Why dozens of Turkish journalists are in jail

Why dozens of Turkish journalists are in jail

Political observers who follow Turkish democracy often get confused with the contradictory phenomena they face. On the one hand, Turkey has free and fair elections, competing political parties, a robust civil society and a very colorful media. Moreover, since 2002, successive Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments have realized important liberal reforms that have been hailed by the European Union.

Yet, all of these fill only a part of the glass. In the empty part, there are still liberties missing, from freedom of religion to freedom of speech. The fact that there are almost 70 Turkish journalists in jail has become an oft-quoted ugly fact. Some people even use these statistics to compare Turkey to dictatorships such as China.

So, what is really going on?

First, a few basic facts: Turkish media is dominated by the Istanbul media and this fine city is the home of two dozen national newspapers published every single day. From Orthodox Marxists to social democrats, form hardcore Islamists to polite conservatives, from nationalists to liberals, every voice is raised.

At least four of these papers – Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Yeniçağ and Birgün – are passionately anti-AKP. The most vulgar and popular among them, Sözcü, has a headline that bashes “Tayyip” almost every day.

Besides, popular mainstream papers such as Hürriyet, Milliyet or Vatan employ columnists who are resolutely anti-AKP. And all of them write freely, as they should.

In other words, this is not a county in which you get arrested for making the prime minister or president unhappy.

Then, who are in jail and for what?

Well, almost all of the journalists in Turkish prisons right now are either accused or convicted of violation of an illiberal article that has existed in the Turkish penal code for decades: “propaganda on behalf of an illegal organization.”

The “illegal organization” in some 40 of these cases is the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is defined as a terrorist group, not just by Turkey but by the United States and most EU states too. In other cases, the “illegal organizations” in question are extreme Marxist-Leninist groups that resort to violence.

What the journalists in jail have done in most cases is to venerate either the PKK or the communist terror groups by writings in their ideological publications. But not just them; one of the jailed journalists is Fazıl Duygun, the editor of the radical Islamist Yeni Nizam and Baran magazines. (Meanwhile, there are many pro-AKP journalists who have been accused of, or fined for, the lesser crime of “exposing state secrets.”)

Besides that, about a dozen people on the list – including the more publicized Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık – are accused of propaganda on behalf of another “illegal organization,” the Ergenekon network, whose goal was to set the ground for a military coup. But, the alleged connection between these scribes and the would-be junta looks very vague to me and that is one reason why I have been against their arrests from the beginning.

The other reason is that, well, I am against not just a few, but every single one of these imprisonments. Even if you venerate terrorism, I believe you should not be sentenced. I hate the PKK, for example, but if people love it, they should be able say that freely.

The problem is that such a radical approval of free speech is way too liberal for most Turks. Thus, the government sees no popular reason to liberalize the laws, which would make them look “weak on terrorism.” On the Ergenekon front, they probably find some toughness helpful.

But these illiberal press laws are staining our democracy more and more. Parliament should be pushed by all means to reform them.