Worldview: Turkey's crackdown on the press smacks of authoritarianism

During my recent trip to Egypt, many young activists told me Turkey's democracy might be a model for them to follow.

In their minds, Turkey, with its mostly Sunni Muslim population, has managed to meld its Muslim heritage with a state based on rule of law and a secular constitution. However, the Turkish government has recently been showing disturbing signs of the kind of authoritarianism the Egyptians spurned.

In the past few weeks, Turkish authorities have detained at least a dozen journalists whose work criticized the government. They are accused of being part of an alleged plot to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government after it came to power in 2002.

These journalists are only the latest of several hundred current and former military officers, intellectuals, university presidents, women's rights advocates, and writers rounded up since 2007 as part of this supposed plot. The conspiracy was purportedly initiated by a shadowy network of military officers and ex-security operatives called Ergenekon (the name of a mythical Turkish valley).

But Ergenekon looks more and more like an excuse for a religiously oriented government to silence outspoken advocates of maintaining Turkey as a secular state.

Consider the cases of two of the arrested journalists. Nedim Sener, a highly respected reporter for Millyet, received the International Press Institute's 2010 "World Press Freedom Hero" award for his book about the murder of Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink (in which he alleged that government security forces were complicit).

Ahmet Sik, another investigative journalist, had criticized a key supporter of the government, a controversial Turkish imam named Fetullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania but has great influence and a large following in Turkey. Sik claimed Gulen's movement infiltrated Turkey's security forces.

The government prosecutor straight-facedly denied these men were arrested for their writings, but he refused to make public any evidence against them, citing the (endlessly) ongoing Ergenekon probe.

When the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Frank Ricciardone, asked how the jailing of journalists jibes with Turkey's stated policy of supporting a free press, Erdogan criticized him harshly. But refusing to answer that question won't make it go away.

The Erdogan government's pressure on press critics has led the international press watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, to rank Turkey 138th among 178 countries, only two spots above Russia, where journalists are notoriously endangered.

The press group attributes this low rank to Turkey's "frenzied proliferation of lawsuits, incarcerations, and court sentencing, (all) targeting journalists." In 2009, for example, Turkey's Tax Ministry levied $3 billion in fines against the Dogan media group of newspapers and TV stations, which were critics of Erdogan, charging he was pushing secular Turkey in too Islamic a direction.

If upheld, these draconian fines could put the media group out of business. Using massive tax fines against opponents is all too reminiscent of the tactics used by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

When the Ergenekon investigation began, some Turkish liberals hoped it might advance civilian controls over a military that had conducted four coups against elected governments in past decades. But the probe has expanded into an unending witch hunt, with no end in sight.

Some of the accused have been held for years without trial. Others, released after tough questioning, have the threat of future indictments hanging over their heads.

The government's case appears to be based largely on a massive network of government wiretaps, from which tidbits are selectively leaked to the media, creating an atmosphere of intimidation. However, the government has yet to prove that any conspiracy actually occurred.

"In 5,800 original pages [of Ergenekon charges] there is not one shred of proof that this organization exists," said Gareth Jenkins, a Turkey specialist who has written extensively on the affair. He has read the entire indictment. "They [the Turkish government] have created a fictional organization, and used it to go after their political opponents," he said.

The Erdogan government rejects such claims, but does nothing to dispel them by bringing the probe to a conclusion. That contradiction casts a shadow over Turkish democracy and its aspirations to enter the European Union. It also undercuts the hope that Ankara can provide the model Egyptian democrats seek.

E-mail Trudy Rubin at