Why are members of the “liberal” Turkish media so willing to eat their own?

The latest arrests of journalists in Turkey are more bad news for its democracy in general and its declining press freedom in particular. Readers of this blog will be familiar with my noting how most measures of freedom of expression in Turkey have receded going back quite a while, overwhelmingly a result of government crackdowns, fines, arrests, and threats.

Yet a rather striking aspect of Turkish media is the degree to which journalists seem to accept, or even excuse, the imprisonment and prosecution of their colleagues. And I don’t mean those from the slightly more putrid segments of the Turkish media market but the more liberal (albeit self-declared so) segments.

Take one example, which occurred in conjunction with the high-profile arrests of a group of Odatv journalists accused of being the “media arm” of Ergenekon, which at the time was alleged to be a secret terrorist network attempting to overthrow the government. The arrest of one of those journalists Ahmet Şık, became particularly controversial as he was just about to publish a critical book on the Gülen movement, and many of the key prosecutors of the trials are thought to be members of the Gülen movement. It didn’t help that, shortly after Şık’s arrest, a rather clumsy, if not comical, hunt started by the police to delete digital copies of the critical book. As with many of the other arrests in the trial, in many instances the suspects didn’t have much more in common than their criticism of the government and especially the Gülen movement.

Shortly after Ahmet Şik’s arrest, the Taraf and Today’s Zaman columnist Emre Uslu, writing in December 2011, had the following to say in the latter daily:

Journalist Ahmet Şık’s arrest was further exaggerated because — critics of the Odatv trial allege — he was writing a book against the Gülen movements’ influence on the police force and had been arrested to prevent his book from being published. Many intellectuals really believed this campaign when the prosecutors, searching for the many draft copies of the book distributed among different people, found one at Odatv. Other copies were found in possession of people who, according to an earlier testimony from Şık, had not been given any copies.

Banning the publication of a book expectedly created reactions and false impressions of Şık’s prosecution, as if Ahmet Şık had been arrested because of writing this book. At that time, I knew only a few journalists who claimed Şık’s arrest was not because of his book but because of inconsistencies in the story he had told the judge. He claimed not to know any such people, but there was evidence he may have known and had relationships with Ergenekon suspects.

According to Uslu, Şık wasn’t imprisoned because of his literary critique against the Gülen movement, but because he had “relationships with Ergenekon suspects”. This is argument became a rather common way of explaining away Turkey’s catastrophic track record of prosecution of journalists: they weren’t in jail for their journalism, they were in jail because of their other crimes, be it attempting to stage a coup, terrorism, or some elaborate combination. The coincidence that many of these journalists were also critical of the powers that put them behind bars is, as Uslu’s article claims, simply us Westerners falling for coup-terrorists’ propaganda.

The thing is that, just as some liberal Turkish journalists appear willing to condemn their colleagues in one instance, the same journalist will take a strong stand for press freedom when the nearly exact thing happens to another (ideologically, or socially, closer) journalist.

So now switch to a few days ago, where Uslu, again in TZ, had this to say after the arrests of members of the Gülenist media:

Turkey again attracts attention in the world as a country where press freedom is controversial. The Zaman daily’s Editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanlı and Samanyolu TV’s head Hidayet Karaca have been detained now for four days. The reason for their detention is the allegation that the Gülen movement conspired against a group called Tahşiye. Most probably you have already read about the allegations. The reason for this is obvious… Erdoğan is trying to teach his rivals a lesson and to intimidate others at the same time.

Uslu’s use of the Today’s Zaman to excuse the arrests of Şık and others in 2011, while later on denouncing Zaman journalists’ detainment as an authoritarian crackdown, doesn’t make him unique in any ways. Several other so-called liberal journalists have committed similar acts.

Take another example, this time the New York Times contributor and Today’s Zaman columnist Yavuz Baydar (a favorite invitee of the Swedish Public Radio and currently holding the rather prestigious position of Shorenstein Fellow if 2014 at Harvard Kennedy School). In a Q&A session with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)  from 2012, a CPJ representative inquired of Baydar as to the severity of the crackdown, to which Baydar responded that this was not “a crackdown on Turkish media in general” and advised CPJ not to “overdramatize” the situation. Baydar then repeats the same talking points used by Uslu:

Then we have a group of people, accused of co-conspiring for a coup with top officers and others against the elected government and parliament. Mustafa Balbay, Tuncay Özkan, and others in the context of Odatv fall into this category. This section is an entirely different category, where the accusations are so substantiated that almost all the applications of the suspected colleagues, claiming that they were indicted and jailed because they are journalists, were rejected by ECHR [the European Court of Human Rights] in Strasbourg. Do I agree with ECHR on this? Yes. Do I also agree with ECHR that they were held for far too long in jail? Absolutely.

But coup is a very serious crime.

I think, therefore, that these people–a dozen or so–should be tried while on free foot; there is far too strong evidence to keep the public suspicions alive that their cases be dropped altogether. Crime is a crime: If no colleagues of decency in Britain claim that their colleagues involved in phone-hacking case not stand trial at all, so would we claim that they should be given freedom until a fast and fair verdict.

So charging journalists for attempting to commit a coup (where a possible sentence could be as tough as aggravated life sentence) isn’t, according to Baydar, a crackdown on press freedom, it’s instead like the phone hacking scandal in Britain (where suspects could face… well, let’s just say it wasn’t aggravated life sentence). Overdramatization prevented.

And then, a few days ago, after the police raid Zaman headquarters, Baydar writes this:

In a nutshell, yesterday’s events leave no doubt about Erdoğan’s steady move toward the destination of autocracy, in which there will be no room for critique, dissent, or accountability. The raid is, no doubt, a severe blow to what remains of free and independent journalism. Soon, we will be left with none.

Finally, let’s revisit Cengiz Çandar’s column in The Guardian from 2011, “Who’s Calling Turkey a Police State?”, in which he makes the case that – in contrast to the growing repression of press freedom in Turkey – the country’s press freedom wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be by some “neocons”. More precisely, Çandar takes offense at an article by Commentary’s Michael Rubin, who had previously written:

“While former American ambassadors continue to shill for Turkey as some sort of enlightened democracy, the country is backsliding into dictatorship. Last week, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Brownshirts staged middle-of-the-night raids on the homes of independent and critical journalists, taking several into custody … When President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton speak of Turkey as a model, someone might want to ask for what is Turkey a model? How to transform a democracy into a police state?”

According to Çandar-in-2011, this was completely erroneous. Instead:

Here is what they are missing: the journalists who’ve been arrested were not arrested because of their journalistic activities or for expressing their opinions: they are suspected of being part of a plot to topple the civilian government. 

In the 1990s, elements within the Turkish media became part of the psychological operation spearheaded by the army in 1997 to oust the Necmettin Erbakan government. Some of the same people now complain about violations of media freedom and the emergence of a so-called police state in Turkey.

Echoing Uslu and Baydar, Çandar-in-2011 is saying that the arrests of the journalists aren’t crackdowns on press freedom, they’re part of a psychological operation to topple the government.

Now swing back to Çandar-in-2014, writing (in the otherwise rather decent news site Al-Monitor) on the recent arrests of several Gülenist journalists, amongst others his self-described friend Ekrem Dumanli, editor of Zaman. These arrests marks the latest attempts by Erdoğan and his government to hit back at the Gülen movement over what it alleges is a coup attempt in conjunction with a high-profile corruption case from December last year. Now that Çandar-in-2014 is writing about his journalist friends accused of a coup, the tone is somewhat different:

Erdogan’s police operation should be a wake-up call for anyone concerned about the democratic future of the country, irrespective of what Gulen and his supporters represent.

That is why the liberal daily Taraf on Dec. 15 carried the defiant headline “Hitler started the same way too,” implying that irrespective of the affiliation and ideology of whoever Erdogan is targeting, it is time to display some democratic solidarity against a government that is gradually but surely changing the nature of the regime.

A very dangerous turn toward autocracy has been made in Turkey.

The examples involving Emre Uslu, Yavuz Baydar, and Cengiz Çandar, are not isolated incidents, but are part of a phenomenon where journalists excuse – sometimes even taking on the role as cheerleader for – the detention and persecution of their own colleagues. It is not isolated to a certain ideology or group, nor is it in any way new. It is instead a testament of a media elite that has become so putrid that journalists are willing to sell out their own colleagues to the authoritarian powers that be, instead of standing up for their rights.

Some Turkish journalists may have given way to the urge to vilify and excuse persecution of their peers. But a few, like Ahmed Şık himself, have called the crackdowns for that they are, tweeting:

“The former owners of the period of Fascism we experienced a few years ago today are experiencing Fascism. To oppose Fascism is a virtue”

So, in between lamenting the erosion of media freedoms wrought by Erdoğan and his government, it might be in its place to note the amount of damage done by certain members of Turkey’s journalist liberal elite. And as we in the West shower some of them with awards and praise for the their now opposition against an authoritarian regime, we may want to ask ourselves the following: are we lauding them for their defense of press freedoms or their opportunistic opposition to a leader many in the West now consider more enemy than friend. If it’s the former, how does this square with their previous witch hunt collaborations? If it’s the latter, what does this make us?