Analysis

Erdogan's Purge Campaign in Turkey Reaches New Depths

The indictment of investigative journalist Ahmet Sik is just another step in Erdogan's evil campaign of intimidation, which has been going on for years almost without interference

Supporters of investigative journalist Ahmet Sik outside a court in Istanbul, Turkey, July 24, 2017.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

“Sometimes a book is more dangerous than a bomb,” declared Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently. Investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, who is now on trial, wrote such a book. In “The Imam’s Army,” Sik describes the involvement of Fethullah Gulen, now Erdogan’s bitterest rival, and his Gulen movement – which makes Gulen Turkey’s biggest enemy too, in all branches of government but in particular in the police and justice system.

According to the book, some 80 percent of those who have served in the police were members of the Gulen movement or its supporters. The problem is that when the book was published in 2011, Erdogan and Gulen were still friends, and any attack on Gulen or Erdogan, who was helped by Gulen in his rise to power, was considered an attack on the government. The book was banned and Sik, along with his colleague Nedim Sener, were arrested.

Despite the ban, the book was released on the internet by friends of Sik and Sener. On the first day it appeared on the internet, over 100,000 copies were downloaded, and this number rapidly reached 200,000. The book quickly became available on Amazon, and created quite a storm in Turkey by revealing, among many other things, the absurdity of how Erdogan acts against journalists and the press.

Two years later, when Erdogan and Gulen began their merciless duel, which has not stopped, Sik’s book serves as part of the evidence against Gulen’s movement and supporters. The rivalry between Erdogan and Gulen is so fierce that Erdogan is now willing to sacrifice not only freedom of the press in Turkey because of it, but even Turkey’s relations with the European Union.

The extensive details in the book exposing the Gulen movement’s activities and methods, the way it controls some media outlets, its penetration of the education system (initially with Erdogan’s full backing) and its influence in the military seemingly provide the basis for Erdogan’s accusations of the movement’s involvement in the coup attempt of July 2016. But instead of praising Sik for his revelations, the journalist is now the defendant, having spent a year in jail waiting for his trial on charges that he is a member of a terrorist organization, as the movement is now classified in Turkey. 

If convicted, Sik is expected to spend a long time in prison. He might take some small comfort that he will find quite a number of his friends there among the over 150 journalists now awaiting trial or sentencing, including 17 from the editorial staff of the influential newspaper Cumhuriyet, where Sik once worked.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a rally of supporters a day after a referendum widened his powers, Ankara, Turkey, April 17, 2017.
Burhan Ozbilici/AP

This is not the first time Sik was arrested and put on trial. The present indictment against him is not the first version, either, in this evil theater of intimidation presented by Turkey and Erdogan. In 1999, Sik was viciously attacked by a mob so badly that he required hospitalization. This was because he exposed the police officers who tortured to death a journalist colleague of his, during one of the most brutal periods of the governments that ruled Turkey from the 1970s through the late 1990s.

War against Turkish press didn't start with Erdogan

If in recent years the talk has been about Erdogan’s violent persecution of journalists, during the last decades of the previous century 49 journalists, in addition to a large number of intellectuals and political enemies, disappeared. Sik, who published books and articles about the military’s attack on human rights, certainly cannot be accused of any great love for the army, but that did not prevent the government from putting him on trial in 2011 for involvement in the Ergenekon affair in 2007, in which the “conspiracy” of military officers, journalists, intellectuals and opposition lawmakers were accused of plotting to overthrow the government and reimpose military rule.

They were accused of planning provocations in the form of terrorist attacks to show the government was incapable of governing. Hundreds were arrested because of the “exposés” but most were released after a few years when it was determined they had no connection whatsoever to any conspiracy, if it existed at all.  Sik was released too, but was still considered a suspect by the police and intelligence agencies.

The short time between the exposure of the Ergenekon affair and the publication of “The Imam’s Army” created a sort of natural link that led to his being put behind bars. It was clear to the authorities that the book was an invention planned by its opponents, who wanted to defame Gulen and his movement, who was still an ally of Erdogan at the time. It would be interesting to know how the court today can reconcile the book with the charges against Sik, who is accused of being a member of the Gulenist movement – in other words, a terrorist.

Any efforts to find logic in the cleansing that the Turkish legal system is conducting against the press are doomed to failure. Erdogan has stopped explaining his actions and has rejected any and all criticism from human rights organizations and foreign governments demanding he stop his persecution of the press. 

According to Erdogan, all the journalists were arrested for security crimes and not because they are journalists. Among them are those who simply used the ByLock secure chat app, only because this app was used by activists from the Gulenist movement. Even those who are wearing a T-shirt with the writing “Hero” on it are liable to be arrested, because it may hint at support for Gulen, who is known as the “hero.”

For now it is hard to see how anyone can stop Erdogan’s repression of his people. Very few Western nations are willing to confront him. For now the only ones are Germany and Sweden, while in the White House sits a president who gazes at his Turkish counterpart with nothing but jealousy.