Journalist Ahmet Sik. Image by Stephen Franklin. Turkey, 2012.

Award-winning investigative reporter Ahmet Sik is no stranger to danger. In 1998, he was hospitalized after a pro-police mob, furious about a murder conviction against several cops in a torture case, attacked the victim’s lawyers, the prosecutor, and journalists. In 2009, he fled the country for a year, fearing officials who had been targets of his reporting. Short, muscular, and brutally blunt, Sik has a spent a career working on mainstream and leftist newspapers, digging into human-rights abuses and questionable government operations.

So when word leaked out in Turkish newspapers last year that he was the target of a government investigation, he knew the routine: He was being set up. “I was angry. They were linking me to a right-wing, fascistic, ultranational plot—everything I’ve been fighting against,” Sik said, his words spilling out fast, because he has a lot to say and because he does so with great passion.

Along with a handful of other journalists, he was charged under antiterror laws last year with taking part in a shadowy plot to destabilize the government. He faces a 15-year sentence, joining a steadily growing line of reporters confronting prison terms. The number of imprisoned journalists reached 90 earlier this year, according to Turkish journalism groups. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) counted 49 members of the media in prison, as of December, for the content of their work. That makes Turkey CPJ’s No. 1 jailer of journalists—ahead of Iran, Eritrea, and China.

Yet it’s not just the number of journalists behind bars that is so worrisome. It’s the frailty of freedom of expression in a country of 75 million that some consider a model for its Arab neighbors, as well as for other countries embracing democracy. “It is a very serious situation,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of CPJ, which issued a blistering report in October on the problems facing Turkish journalists, and has sent two delegations to meet with Turkish government officials.

“You have a whole array of laws that can be used or misused to silence journalists and intimidate a free press. We’ve seen waves of arrests of journalists, particularly Kurdish journalists, which is unacceptable in a democracy,” Mahoney said.

Turkish journalists complain about laws that led to some 5,000 court cases pending against them at the end of 2011—cases that tie them up in court and saddle them with fines. They complain about being fired if they criticize the government. And, as a result of all this, they describe chilling self-censorship that eliminates coverage unwelcomed by the government or its allies. Some reporters have spent up to three years in prison awaiting trial, and some are in prison for five years or more while their trial is ongoing, according to a blistering report in April from the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Journalists aren’t the only group burdened by a legacy of laws and traditions from years of authoritarian military rule. Human-rights activists, students, lawyers, and union members raise similar complaints. Indeed, between 1959 and 2011, the European Court of Human Rights handed down more judgments involving Turkey than any other country.

Beyond a few members of Turkey’s small leftist press, it is generally those covering the Kurdish minority who are targeted. They constantly worry about being picked up on antiterror charges, waiting months or years in maximum-security prisons before trial, and then serving long prison terms. Vedat Kursun, a former editor of Azadiya Welat, a Kurdish daily, got a sentence of 166 years and six months in May 2010, which an appeals court cut to 10 and a half years. In July, a court released him after more than three years in prison. His crime? Making propaganda on behalf of a terrorist group.

“Your freedom depends on who you are,” said Vildan Ay, an editor at Haberturk, a mainstream television station in Istanbul, at an informal meeting of journalists in July, where dismay about their profession was deep.

So why, I asked, do you continue?

“I’m desperately optimistic,” she replied.

While mainstream journalists may not fret about winding up behind bars, they have other worries. The “most dangerous problem,” explained Erdinc Ergenc, a veteran editor and reporter, “is self-censorship. You don’t even ask questions—and that kills journalism.”

Andrew Finkel, who has written for Turkish newspapers for the past 20 years, agreed. “The government is able to command the loyalty of the press through a vast number of mechanisms,” he said. “The press is free but not free.”

Mehmet Ali Izmir is the only Kurdish editor at the Star, a large daily that supports the government. Often he comes across stories about Kurds, which, he said, “are lies or not true or not confirmed.” But he rarely speaks out. “I can’t say anything. I’m not powerful. This is the way things are.”

“They look at me and say, ‘You are a Kurd. We know how you think.’ ”

Still, the press situation in Turkey has improved. From the late 1970s to the 1990s, 49 journalists were killed, according to a 2010 tally by the Hurriyet Daily News. One of the last to die was Hrant Dink, editor of a Turkish-Armenian newspaper, in 2007. The killers, ultranationalists, were caught and convicted. But as CPJ pointed out last year, some Turks believe that the masterminds of the killings eluded justice.

In today’s Turkey, prison terms have replaced bullets, and new taboos have replaced old ones. This has been the case since the AK Party (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002; the right-leaning, religiously conservative party has steadily grown more powerful, winning nearly 50 percent of the vote in 2011. It has presided over an economic boom—and also a seismic shift in political thinking.

Some Turks argue that under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there’s more freedom in Turkey today. Others fiercely disagree. Certainly the military, which long guided modern Turkey, has been defanged. The government’s loose embrace of Islam has grown tighter. Sacred notions about Turkey’s secular identity—decreed by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—have been tossed aside.

Meanwhile, tensions with the Kurds have flared. Conflicts with armed Kurdish groups, called terrorists by the government, have also tainted the Kurdish news media, concedes Salih Memecan, a political cartoonist for Sabah, a paper closely aligned with the government. His wife is a member of parliament from the AK Party.

“There is a difference between terrorism and freedom of expression,” said Memecan, who thinks it should be legally “difficult or impossible” to jail journalists for doing their work. Yet he says it wasn’t so long ago that “the military were calling our bosses and telling them what to do, and many of our bosses cooperated. Some of those people who complain today about freedom of the press were cooperative with those campaigns.”

Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a journalist and lawyer who writes for Today’s Zaman, a paper close to the AK Party, also believes the media climate is better these days. “From the Armenian genocide to the Kurdish question, Turkish journalists are free to write about anything,” he said. “There’s been a huge improvement.” But he concedes that some may be jailed without reason. “There is a huge and terrible interpretation of the antiterror laws,” he said. “It is getting more and more difficult to criticize Mr. Erdogan. He brings personal cases against journalists, and this creates a terrible atmosphere.”

Most any Turkish journalist can name a colleague who was fired because his work made him a liability. Ali Akel is one of them. He was a founding reporter for the Yeni Safak newspaper, serving 17 years on staff including five as Washington correspondent. That is, until he wrote a tough article in May 2012. “I criticized the government, and I lost my job,” he said, a few days after his firing in June. Five months later, he had yet to receive a “serious” job offer.

Evrim Kepenek, 35, was covering the aftermath of an earthquake in eastern Turkey when she was rousted from her tent and arrested. She was one of 29 journalists rounded up across the country on the same day in December 2011. Nearly all were working for Kurdish media; all were charged with links to an outlawed Kurdish organization. Their case is still slogging its way through the courts.

As we talked in an Istanbul café, Kepenek said she had worked for a number of mainstream newspapers before getting a job with the Dicle News Agency, a Kurdish outfit. She is Turkish, not Kurdish, an issue she says interrogators repeatedly raised, asking why she would work for Kurds. She said that there had been no reason to arrest her, and tried to sound brave about the seven-year prison term she faces if convicted. Then tears welled up, and she paused. “But I am afraid of being attacked in the street,” she said, “and I’m afraid of something happening to my family.”

Not far away, piles of the Arrested Journalist (Tutuklu Gazete), a special-issue newspaper put out by the Journalists Union of Turkey, sit in its Istanbul office. In the newspaper, imprisoned journalists deny the charges against them and describe prison life. WE ARE NOT TERRORISTS. WE ARE JOURNALISTS, reads one headline.

“The root of the problem is badly written laws,” declared Ercan Ipekci, president of the union. For several years, Ipekci said, his group has sought without success to meet with the government to discuss the problems. But his union doesn’t wield much clout; only 5 percent of Turkish journalists are members. “I have no hopes,” he admitted. “The government really doesn’t want to improve the situation.”

Turkish officials say they believe in a free press and deny the “myth” of imprisoned journalists, instead accusing those detained of “participating or praising violence and terrorism.” They similarly refute the recent CPJ report, calling it “one-sided,” according to Today’s Zaman newspaper.

Yet in November, Turkish officials said they would soon present a proposal to the parliament that would reform the ways journalists are treated. And officials have been quoted in Turkish newspapers predicting that these reforms will reduce the cases against Turkey filed with the European Court of Human Rights.

At a court appearance 10 months after his arrest, Ahmet Sik denied the charges against him and also took the opportunity to indict the system that imprisoned him. His courtroom statement was a lecture on journalism that ran 12 typewritten pages. “What is being subject to prosecution and trial today is the journalism profession itself,” he said. “It is yet another breach of expression, covered up with a fig leaf.”

Upon his unexpected release in March 2012, Sik’s fury was undiminished. “The police, prosecutors, and judges who plotted and executed this conspiracy will enter this prison,” he told reporters outside the jail. “Justice will prevail when they enter here.”

But his words had a different result. In July, a court ruled that his comments outside the prison had “insulted public officials,” among other violations, and thus added three to seven years to the sentence he is facing.

Project

From afar Turkey is a model for others. But within the country, Turks wrangle over their legacy and future, over freedom of the press and a worsening border crisis testing their resolve and humanity.

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