Turkish media comes under legal pressure
By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA and EROL ISRAFIL
The Associated Press
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 5:24 AM
ISTANBUL -- These days, Busra Erdal wears two hats on her trips to Turkish courts. She writes for a newspaper, mainly about the trials of suspected coup plotters. And she defends herself - in about 60 cases that claim she broke confidentiality codes and other laws in her stories.
It's a tale of modern Turkey, a democracy with authoritarian roots, and an Islamic-leaning government in a power struggle with secular elites linked to the military and judiciary. It's about limits on expression in a nation seeking to join the European Union, and a combative culture in which media groups slide into the political fray, by design or default.
"Thoughts constantly circle in my head. What if I go to jail? Why am I doing this job?" Erdal, 29, said in a rapid but low-key tone during an interview in an Istanbul cafe.
Over the past year, there has been an upswing in cases filed by state prosecutors against Turkish media, many related to trials of alleged networks of hardline secularists, including police and military officers, suspected of conspiring against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The legal flurry comes amid tension between the government and the judicial establishment, both of which have sparred with their media critics, which in turn benefit from leaks by inside sources that possibly have a political agenda.
A farmer's daughter, Erdal moved to Istanbul to study law as a teenager and works for Zaman, a major newspaper whose editorial line is loyal to the government. Erdal is accused of attempting to influence the outcome of a fair trial and violating the confidentiality of an investigation. She believes she's being targeted because her stories are viewed as damaging to the reputation of the courts and defendants.
The charges carry a penalty of several years in jail, though Erdal hopes any punishment can be reduced to a fine.
In a report last week, Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey at 138th out of 178 countries on its press freedom index, citing "the frenzied proliferation of lawsuits, incarcerations, and court sentencing targeting journalists."
The Paris-based group said many of those targeted were Kurdish or journalists covering the conflict between the Turkish state and members of its ethnic Kurd minority. Under an anti-terror law, Namik Durukan of Milliyet newspaper faces up to seven-and-a-half years in prison for writing about a Kurdish rebel statement that was posted on the Internet.
Bianet, an Istanbul-based group that monitors Turkish media, said five journalists were in jail in connection with their work, and another 30 were imprisoned on unrelated charges. One of the most prominent is Mustafa Balbay, a columnist for Cumhuriyet newspaper and a fierce government critic who is charged with attempting to overthrow the government.
The government views Balbay as a case unrelated to press freedom. But in an implicit criticism of its foes in the judiciary, it has acknowledged shortcomings in free expression despite progress on some democratic reforms needed for EU entry.
"Recently, I also took note of the high amount of cases against journalists and the conflicting manner in which some of these cases are made," President Abdullah Gul said last week. "I am sure that once these cases get to court, all of the mistakes will be fixed. Press freedom concerns the prestige of a country and is an indication of how transparent that country is."
Sedat Ergin, a columnist for Hurriyet newspaper, said many cases involved Article 285 of the Turkish criminal code, under which judges have barred media reports on an investigation until a court accepts an indictment. He argued for a legal amendment to give the media more latitude, while some journalists have said judges are simply interpreting a sound law in too strict a manner.
Ergin said such prosecuting the press affects "all newspapers, across the board," but he also singled out pro-government media for criticism, citing "underreporting" of alleged corruption in official circles. Massive tax fines against the Dogan business group, whose secular-oriented media outlets include Hurriyet, were viewed by some as a government-engineered attack on press critics.
Two major trials of alleged coup plotting gangs, dubbed Ergenekon and Balyoz, symbolize the divide between the elected government and a diminished opposition. While Erdogan says the trials are a step toward reform, opponents counter that it has netted innocents as part of a broader plan to muzzle dissent and undermine Turkey's secular legacy.
The Justice Ministry has reported the filing of more than 4,000 cases of alleged violations of an investigation's secrecy in connection with Ergenekon, which takes its name from a legendary valley in Central Asia believed to be the Turks' ancestral homeland.
Ahmet Sik, a journalism professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul, is on trial for a book he co-authored about Ergenekon, and claims the allegations are flimsy because he obtained information from open sources. He also said a lack of objectivity in some Turkish journalism contributed to political polarization.
"It can be a very sticky situation for journalists, and you can easily get caught in the cross-fire of accusations and suspicions," Sik said. "It is absolutely shocking that Turkey is experiencing all of this, while at the same time you hear speeches about law being standardized according to the EU."
In the past, Erdogan was quick to launch defamation suits, including one against a Cumhuriyet cartoonist who drew the prime minister as a cat entangled in yarn. But his government has also taken steps toward greater freedom of expression in Turkey.
In 2008, the government amended a law that banned insults to Turkish identity to require the approval of the justice ministry to file a case. The law, now rarely used, shaped the prosecution of Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk for statements on the massacres of Armenians in the early 20th century, as well as Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian journalist who was fatally shot in 2007.
The government has also pledged to ease some Internet censorship. Turkey banned access to YouTube, the video-sharing site, in 2008 after users complained that some videos broke Turkish law by insulting the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the national founder who imposed a secular vision after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The editorial view of Zaman newspaper is sometimes apparent in its reporting on the coup plot trials. A headline on a story by Erdal, its journalist, says one group of judges is "breaking the law."
Erdal said state prosecutors lodged one case against her because she reported the names of judges investigating a retired army general.
During the AP interview, she dabbed at tears when describing how she was insulted - "the worst thing you can call a woman" - by a courthouse heckler. But she also laughed, recalling a judge's surprise when she was mistakenly summoned to testify as a witness in a case involving a union.
"He told me that there was a mistake and jokingly said, 'Well, you've been here so many times that we now consider you a staff witness'" Erdal said. "I guess they just automatically pasted my name on the document without paying attention."