What to do about the journalists in jail?
On July 14, a night before the failed coup attempt in Turkey, there was a political discussion show on Can Erzincan TV, a small TV channel unofficially operated by the Gülen cult. Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan, two brothers who are iconic names in Turkey’s liberal-left tradition, were on the show. They were quite critical of President Tayyip Erdoğan, and argued that if Turkey kept going in his direction, there could be a military coup. They did not call for a coup, they only said even this could happen along Turkey’s doomed trajectory.
However, a prosecutor thought otherwise. He blamed the Altan brothers for “giving messages that insinuate a coup a day before the coup.” More than six weeks after the coup, the two men were detained by the police. As I am writing these lines, they are still in custody after 10 days, because the state of emergency extended the normally short detention period. When they see the prosecutor, they will probably explain that they were not “insinuating” anything, they had no idea about the coup which would happen the next day, and even if they really knew, there would really be sense in exposing it.
Yet if the prosecutor and the judge who overlook their case don’t get persuaded, the Altan brothers might be “arrested,” to be put on trial in custody. In that case, they might be in prison for months, if not years. They might join, in other words, the more than 100 journalists who have been arrested with similar charges.
Since the Altan brothers are famous, their case attracted attention. Writer Orhan Pamuk defended them, and Western media has shown interest. But there are many others who are in exactly the same situation. There is Murat Aksoy, another liberal-leftist, who merely appeared in Gülenist media months before and mentioned “coup rumors in Ankara.” There is Nazlı Ilıcak, Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, Nuriye Akman, Vedat Demir, Ahmet Alkan, Lale Kemal and many others. Nobody in his right mind believes that these intellectuals were “coup plotters,” not even Gülen cult members. They were merely strong government critics who found a voice only in the Gülenist media, because the government had left very few independent media outlets.
The logic Turkish prosecutors use while detaining or arresting these people goes like this: With the bloody coup that killed 250 people, the Gülen cult proved to be a “terrorist organization.” So, the media operated by this cult is “terrorist media.” So, people who worked in this media are “terror propagandists.” The same logic is used to arrest writers who appeared in pro-PKK (outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party) media as well, such as daily Özgür Gündem.
We must note one thing: This logic is not new. It was used by the previous masters of the state, too. In fact, Gülenists (as police and prosecutors) were the most aggressive arresters of “journalists engaged in terror propaganda” in their heydays, say, from 2009 to 2013.
That is why besides rightful but ineffective calls for “freeing journalists,” European institutions should engage with the Turkish authorities to explain why the logic behind the arrests is unacceptable (it is in fact unacceptable even according to the government’s own legal reforms that passed in 2013). Criminal cases of “terror propaganda” in the West must also be contrasted to what is happening in Turkey, for the pro-government hawks use the former phenomenon as a justification. That justification, at least, should be taken from their hands.