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.