More Turkish journalists in jail, and not just that…

More Turkish journalists in jail, and not just that…

Journalists in Turkey started the week with the early bird news on Oct. 31 that yet another colleague had been taken into police custody after a raid on his house.

Murat Sabuncu has been the editor-in-chief of the influential center-left daily Cumhuriyet since Sept. 1, after the resignation of Can Dündar following an armed attack outside the Istanbul courthouse where he had been summoned for yet another investigation. 

Dündar, who is now in Germany, was prosecuted over a report Cumhuriyet had run in 2015 about documents claiming Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) was transporting arms to rebels fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime back in 2014. The government believes the entire story was a plot by prosecutors and gendarmerie officers loyal to Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in the U.S. who is now seen as the mastermind of the bloody military coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Prosecutors accuse Dündar and Cumhuriyet’s Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül of revealing state secrets under the manipulation of Gülen’s network. They were released from prison pending appeal in February 2016 after spending 92 days in jail.

Now, according to the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office, Sabuncu and 10 colleagues are accused of helping – “without being a member” - the propaganda of two organizations: The Gülen network (or as the government and prosecutors call it, the Fethullahist Terror Organization), and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

There is no use trying to understand the logic behind accusing Turkey’s oldest newspaper - a flagship of secularist and Kemalist traditions - of assisting a coup-plotting Islamist network and a secessionist Kurdish network. The first book unveiling and criticizing the Gülen network, which I first read years ago, was written by Hikmet Çetinkaya, who is now detained over allegedly assisting Gülen. 

Government spokesman Numan Kurtulmuş has claimed that the prosecution has nothing to do with Cumhuriyet’s critical publications, but rather the foundation that owns it. But that thesis fails in the cases of Sabuncu, Aydın Engin and Kadri Gürsel, the latter being two prominent columnists – now detained - who are not members of the Cumhuriyet Foundation board.

The Turkish Journalists’ Association (TGC) has denounced the move as a “coup against the freedom of the press.” Protesting the detentions, social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) of trying to “establish its own Baathist regime”.

When I heard about the detention of Sabuncu, I called up Gül to try to understand what was going on. “Well, I’m still outside prison, brother,” he said, summarizing the psychology of journalists in Turkey these days.
That psychology is not limited to the press. One of the government’s state of emergency decree laws on Oct. 28 said all university rectors from now on would be appointed by the president. Just weeks after President Tayyip Erdoğan hosted the opening of the judicial year in the presidential palace, which was criticized by the opposition as a further example of political influence over the courts, Erdoğan now has more control over academia. 

The arrests of the co-mayors of Diyarbakır, Gülten Kışanak and Fırat Anlı, together with a former MP, Ayla Akat of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), on accusations of helping and facilitating the PKK, have further raised the bar of tension.

In addition, Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım have repeatedly vowed to bring back the death penalty to the Turkish Constitution. This may well bring in some additional populist votes, despite warnings that such a move could lead to Turkey being further isolated from the European democratic system. 

It is clear that it was the Gülenists who committed the bloody coup attempt of July 15. But it also seems that President Erdoğan and the AK Parti are trying their best to use sympathy in the post-coup attempt atmosphere as leverage to further endorse their power.