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How journalism became a crime in Turkey

The state's indictment against executives and journalists of Turkey’s Cumhuriyet daily constitutes an unprecedented legal scandal, indicating that criticism of the government is now considered a crime.
Carnations and today's copies are seen in the newsroom of Cumhuriyet newspaper, an opposition secularist daily, in Istanbul, Turkey, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RTX2RBLF

With the April 16 referendum, Turkey took its first step into a new era. It is a step toward institutionalizing a populist model of governance that will open new ground for violations and tensions in vital areas such as justice, freedom and the supremacy of law.

Since the botched coup in July 2016, Turkey has seen two distinct trends in this context. The first is the ongoing purge and punishment of the putschist group, that is, followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, the accused mastermind of the coup. The second is the clampdown on the opposition and the media, which is carried out on the pretext of the coup attempt. Scores of government opponents have been arrested arbitrarily for alleged links to the putschists. Intellectuals and journalists who have nothing to do with the Gulenists and who have long stood up against military coups are now facing life sentences on incredible charges, including “subliminal” communication with the putschists via TV programs and articles.

The court case against the Cumhuriyet newspaper is one of the most glaring examples in this respect. It involves 19 defendants, including Al-Monitor columnist Kadri Gursel, who has been behind bars for five months, along with nine other colleagues from the Cumhuriyet. On April 18, the court accepted the prosecution’s indictment and scheduled the opening hearing for July 24.

As a deep-rooted press institution in Turkey, the Cumhuriyet has a distinct republican-secularist tradition. Amid growing alarm over Ankara’s authoritarian tilt, the paper became increasingly critical of the government in recent years, vigorously questioning and probing government policies. According to the charges leveled against the list of defendants, which includes Cumhuriyet executives, reporters and even a cartoonist, the paper’s critical editorial policy was the result and extension of its collaboration with putschists and Gulenist groups.

One would expect the indictment to offer tangible evidence and discuss concrete actions to back up such grave accusations. What the prosecutors have penned, however, is a superficial report based on a political interpretation of information from open sources. The indictment states that the Cumhuriyet adopted an anti-government editorial policy after the accused executives took office in 2013. It frames the paper's criticism as a contribution to efforts to discredit and topple the government.

In short, the indictment criminalizes a critical publication simply by associating it with a criminal group (one the state now considers a terrorist organization), oblivious to all the discrepancies that emerge in drawing such a link. Take, for instance, Gursel, who has been both a columnist and editorial consultant for the paper. A key feature of Gursel’s writings has been his equal criticism of the ruling Justice and Development Party and the Gulenists, compounded by an emphasis on their alliance that collapsed acrimoniously before the putsch. To accuse Gursel and his like-minded colleagues at the secularist, Kemalist and left-leaning Cumhuriyet of being Gulenist collaborators can be seen only as a farce of authoritarianism.

Apart from headlines and news reports, the “evidence” in the indictment includes Twitter posts by the defendants and certain telephone numbers with which they have had contact.

Some time ago, Turkey’s intelligence service found out that Gulenists used an app called ByLock to communicate with each other. Since the coup attempt, individuals who had downloaded the app to their mobile phones or computers have been accused of belonging to the Gulenist network. The ByLock issue appears in the Cumhuriyet indictment, too, but in an extremely arbitrary fashion. Calls and text messages from ByLock users, who could well be readers, are presented as evidence of the defendants’ association with Gulenists, no matter that some of those calls and messages may have never been answered or noticed. In Gursel’s case, the backbone of the charges rests on this bizarre link drawn by the prosecution.

When Utku Cakirozer, Cumhuriyet’s former editor-in-chief and now a lawmaker for Turkey's main opposition party, visited Gursel earlier in April, the imprisoned journalist relayed the following message through him: “The claim that I’ve been in contact with ByLock users is aimed at a character assassination. They claim I have been in contact with as many as 92 ByLock users. Did I speak to those people on the phone? How many times? Who called whom? The indictment says nothing on these issues. It is with such an ambiguity that charges are being leveled. I can have some guesses, though, on how this data was obtained. It was probably the spring of 2014, when the first wave of arrests [of Gulenists began after a corruption scandal implicating government officials], and I received hundreds of text messages from people, who, I suppose, were Gulenists. They were trying to galvanize the media against the arrests. The messages — sent to me because I was an active journalist appearing on television programs — were probably interpreted as a connection. Yet I never contacted those people. I did not even reply to them. A second probability is that some ByLock users among my Twitter followers, who numbered about 350,000 at the time of my arrest, might have retweeted my tweets and this, too, might have been shown as a connection.”

The state of affairs in the Cumhuriyet case illustrates the new low the Turkish judiciary has hit and how dire its politicization has become. Today’s prosecutors do not even bother to fabricate evidence, as some of their colleagues have done in the past. Instead, dissidence and oppositional politics are considered crimes themselves. This comes as another manifestation of the grave impasse that democracy and the freedom of press face in Turkey today.

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