The case of Mehmet Baransu: Criminalisation of journalism in Turkey under way

What should one say if the majority of the media in Turkey report on the detention of a journalist on spying charges in an affirmative manner, some of them even applauding the court’s ruling, as if to say he deserved it?

What would, for example, Glenn Greenwald think if he were to be subjected to such a shameful act of selling out by his colleagues on the Edward Snowden leaks?

The journalist in this case is Mehmet Baransu, a colleague to whom a large amount of military documents were leaked by a whistleblower. He published a series of stories in the Taraf daily based on that information, which led to the famous Sledgehammer trial. The main accusations directed at high-ranking officers were about plotting a coup to topple the elected Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in 2003. About 300 of those accused were sentenced to prison terms and the Supreme Court of Appeals in October of 2013 unanimously approved the lower court rulings.

Days after the reporting, Baransu handed over all the original documents, packed in a suitcase, to the prosecutors. The story was explosive at the time and led to an intense and acrimonious debate nationwide. At its heart, it was about whether or not the courts, as I had written a number of times before back then, would be able to do a proper job of delivering justice and paving the way to civilian supremacy over the “coup culture” nested within the military and the media.

Sadly, the Sledgehammer case was largely overshadowed by serious procedural flaws and mishandling of evidence, leading immediately to counterattacks by the militarist segments which, acting hand in hand with like-minded media organs, worked hard to water down the solid core of the case.

It will go down in history as justice grossly failing, although a recent book by retired Gen. Aytaç Yalman, the-then Land Forces commander, recounts in detail how a small group of top generals in Ankara fought to derail coup plots from taking shape in the 1st Army Command in İstanbul headed by Gen. Çetin Doğan, bringing to light an episode of high-level indiscipline.

So, now, 12 years after whatever disturbing was taking place in İstanbul and three years after the bold publication by Taraf, the political winds having changed in favor of the old establishment of Turkey, it is now the journalist who has to pay the price for doing his job, namely reporting.

The reason for the court’s ruling to detain him is familiar. It refers to the Article 327 of the Turkish Criminal Code (TCK), which talks about “obtaining material linked to the security of the state and its political interests that has to remain confidential.” In plain English, the journalist is accused of spying. Sounds familiar? Does Venezuela or Russia come to mind? Certainly.

The sad story of Turkish journalism is well-known worldwide by now. It is about being crippled to immobility by massive self-censorship and fear, as it is about being put under the yoke of the AK Party government. It is about the public — the people — being completely cut off from the reality and truth by way of media bans and lawsuits.

Freedom is scarcer than ever before. In the notorious case of Ahmet Şık, it was about an unpublished book which in 2011 led to imprisonment. In two other notorious, recent cases, the intolerance of journalism led to the arrest of Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of Zaman, because of two articles and the detention of Hidayet Karaca, the head of Samanyolu TV, because of a TV series.

What’s so specific about the Baransu case is that the detention paves the way for an even more aggressive pattern — the criminalization of journalism, sticking an authoritarian knife into the very spine that exists to hold state institutions accountable.

Looking at the way the pattern is now taking shape, I am afraid we should all stand ready to witness the death of our profession.

We have all come to such a grave watershed.

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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