by Elif Akgül
Possessing ideas and spreading them are among the most infamous “crimes” in Turkey’s history. The Constitution grants the freedom to express and spread ideas, but governments have also worked to subvert this right by invoking “state secrets” or “the well-being of the state.”
“Press freedom, which is said to be something that is not granted, even though it is still used as a weapon, does not entail the right of a newspaper to grumble recklessly against the ruling government. Criticism is a sacred right. Still, it should provide an objective analysis of reality by showing materials, time and evidence.” (Davamız ve Müdafaamız (Our Case and Our Defense), Zekeriya Sertel, Can Yayınları)
Pick a random journalist who is facing trial today, and you’ll come across this paragraph in the indictment. However, it’s actually a quote from an indictment against Sabiha Sertel and Zekeriya Sertel that was prepared by prosecutor Hicabi Dinç, way back on Dec. 15, 1945. And let’s give Dinç credit where credit is due, as his knowledge of Turkish don’t even show up in today’s indictments.
The current period has been described as one in which the press has been brought under the government’s thumb the most, yet the press has always suffered under the judiciary in Turkey. Still, the dark atmosphere created by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has reached a level that would make anyone forgot the country’s history of tyranny, which is full of trials, arrests, torture, disappearances and unsolved murders. It’s a past that is displayed at the Press Museum in Istanbul’s central Cağaloğlu neighborhood.
A dysmnesia that began with the failure to commemorate the Armenian intellectuals, including Armenian journalists, who were forcefully deported and murdered, today prevents us from seeing a pattern which has continued with the fate of the Sertels, Sabahattin Ali, Abdi İpekçi, Musa Anter, Metin Göktepe, İlhan Selçuk and others, and actually proves that there is continuity in the state.
Looking today at Dinç’s indictment, one realizes that we only notice particular things the moment we die, like the slowly boiling frog. The government touts a “New Turkey,” but journalism and the expression of ideas has repeatedly become the subject of trials throughout the history of the Turkish Republic. Still, the cases that began during the “foreman” stage of AKP rule constitute the most intense period in the republic’s history.
Possessing ideas and spreading them are among the most infamous “crimes” in Turkey’s history. The Constitution grants the freedom to express and spread ideas, but governments have also worked to subvert this right by invoking “state secrets,” “the well-being of the state” or “state figures.”
For example, Cumhuriyet newspaper’s former editor-in-chief, the late İlhan Selçuk, was charged with “the crime of having ideas” in the indictment for Ergenekon, a case into an alleged coup attempt, in 2008. Below is one of the charges against Selçuk in the indictment prepared by then-prosecutors Zekeriya Öz, Mehmet Ali Pekgüzel and Nihat Taşkın.
“…He claims that the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), the Presidency and other strongholds have been lost and as a result of this trend, the Turkish Republic will turn into a Moderate Islamic Republic. He relates these ideas at every opportunity to people listening to him or reading his articles. … He uses these ideas in line with the organization’s targets … both in his columns in his newspaper and at open or secret luncheons at various places.”
When the AKP went from “apprentice” to “foreman,” expressing ideas became a further “crime.” Journalist Ahmet Şık’s book “İmamın Ordusu” (The Imam’s Army) was included as evidence in the OdaTV indictment. In another indictment, one of the prosecutors of that “period,” Cihan Kansız, cited Şık’s book as a “document of the [illegal] organization.”
Then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan defended the ban on “The Imam’s Army” even before it was printed at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in April 2011:
Using bombs is a crime and using the materials used in making bombs is also a crime. If the security forces get a tip that someone is making a bomb, shouldn’t they go and collect the materials? In this case, information similar to the former comes in and the judiciary makes a decision, telling the security forces to go and get them.”
Thousands of people responded to Erdoğan, saying, “You can’t make bombs out of books.” But as we mentioned above, there is continuity in the state, and his bomb allegory for a book was not a one-time incident. Let’s look at the Sertels’ prosecutor’s view on the issue:
“Just like many others, it is in harmony with the spirit of law and democracy to consider these writings, which are sometimes very lengthy… because sometimes, disguised as an intellectual who is working for the benefit of the country, [the writer] uses press freedom like a gun in hand by making use of some events under the guise of a critic…”
One common comment these days is that Turkish society has been built on complicity in crime. It’s hard not to agree. And the press is not disconnected to society, making it complicit in it.
Newspapers and magazines were closed with the first article of the Takrir-i Sükûn Kanunu, or the Law on the Maintenance of Order, which was passed after the Sheikh Said Rebellion in 1925. And after Tanin newspaper printed the article “Kalkın ey ehli vatan” (“Rise Up, You Family of the Nation”) by Hüseyin Cahit Yalçın — an earlier version of today’s “hitman” journalists — on Dec. 4, 1945, a crowd brandishing axes and sledgehammers attacked and burned the Sertels’ Tan printing house.
But what about the headlines like “Not arrested for journalism,” following the OdaTV operation in 2011, or news reports in pro-government media, which say that there are no journalists in prison?
Those who took the side of the government in the past ended up tasting injustice when the government turned its guns on them. But these outlets were too late to recognize freedom.
Those who used to enjoy a place aboard the prime minister’s plane then hit the streets, chanting slogans from the Kurdish media (which they used to avoid touching with a ten-foot pole), only after they felt the weight of the sledgehammer of the government following its split from the Gülen community:
“The free media cannot be silenced!” What we are experiencing is actually the age-old story about of how “we shouldn’t have let him beat up the priest.” (Her Şeyi Türk Yaptınız, Solu Bari Türk Solu Yapmayın (You’ve Made Everything Turkish, Don’t Make the Left the Turkish Left, At Least), Sarkis Çerkezoğlu, compiled by Yahya Koçoğlu, Metis publishing house). (*)
But no lessons were learned, either from this story or history. In this latest period of the AKP, which has gone even further than its self-proclaimed period of “mastership,” the trials against journalists and journalism have entered a league all of their own.
News photographs appeared as evidence in the press trial into the KCK, the umbrella organization of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), just as notebooks became evidence in the Ergenekon case or Şık’s unpublished book in the OdaTV case. Today’s prosecutors who, unlike their former colleagues, do not bother to create or produce evidence unlawfully, enjoy great comfort thanks to the emergence of “witness journalists.”
For the government, is there any method better than pitting journalist against journalist, bringing the “hitmen” from the newspaper column to the hearing room and ensuring everyone knows the difference between an “appreciated journalist” and a “rejected journalist” by putting it in the state records?
The “appreciated” journalists of this period go beyond calling prosecutors to arms or uttering threats on social media; instead, they enjoy their tea with prosecutors with newspaper clippings in their briefcases.
One such witnessing incident was a case against 29 media workers, including journalist Murat Aksoy and musician Atilla Taş, who faced charges of membership in an illegal organization and making a coup attempt.
At a hearing on April 27, 2017, one of the journalist witnesses in the case claimed, in an effort to prove arrested suspect Abdullah Kılıç’s link to the organization, that “Hanım Büşra Erdal, another suspect in the case, invited the suspect to comment on the Ergenekon case on a TV program even though he [the witness] had followed it for five years.”
Another witness journalist made the statement below in arguing that arrested suspect Oğuz Usluer was linked to the organization.
“Breaking news appeared on TV saying that [National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief] Hakan Fidan had arrived in Istanbul. Then we had a big quarrel with Oğuz Usluer on who to air for the program. I felt [the existence of] a structure there.”
Such newsroom debates over who should be put on air and who should be brought in as a guest on a TV program combined with careerist ambitions to find a place in testimonies in legal cases.
And the biggest example should not be missed. The Cumhuriyet newspaper case entered the annals of history as evidence of the ruling government’s fight with a newspaper and the degree to which it has taken over the judiciary.
The things they put in the indictment! A reporter — the Istanbul branch chief of the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) — who discussed the newspaper’s editorial line with the prosecutor, as well as a former news chief at the newspaper, were among the prosecution’s witnesses. Columnists from Aydınlık newspaper and former officials at the Cumhuriyet Foundation, which owns the newspaper, were among the witnesses in the case.
And what did these witnesses speak about? “The expression that reads ‘Even cigarette butts are not littered at [PKK headquarters] on Mount Qandil,’ the placement of the newspaper’s logo, news reports on the third-largest political party in Parliament…”
They were all awarded for their appreciated behaviors. The case ended, the suspects received prison sentences, the Cumhuriyet Foundation board election was redone, and the witness reporter and unionist became the domestic news chief of the newspaper, the news chief became the editor-in-chief, while the former foundation board member became the new head of the foundation.
Let’s end our words with a quote from Ümit Alan’s preface to Sertels’ book.
“Reading the documents of Turkey’s history makes one feel like you’re living in an endless ‘now.’”
(*) Çerkezoğlu’s work tells the story of an Armenian priest, a Muslim Turk and a Muslim Kurd who steal grapes from a vineyard. When the vintner finds them, he beats the priest, securing the other two’s acquiescence by appealing to their shared ethnicity (in the case of the Turk) and religion (in the case of the Kurd). He then beats the Kurd by securing the Turk’s acquiescence by again appealing to his ethnicity. Last, he beats the Turk, remonstrating with him for having the gall to enter a vineyard with an Armenian and a Kurd. In the end, the Turk and the Kurd agree, “We shouldn’t have let him beat up the priest.”
This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.