Turkey’s Glow Dims (NY Times)

The crackdown on free speech is prompting many to reassess the idea that Turkey is the best model for Muslim democracy.

Protesters in Istanbul last month denounced the detention of at least 38 people, many of them journalists, suspected, the police said, of ties to Kurdish separatists

A year ago, the journalist Nedim Sener was investigating a murky terrorist network that prosecutors maintain was plotting to overthrow Turkey’s Muslim-inspired government. Today, Mr. Sener stands accused of being part of that plot, jailed in what human rights groups call a political purge of the governing party’s critics.

Mr. Sener, who has spent nearly 20 years exposing government corruption, is among 13 defendants who appeared in state court this week at the imposing Palace of Justice in Istanbul on a variety of charges related to abetting a terrorist organization.

The other defendants include the editors of a staunchly secular Web site critical of the government and Ahmet Sik, a journalist who has written that an Islamic movement associated with Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive cleric living in Pennsylvania, has infiltrated Turkey’s security forces.

At a time when Washington and Europe are praising Turkey as the model of Muslim democracy for the Arab world, Turkish human rights advocates say the crackdown is part of an ominous trend. Most worrying, they say, are fresh signs that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is repressing freedom of the press through a mixture of intimidation, arrests and financial machinations, including the sale in 2008 of a leading newspaper and a television station to a company linked to the prime minister’s son-in-law.

The arrests threaten to darken the image of Mr. Erdogan, who is lionized in the Middle East as a powerful regional leader who can stand up to Israel and the West. Widely credited with taming Turkey’s military and forging a religiously conservative government that marries strong economic growth with democracy and religious tolerance, he has proved prickly and thin-skinned on more than one occasion. It is that sensitivity bordering on arrogance, human rights advocates say, that contributes to his animus against the news media.

There are now 97 members of the news media in jail in Turkey, including journalists, publishers and distributors, according to the Turkish Journalists’ Union, a figure that rights groups say exceeds the number detained in China. The government denies the figure and insists that with the exception of four cases, those arrested have all been charged with activities other than reporting.

Turkey’s justice minister, Sadullah Ergin, last month blamed civic groups for creating the false impression that there were too many journalists in jail in Turkey. He said a new plan to enhance freedom of expression this year would alter perceptions.

In court on Wednesday, a defiant Mr. Sener, looking gaunt and pale, blamed the police officials he had investigated for setting him up. “It has been 11 months that I have not been given the chance to utter a single word to defend myself,” he said, speaking to friends during a brief intermission. “I have been a victim in a revenge operation — nothing else.”

The European Human Rights Court received nearly 9,000 complaints against Turkey for breaches of press freedom and freedom of expression in 2011, compared with 6,500 in 2009. In March, Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer and Nobel laureate, was fined about $3,670 for his statement in a Swiss newspaper that “we have killed 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians.”

Human rights advocates say they fear that with the Arab Spring lending new regional influence to Turkey, the United States and Europe are turning a blind eye to encroaching authoritarianism there. “Turkey’s democracy may be a good benchmark when compared with Egypt, Libya or Syria,” said Hakan Altinay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But the whole region will suffer if Turkey is allowed to disregard the values of liberal democracy.”

Among the most glaring breaches of press freedom, human rights advocates say, was the arrest of Mr. Sener, 45, a German-born reporter who was working for the newspaper Milliyet at the time of his arrest. In 2010 he won the International Press Institute’s World Press Freedom Hero award for his reporting on the murder of Hrant Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated in Istanbul in 2007.

Mr. Sener said he believed that he was in jail because he dared to write a book criticizing the Turkish state’s negligence in failing to prevent Mr. Dink’s murder. His defense team says the prosecution’s case rests on spurious evidence, including a file bearing his name that an independent team of computer engineers concluded had been mysteriously installed by a virus on a computer belonging to OdaTV, an antigovernment Web site. He was held for seven months without charges. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in jail.

“Nedim Sener is being accused on the basis of rumors and fantasies,” said his lawyer, Yucel Dosemeci. “He is being targeted to create a culture of fear.”

Source: The New York Times