Turkey's War on Journalists

As Prime Minister Erdogan's government grows increasingly intolerant of dissent, the media is bearing the brunt of its effort to silence its critics.

ISTANBUL —When the terrorism trial of jailed Turkish journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener began in Istanbul on Nov. 22, only a handful of their colleagues -- far fewer than expected -- gathered in protest outside the courthouse that will decide their fate.

A mosaic of the smiling photographs of many of Turkey's detained journalists was laid out on the ground at the foot of a swarm of TV tripods, their cameras aiming for a glimpse of the defendants. Sik and Sener's case is perhaps the most high-profile example of what critics see as the Turkish government's crackdown on critical voices, which has transformed it into one of the world's leading jailers of journalists.

Some of the protesters wore T-shirts with a cartoon of a hand covering the mouth of someone trying to speak. Others carried signs written in English and Turkish. "TURKEY SET JOURNALISTS FREE; THERE CAN BE NO FREE SOCIETY WITHOUT FREE JOURNALISM," read the centerpiece.

Only one prominent columnist from the mainstream daily Haber Turk, Ece Temelkuran, was willing to risk joining those outside the courthouse. Already that morning, a colleague dropped by her office to tell her he was too afraid to go. He had moved his wife and children abroad and will join them as soon as he can.

"I too am afraid," Temelkuran admitted, eyeing the size of the crowd. "I'm freaking out." Having written repeatedly against what she sees as a crackdown on those who oppose AKP or Erdogan, she keeps a lawyer on stand-by should she be summoned.

Indeed, during the demonstration several people approached Temelkuran, a recognizable public figure, and said, "Next time, we'll be here for you."

Sik and Sener have been detained since March, on charges that seemed at first too ludicrous to stand. They are accused of being members of Ergenekon, a shadowy, ultranationalist group that allegedly has been trying to foment a coup against the Turkish government - despite the fact that Sik is known in Turkey for having written the definitive exposé on the group.

Sik's supporters believe he ran afoul of the Turkish justice system when he began to investigate the influence of the Fethullah Gulen movement, a powerful Islamist network that is one of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's most important pillars of support. Sener's research into the murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink -- which asserted that the police and the state were involved in his killing -- touched on another of Turkey's taboo subjects.

Sik and Sener's detention are hardly an anomaly in today's Turkey. Currently, 76 Turkish journalists are in jail, more than in any other country. In a Dec. 20, roundup, several more journalists were among those newly detained when the Turkish government jailed roughly 40 people, accusing them of links to Kurdish militants.

In addition to journalists, Erdogan's government has jailed lawyers, academics, and students, also ostensibly on terrorism-related charges that critics counter are transparent attempts to stifle freedom of expression and dissent.

The arrests, however, have yet to shock the conscience of most Turks. In June, voters returned Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in a landslide. The current narrative that dominates discussion about Turkey -- both internationally and domestically -- emphasizes its booming economy and regional ascendance. For admirers in the Arab world, the AKP's devout orientation represents a path they seek to emulate. And for those in the West concerned by Arab Islamist parties' success at the ballot box, Erdogan's party is a comforting model for reconciling piety and democracy. Similarly, with the United States eyeing an opportunity to weaken Iran's influence in the region, specifically in Syria, Turkey has become ever more strategically important.

With Turkey and Erdogan basking in the glow of such electoral and international approval, watch-groups and critics say AKP feels entitled to have an equally friendly media and public at home.

"AKP has started to act like a civil authoritarian regime," said a representative of Insan Haklari Dernegi, which monitors the human rights situation in Turkey. Currently, three of its four branch directors are in prison, and the organization requested anonymity for this article due to fears of persecution at the hands of the government. "Exactly when AKP gained its big electoral mandate, they felt themselves so powerful, that they could do what they want because the public legitimized their power; they are like a spoiled child."

Indeed, Erdogan has taken to lashing out at journalists that displease him and lecturing the media on its coverage. At a closed door meeting in late October, Erdogan met with media owners and executives regarding their coverage of the Kurdish conflict, in which he urged them not to become tools of the propaganda of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a long guerrilla war against the Turkish state. Almost immediately following the meeting, five leading Turkish news agencies issued a joint statement that they were going to "comply with the publication bans of the competent authorities." Reporters Without Borders described the development as "disturbing" and a "serious threat to freedom of information."

Meanwhile, the Turkey's journalists remain on edge as they await the verdict in Sik and Sener's case. Their trial has been adjourned till Dec. 26, and Sik and Sener will remain in jail at least until that time.

"There's no free media when you have a government that wants all under their control," said Banu Güven, after hearing the news. A popular TV host, she lost her job at the Turkish news channel NTV after objecting to a ban on interviews with leading Kurdish campaigners. "The prime minister talks about a well developed and progressive democracy. He makes these concepts void."


Defenders of the government deny that these journalists' arrests are about silencing opposition. "AKP are way too popular to need that," said columnist Mustafa Akyol, who has praised Erdogan while still being critical of Sik and Sener's imprisonment.

Akif Beki, who was Erdogan's spokesperson from 2005 to 2009 and has also been vocally critical of the arrests of Sik and Sener agreed. "The process would not start with them," he said. "[T]here are bigger voices to silence."

Erdogan's supporters contend that Sik and Sener's detention is the unfortunate result of an overzealous pursuit of what are, however, very real threats in Turkey: the armed conflict with Kurdish separatists and the frequency of military-orchestrated coups against democratically elected governments. AKP supporters contend that the government is dismantling what has become known as the "Deep State" -- a group of military-controlled apparatuses that are the self-appointed guardians of Turkey's secular political system.

However, critics say those organizations were left intact -- and instead, Erdogan has used the trials to silence his critics and purge the military of career professionals. "Turkey did not undergo the liberal transformation we hoped for," said the representative of Insan Haklari Dernegi. "The process did not change, just those who are in power."

"What is new in Turkey is that before, media freedom was limited because of Turkey's ‘integrity and security,'" explained Rusen Cakir, a prominent Turkish journalist for the daily Vatan who is an expert on the AKP. "Now journalists are harassed in the name of the ‘advanced democracy.'"

Even if elements of the Deep State are still plotting against the Turkish government, many of those arrested - including Sik and Sener -- are unlikely members of this shadowy cabal. The weakness of the evidence so far presented by prosecutors has only increased critics' suspicions that the charges are politically motivated. For example, in one seminal case, significant state's evidence is found in documents that include information that could not possibly have been known at the time they were supposedly drafted, suggesting that they are forgeries.

Many of these cases are being brought under changes made in 2005 to the Turkish law on terrorism. These changes included the offense of "venerating" terrorism, which criminalizes speech that is considered favorable to organizations like the PKK. Terrorism charges are investigated and heard by courts where the process afforded defendants is much less rigorous than in non -terrorism criminal proceedings.

Indeed, an AP report released in September on global terrorism convictions since 9/11 found that more than half come from two countries that have been accused of using anti-terror laws to crack down on dissent: Turkey and China (and China is far more populous than Turkey). Turkey alone accounted for a third of all global convictions, with 12,897.

The day of the protest outside the courthouse, Temelkuran invoked these numbers in her column for Haber Turk. "Did we suddenly start breeding terrorists in this country?" she asked. "Is this country so crazy as to consist of one-third of the terrorists in the world?"


Supporters of Ahmet Sik believe his two-volume book on Ergenekon is a conclusive answer to any claims he is part of the conspiracy. Rather, they believe his imprisonment has been sparked by his latest, unfinished book -- The Imam's Army. In the book, Sik investigates how the followers of Fethullah Gulen -- a Turkish preacher living in self-imposed exile in the United States -- have infiltrated the police. He described the close-knit relationship between Gulenists and the AKP, and argued that without the Gulenists, Erdogan's party would not have been able to bring the security forces under its control.

When Sik was finally questioned, according to Sik's lawyer and the transcript of his interrogation, most of the questions were about the book he was currently writing.

Sik and his wife Yonca first realized he might be in trouble when news broke in February that an Ergenekon-related government raid on the offices of OdaTV had turned up a draft of The Imam's Army.

They were shocked -- initially by the fact that a draft of his book had ended up in those offices. And then reality quickly sunk in: Would the government really try to tie Sik to the organization he had worked for years to expose?

Weeks later, they woke to the barking of their golden retriever, Pablo. Eleven policemen were at the door with a warrant. Even as they searched their house for seven hours, Yonca still thought the absurdity of it all would bring the nightmare to a rapid end. So when the police prepared to lead Sik away, and the women who had come in solidarity -- veterans of the days when the Deep State took people away -- suggested she pack him a bag, Yonca didn't think it was necessary. But she folded a fresh pair of underwear and an undershirt and sent it with Ahmet in case he stayed the night.

On Dec. 26, the next opportunity for a court to free Ahmet, it will have been 298 nights.

Yonca won't say she's optimistic, but she refuses to believe that all is lost. "I feel strong and that I have the power to fight this thing," she says. "I hope the Arab Spring is the model for us."



The End of the Chinese Dream

As China's economy continues to trend downward, Beijing's elites are sparking a new, palpable frustration in the general population.

BEIJING – In June, a Chinese friend of mine who grew up in the northern industrial city of Shenyang and recently graduated from university moved to Beijing to follow his dream -- working for a media company. He has a full-time job, but the entry-level pay isn't great and it's tough to make ends meet. When we had lunch recently, he brought up his housing situation, which he described as "not ideal." He was living in a three-bedroom apartment split by seven people, near the Fourth Ring Road -- the outer orbit of the city. Five of his roommates were young women who went to work each night at 11 p.m. and returned around 4 a.m. "They say they are working the overnight shift at Tesco," the British retailer, but he was dubious. One night he saw them entering a KTV Club wearing lots of makeup and "skirts much shorter than my boxers" and, tellingly, proceeding through the employee entrance. "So they are prostitutes," he concluded. "I feel a little uncomfortable."

But when he tallied his monthly expenses and considered his lack of special connections, or guanxi, in the city, either to help boost his paycheck or to find more comfortable but not more expensive housing, he figured he'd stick out the grim living situation. "I have come here to be a journalist -- it is my goal, and I do not want to go back now. But it seems like it's harder than it used to be."

When I asked how his colleagues and former classmates were getting along, he thought about it for a moment and then replied that some were basically in the same lot as him, "but many of my friends have parents in Beijing, and they can save money to live with them. If your family is already established here, it helps a lot." After a moment, he added: "And some of them have rich parents who have already bought them their own apartments -- and cars."

Despite China's astonishing economic growth, it has gotten harder for people like my friend to get by in the big city. His is not a particularly lucrative profession. Like many in Beijing, he cannot count on his annual pay to keep pace with China's official rates of inflation -- which many economists suspect are lowballed anyway. (The consumer-price-index inflation rate is considered so sensitive that the State Council approves it before it is released publicly.) Even so, every month this year consumer-price-index inflation has exceeded the official average monthly target of 4 percent. Last month state media hailed it as good news that it was, officially, just 4.2 percent.

Anyone in Beijing can point to examples of friends who see rents hiked 10 percent or more in one year. The prices at restaurants keep going up, even as portions are getting noticeably smaller. Throw in the loss of intangibles that money can't buy -- like air quality and food safety -- and you begin to understand the grumbling among some of Beijing's non-wealthy folks that their standard of living seems to be diminishing, even as the national GDP surges ahead at a heady 9 percent.

Could it possibly be true that a swath of people in China's big cities is downwardly mobile, if one compared wages with living expenses? I asked Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing. Alas, he told me, it's difficult to find much clarification in China's famously fudgeable official statistics. (For instance, the official unemployment rate only includes individuals with urban hukous, or permanent residency permits -- which excludes the most economically vulnerable.) Still, he noted: "If you perceive that you're losing buying power -- or have rising but unmet expectations -- that's when people get upset.… And this country, for a country growing at over 9 percent, is in a foul mood."

Indeed, there is a palpable sense of frustration in Beijing, especially compared with the last time I lived here in 2008. You can see it on the dour faces on the metro, hear it in raspy voices at dinner conversations, and especially sense it in the new gruffness of taxi drivers, who no longer think ferrying people around town for 10 yuan, about $1.60, is such a good deal for them (their base fare hasn't been raised). Still, it's hard to rage against abstractions. It's a lot easier to fume at obnoxious people.

No wonder, then, that in 2011 the Chinese media and Sina Weibo (China's version of Twitter) buzzed nearly every month with salacious reports of China's Paris Hilton-types -- the sons and daughters of the wealthy and political elite, dangling opulent accessories and impoverished judgment -- behaving badly in BMWs and Audis and typically expecting to get away with it, to boot.

The year began with the trial of Li Qiming, a university student in Hebei province who in October 2010 was drunk-driving and slammed into two other college students out skating, killing one of them. When he saw what had happened, he tried to speed away, but the campus guard stopped his vehicle. When questioned, the first thing he is widely reported to have blurted out was, "My father is Li Gang." Li Gang is the district's deputy police chief.

Then there was 15-year-old Li Tianyi, the son of a high-ranking army official, who had no license when he got behind the wheel of a BMW in September. While carousing the streets of Beijing, he grew frustrated when another car was blocking his path. He reportedly got out of the car and assaulted the other driver while either he or a friend shouted, "Who will dare call the police?" Behind his car's windshield was a temporary driving pass for the Great Hall of the People, China's parliament building.

And earlier this month, a student at Beijing Film Academy got into a fight over where he could park his Audi, the telltale car of choice of Chinese officials. After a brawl in the parking lot, a cleaner, a 43-year-old migrant worker from nearby Hebei province, was taken to a hospital, where he died.

Perhaps the closest female equivalent was the lightning-rod saga of Guo "Meimei," a petite 20-year-old with a heart-shaped face and big brown eyes who took to posting photos of herself driving her "little horse" (a white Maserati) and her "little bull" (an orange Lamborghini) on her Weibo microblog. On her account, she claimed to be a general manager at the Red Cross of China, one of the country's largest and most politically connected charities. Her luxury goods, not to mention horrible judgment, were widely taken by readers as signs of corruption at the charity. (In the months following the scandal, which reached its zenith in June, donations to the charity dropped off precipitously). Later, it came out that she held no such position and was rumored instead to be either a mistress or relative of someone at the Red Cross.

The anger in China at such dilettantes misbehaving runs deeper than, say, America's love-hate relationship with Lindsay Lohan. As Michael Anti, a popular Chinese blogger and political commentator, told me, "The rich are becoming a dynasty." Now people in China recognize that "you get your position not by degree or hard work, but by your daddy." Anti added that though corruption and guanxi are hardly new concepts in China, there was previously a greater belief in social mobility through merit. "Before, university was a channel to help you to ruling class. Now the ruling class just promote themselves."

There is a dark sense that something has changed. "It's not simply income equality that bothers people -- that's a misconception," Chovanec told me. "When Jack Ma makes a billion dollars for starting a successful company, that's OK.… It's inequality of privilege. It's how people make their money. There's now a whole class of people getting wealthy because of who they are, not what they do -- and they follow a different set of rules."

In today's China, the abilities to buy and sell real estate and to win government contracts are among the greatest drivers of wealth, and it's those who are already wealthy and well-connected who have access to these opportunities. If their children are lazy or dull, they can use their stature to create opportunities and positions for them, cutting short the trajectories of more able aspirants. Social status is becoming further entrenched because, as Chovanec notes, "Government is so pervasive in China's economy.… Government has great power in determining winners and losers, so who you are and who you know does more than anything else to determine success." And those at the top increasingly act above the law. "Privilege begets money, and money begets privilege."

This, of course, runs counter to the optimistic, popular fairy tale of China over the past 30 years, duly promoted by the ruling Communist Party, that a rising tide and roaring economy inevitably lifts all boats; that the future will be better, materially, than the past; that hard work will get you ahead; and that education is the great leveler. Call it the Chinese dream.

"Well, that used to be true, pretty much -- but not now," reflects Qiao Mu, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "Take myself. I was born in 1970 into a poor family in west China. There wasn't yet a large class of rich people in China, so the opportunities were more open. At that time, I could depend on my hard work and study to advance. I could change my position in society." But today, he says, sighing deeply, "It's much more difficult for these young guys, my students. You have to rely on your background, and those who already have connections and wealth help themselves and their children.… The condition is getting worse, not better."

Or, as my friend, the struggling reporter, put it: "People no longer believe you can win by working hard and honestly in China."

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