Yet another attack on the free press

Yet another attack on the free press

This week, as usual, lots of crazy things happened in Turkey. The most mind-boggling one for me, however, was an indictment prepared by the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office against 18 journalists. They were accused of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization,” with the prosecutor asking for up to 7.5 years in prison for each. Conspicuously enough, all these accused journalists were from newspapers that are either opposed to the government or at least critical of it.

The “terrorist organization” to which the prosecutor referred in the indictment is indeed a terrorist organization. It is the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a violent Marxist-Leninist group that has attacked Turkish police repeatedly over the years. It even tried to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in 2013. 

The more specific crime that the indictment referred to was the murder of Mehmet Selim Kiraz, an Istanbul prosecutor. Mr. Kiraz was first taken hostage for hours then murdered in his very office by two gunmen that acted on behalf of the DHKP-C in March. The murderers, who were shot dead by the police seconds after their crime, had released a photo of the prosecutor over the internet. It was a photo that showed the captive with a gun pointed at his head, and a red, DHKP-C flag hanging behind him. 

It is the mere publishing of this photo, the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office now argues, that amounts to “terrorist propaganda.” The photo, the indictment tells us, portrayed the terrorist organization as “strong and capable enough for any action.” With the same logic, all Western media outlets that run photos of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) crimes are guilty of “terrorist propaganda,” for they want to depict ISIL as “strong and capable enough for any action.” With the same logic, in fact, there is no terror news in the world which cannot be accused of being “terrorist propaganda.”

Now, I grant that “terrorist propaganda” can be a real problem and a real crime as well. If any of the Turkish newspapers that published the photo of the slain prosecutor had written things like, “Glorious Attack!” or “Bourgeois Official Deserves What He Gets,” that would be “terrorist propaganda.” But alas, all Turkish newspapers published the photo with headlines and commentaries that condemned the act. The editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, Can Dündar, who is one of the accused, reiterated this week that his newspaper “intended to portray the dark and ugly face of terrorism; not to legitimize it.”

But such nuances are never noted in Turkey, especially in today’s madly polarized Turkey. People interpret your intentions in the worst possible way, and then don’t see any difference between that subjective interpretation and the objective fact. It is futile to try to prove to them that you are not a lover of terrorists, or “coup makers,” or foreign spies, or domestic saboteurs. 

As we understand from the indictment, this sort of mindset has a dangerous influence over the judiciary. The real responsibility, however, is on the executive. For it is the government that accused opposition newspapers of “terrorist propaganda,” merely for publishing the prosecutor’s photo, from the very first day.  The judiciary only seems to be following the government’s line.

And you know what the funniest thing is? A few pro-government newspapers and TV stations published the same photo, too. But nobody ever accused them of “terrorist propaganda.” They are, after all, the good guys – as duly noted not just by the government, but also by the judiciary.