journalists is not for their writings or their thoughts. It is a question of a judicial process due to their ties to various criminal organizations or to coup plotters," Turkey's Zaman newspaper quoted Erdogan as saying.

The prime minister appeared to be referring to journalists ensnared in the coup plot case. But the media freedom office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose members include Turkey, said a total of 57 journalists were in jail in Turkey, mostly on anti-terror charges. This group includes people with alleged ties to Kurdish rebels and extreme leftists.

The office acknowledged Turkey's right to safeguard national security, but urged it to reform media legislation so as to ensure the right to free expression.

"Writing about sensitive issues, including issues of terrorism or anti-government activities, is often considered as supporting those issues," the office said in a statement. The OSCE is a 56-state regional security group.

Formal charges against Sik and Sener, who know each other but say they have not collaborated, have not been announced.

Their detentions bewildered their supporters because both men have investigated the alleged anti-government networks with which they have now been linked, though they have also researched allegations of Islamist influence on state officials pursuing the networks.

Sik co-authored a 2010 book about an alleged coup plot gang, but prosecutors appear to view his new book, titled "The Imam's Army," as part of a propaganda campaign directed by those same coup plotters in an effort to discredit the government.

Erdogan's ruling party seeks a third term in June elections and pledges to uphold the secular constitution, but opponents accuse it of seeking to impose Islam on society and the allegations of Islamist influence on the police in Sik's book would reinforce their conviction.

Prosecutors tried to seize copies of Sik's book, but it quickly spread on the Internet. The nation's president, an Erdogan ally, expressed concern that the judicial action would only draw attention to Sik's claims, which some commentators say contain little that is new.

"This has ended up becoming the best possible PR campaign for those journalists and the books that are being mentioned," President Abdullah Gul said. "Their books, which would have sold tens of thousands before, will now sell hundreds of thousands of copies."

Sener had already faced prosecution for a book about the 2007 assassination of Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian journalist. He alleged official negligence in the killing and had argued that an alleged coup plot gang _ the same one that Sik wrote about _ was behind Dink's death.

Backers of Sener provided a transcript of his interrogation by prosecutors after his arrest. According to the document, Sener was asked about his links to other coup plot suspects, as well as allegations that he worked on anti-government propaganda ahead of a referendum on constitutional change last September and upcoming elections in June, presumably in an attempt to influence the results.

Sener denied he was part of a conspiracy and noted he had received death threats from alleged coup plotters in the past. He indicated that he knew he was under surveillance, and said his sources close to the police had told him he might be jailed.

At one point, prosecutors cited a recorded telephone conversation between Sener and an opposition party spokesman who talks about going on a sea cruise, muses about the weather forecast and tour operator, and says: "Let's not get caught in the wave."

The prosecutors apparently believe the two men are talking in code and ask Sener to explain the meaning of the maritime and tourist terminology. Saying the conversation was indeed about a genuine cruise, Sener replies: "It is normal that such words are used in this conversation."

Last year, Sener was named a "World Press Freedom Hero" by the International Press Institute, and he won his first Turkish awards in the late 1990s for a story about the hardship faced by seasonal farm workers.

Sik's apartment in Istanbul is an orderly world, with books lining glass-paned shelves, a bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter and African figurines on a mantelpiece. There are photos of his daughter and one showing Sik and his wife, Yonca, standing in an embrace in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

"If he believes in something, he sees nothing else," Yonca, who works at a German foundation, said of her stubborn spouse.

Sik, a socialist, lectured in journalism at Istanbul's Bilgi University and photographed civilians who were severely injured in Turkey's Kurdish conflict. In a statement after his arrest, he said journalism is not impartial and reporters should criticize power, whether military or civilian.

"For 20 years, I have always targeted those in power, either wearing a uniform or a tie, because authority is always a problem-creating realm," he said.