Turkey Pulse

Is release of two prominent journalists a sign of normalization?

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Article Summary
The release of two well-known journalists from prison shouldn’t lead anyone to believe and hope that Turkey is becoming less autocratic.

Nazli Ilicak was in jail for 1,197 days and Ahmet Altan for 1,138 days before both were released the night of Nov. 4. Their release caused some relief among watchers of Turkey’s autocratic practices and nourished hopes that a normalcy of sorts could return to the country.

However, many have their doubts about any real reconciliation in Turkey and were trying to figure out whether the release of the two journalists might conceal some other sinister aims of Turkey’s increasingly autocratic regime.

Both Ilicak and Altan are veteran journalists and iconic names in Turkey. They have become internationally-acclaimed symbols of the Turkish government's violation of freedom of speech in the aftermath of the botched coup attempt of July 15, 2016. The two writers are the leading victims of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists that made Turkey earn the reputation of being the “biggest jailer of journalists in the world.” Indeed, the number of journalists jailed in Turkey far exceeded those in Iran, Egypt, Russia and China combined, countries with very dismal records on freedom of the press.

Ilicak, 75, is a senior columnist who had a long career marked by a continuous struggle against military takeovers in Turkey. Her father was a victim of the first of a series of military coups, in 1960, that removed the center-right government. She was a teenager at the time and witnessed the arrest of her father, who was a minister in the government. The prime minister was executed by the military regime a year later. Ilicak made her reputation as an ardent opponent of military interventions. She married a media tycoon in the 1970s and became a fiery columnist in her husband’s flagship conservative newspaper

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She developed a strong relationship with right-wing Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel, who was the target of numerous military interventions that removed him from power. In the aftermath of the military coup of 1980, Ilicak was jailed for a while for her unflinching support for Demirel and her strong dissent against the military junta.

In the 1990s, despite her impeccable secular background, she was involved with a pro-Islamist party, the precursor of Erdogan’s current ruling party in Turkey, and served in the Turkish parliament. When the Virtue (Fazilet) Party, which Erdogan and later President Abdullah Gul were also affiliated with, banned by a verdict of Turkey’s Constitutional Court, Ilicak was also banned from politics, preventing her from running for election in 2002, just like Erdogan (his ban ended the next year).

Ilicak was very functional as a writer and columnist nevertheless, a strong supporter of Erdogan and his party until she parted ways with him in 2013.

Altan, nearly 70, has an equally interesting background. Unlike Ilicak, he has a leftist, a quasi-Marxist background. His father, Cetin Altan, was a brilliant Turkish leftist intellectual, journalist and writer who strongly influenced generations.

Altan started his professional career as a journalist but made a reputation as a best-seller novelist in Turkey. For over two decades, Altan’s novels sold in greater numbers than those of Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel laureate. Altan returned to an active journalistic career in 2007 as the editor-in-chief of the daily Taraf, a liberal newspaper that distinguished itself in dynamic and polemic opposition to Turkey’s powerful, coup-prone military establishment. Taraf, under Altan, rocked the Turkish public with publishing allegations that led to the imprisonment of high-level military cadres.

Altan fell out openly with Erdogan, gradually but surely, especially after the year 2011, and turned out to be a strong dissident against him.

In 2016, what brought Ilicak and Altan together was their dissidence against Erdogan and a television program the night before the failed military coup attempt where Ilicak was the host and Altan was the guest.

When Erdogan began his crackdown in the wake of the coup, Ilicak and Altan (along with his younger brother Mehmet Altan, a renowned scholar and writer who was also the guest of Ilicak’s television show) were alleged to be involved with the coup. Prosecutors claimed that what Ilicak and Ahmet Altan said during the TV show demonstrated that they had prior information about the coup attempt.

Public opinion saw these allegations as ludicrous and unconvincing, as both writers had decades-old reputations for being the most committed adversaries of anything remotely related to a military coup.

Nevertheless, they were convicted and sentenced to life without parole by the court. However, the verdict was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court and they faced a second trial on lesser charges.

These lesser charges were as ridiculous as the charges that had led to the overturned verdict for their life imprisonment. The pair was then tried for “aiding the terrorist organization knowingly, although not being members of it,” one of the strangest articles among many in the Turkish penal code.

The court sentenced Ahmet Altan to 10 years and six months of imprisonment and Ilicak to eight years and 10 months, while acquitting Mehmet Altan, who was accused of committing the same “crime” as his elder brother and Ilicak.

The court ordered Ahmet Altan and Ilicak released, saying the time they have served will be taken into account when the Court of Appeal rules on their cases.

Still, their release from the prisons they have been in for over three years was greeted as if it were an acquittal.

But if the Court of Appeal does not overturn the conviction and sentence, both would have to go back behind bars, Altan for four more years and seven months and Ilicak for three years and two months.

The Court of Appeal could overturn their convictions or could alter their sentences.

Thus, the Altan-Ilicak case can still be seen as a sword of Damocles hanging over journalists and dissidents. As The New York Times reported, “The release of the journalists Ahmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak was welcomed by human rights and freedom of press groups, but was not taken as a sign that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had eased his aggressive prosecution of political opponents and dissidents.”

The Altan-Ilicak case, in light of the acquittal of Mehmet Altan, shows the arbitrariness of the current legal procedures in Turkey and how they have nothing to do with the fundamental principles of law.

As a matter of fact, the release of Ilicak and Ahmet Altan, despite being welcomed by human rights activists and their families and friends, is still far from bringing relief to all those who are hoping for Turkey to go back to democratic practices and respect for basic liberties.

There are even those who see ulterior motives in the release of prominent public figures and journalists. A prominent Kurdish figure, who was stripped of his lawmaker status by a Turkish court, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the government is trying convince Western opinion that Turkey's bad record on press freedom will change but that no one should be duped by such attempts.

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Found in: Press freedom

Cengiz Candar is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. Currently, he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies (SUITS) and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). On Twitter: @cengizcandar

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