ISTANBUL - This is what it is like to be a journalist in the world's "model Muslim democracy": Last week, on my first day back at the office after a vacation, I was planning to have lunch with my colleague Nedim Sener, a well-known investigative reporter whose desk at our newspaper, Milliyet, is near mine.
But Nedim wasn't at his desk on Thursday. It turned out he was among a group of journalists detained early in the morning for supposedly trying to overthrow the government.
Since 2007, more than a hundred uniformed and retired military officials, secular dissidents, journalists and academics have been arrested for allegedly belonging to a secret organization, Ergenekon, plotting to overthrow the government. Add in the widespread use of wiretaps, and you'll begin to get a sense of what it's like to be a journalist critical of the Turkish government. We live in an atmosphere of constant fear.
It is the Kafkaesque nature of these trials against journalists that kills me. It takes months before you see an indictment and years until your case is properly heard. Mustafa Balbay, a columnist for Turkey's foremost secular paper, Cumhuriyet, has been in jail for 730 days. He stands accused of helping the coup by deciding not to publish his off-the-record conversations with generals in 2003.
Our colleague Nedim has written award-winning books. One unearthed police misconduct in the 2007 assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, and another exposed the influence of Fethullah Gulen—an Islamic preacher living in the United States—on Turkish security forces. For his investigative work, he was named World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute in 2010.
Yet Nedim stands accused, along with Ahmet Sik, a fellow reporter and human rights activist, and journalists working for the antigovernment website OdaTv.com, of acting upon the orders of Ergenekon and working to create "the psychological environment" to further its goals. Right.
It's true that Turkey's Islamic-rooted government did marvels in its first term to prepare Turkey's democracy for European standards, and Turkey remains by far the most democratic country in its region. But over the past few years, democracy has been reduced to majoritarianism, and the media have become less and less free. Currently there are some 50 journalists and writers in jail, and nearly 4,000 pending lawsuits against journalists.
In 2007, the newspaper where I worked as the Ankara bureau chief, Sabah, was taken over by the government and sold to a businessman close to the government. The paper, once Turkey's second-largest daily, now doesn't publish a single item critical of the government.
In 2008, the Ergenekon investigations made it clear that the nation's most prominent Turkish journalists are routinely wiretapped. In 2009—the year when YouTube was banned in Turkey; it no longer is—a record tax fine of $3.5 billion (yes, billion) dollars was levied on Turkey's largest secular media group, Dogan Holding, after a public spat with the government. Everyone took this as a warning.
Last year, Milliyet found out through a whistleblower's testimony in court that our newspaper's telephone lines were tapped. We wrote about it, but no one cared. According to the head of the government's telecommunications branch, 70,000 Turks are officially listened to by the authorities, but the fear of Big Brother is instilled in a far greater number. Almost everyone I know in this business believes that their conversations are recorded.
The other night, Ugur Dundar, a veteran anchor and one of the nation's most popular journalists, was asked on TV if he was intimidated doing his job. "To be honest, yes" he said. "Yes, I am afraid to do my job." "Me too," mumbled the younger interviewer.
This is not to say that it's all over for free speech in Turkey. At a time when the entire Middle East is crying out for freedom, I have a hard time believing that Turkey, with its rich traditions, will reverse course and go the way of Russia.
The good news is that my peers are determined to push back. More and more are finally looking into the excesses of these coup investigations. Last Friday, we had a rally in Istanbul's Taksim Square where 3,000 journalists protested against the recent arrests.
As we're finding out the hard way, freedom of speech is guaranteed only when those who don't think like us—whether generals, hard-line secularists or rival journalists—are allowed to speak freely.