March 2, 2017 | Washington Post

Turkey’s bizarre witch hunt against the media

Turkey, the world’s worst offender of press freedom according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, now accounts for a third of journalists jailed globally. The Turkish government, however, rejects the accusation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently insisted that his country has “more press freedom than the West,” echoing earlier claims by the justice minister that no journalists are imprisoned – only terrorists. Their denials do little to obscure the inevitable truth: Ankara continues to jail some of the country’s most prominent journalists, and on increasingly ludicrous charges.

The recent arrest of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel has shone a new light on press persecution in Turkey. Authorities charged the Istanbul correspondent for the German daily Die Welt with “propaganda” on behalf of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and “incitement to hatred.” Prosecutors presented Yucel’s 2015 interview with a PKK commander as “evidence,” although even pro-government media published numerous statements by the group’s founding leader during the same year. Yucel also faces charges for reporting on the leaked emails of Erdogan’s son-in-law, who also happens to hold the position of energy minister. But many other journalists have also reported on the emails, which a hacker group has made widely available online. Yucel’s arrest may appear farcical, but this is, in fact, very much the norm for Turkey’s current media witch hunt.

Few cases better exemplify the absurdity of the situation than that of investigative reporter Ahmet Sik. Sik is best known for his 2011 book The Imam’s Army, an expose on Fethullah Gulen, the reclusive Muslim cleric who lives in the United States in self-imposed exile, and whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating last summer’s coup attempt. In the decade leading up to 2011, however, Gulen and Erdogan were close allies, and the Gulen network – with the full backing of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) – gained a firm foothold in the bureaucracy, particularly the judiciary and law enforcement. Police loyal to Gulen were thus able to raid Sik’s home and his publisher’s office to destroy physical and digital copies of the book draft.

Ankara’s perception of Sik started to change soon after his arrest, as Erdogan began to fall out with Gulen in February 2012. A month later, when the two former allies were drifting apart, a court ordered Sik released. He since then has become the symbol of the Gulen network’s abuses, portrayed as a victim even by the Foreign Ministry in its post-coup campaign to convince the world that the Gulen network is a terrorist organization. (Erdogan labeled the group as such in May 2016.

The irony is that Turkish authorities arrested Sik again last December over the ridiculous charge of waging propaganda on behalf of the Gulen network. Sik has become the embodiment of the Turkish legal system’s capriciousness: authorities framed and arrested Sik for “propaganda” for an alleged terrorist network, while arguing that the same network’s earlier framing and arrest of him is proof of the group’s criminal nature.

Another representative case is Hikmet Cetinkaya, a 75-year-old columnist for Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest daily and a bastion of secularism. Cetinkaya spent four decades warning against political Islam, decrying both Erdogan and Gulen with a fervency and frequency that even his loyal readers sometimes found overbearing. Unlike Sik, it was not Gulen followers who arrestedCetinkaya but the Erdogan-controlled judiciary. The charges were so preposterous, and the public uproar so loud, that the government had to back down and released him after four days, although not without banning him from leaving the country.

Kadri Gursel, one of Cetinkaya’s fellow Cumhuriyet columnists and a board member of the International Press Institute, has been held in pretrial detention without an indictment for over four months. His case is the most absurd to date: the courts accuse him of propaganda on behalf of not only the Gulen network but also the PKK through subliminal messages in his op-eds. Ironically, Gursel is an outspoken opponent of both groups, having penned incessant warnings against political Islam over the years and himself spending 26 days as a PKK hostage. An even more bizarre twist is that the prosecutor who accuses Gursel of being a Gulen-network terrorist is currently a suspect in an ongoing trial aimed at uncovering the Gulenist network in the judiciary.

All three cases show that Erdogan has been using the abortive coup and Gulen’s alleged role in it as an excuse to purge secular opposition and silence independent media in the country. Oddly enough, the government’s arbitrary targeting of dissidents, and its blatant breach of the rule of law and due process, undermine the ongoing probes against the real plotters of the coup attempt, during which nearly 250 people died.

Turkey’s indiscriminate purge has targeted dissidents who had nothing to do with the abortive coup. It is a disservice to the coup attempt’s victims to waste the resources of Turkey’s courts and law enforcement agencies, which are already weakened by mass purges and heavy caseloads. Erdogan should focus his government’s energy on identifying the real coup plotters, rather than targeting independent journalists who could be key to doing just that.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.