The credibility of a four-year investigation into a vast coup conspiracy in Turkey is coming under assault after Istanbul prosecutors accused two journalists acclaimed for their work revealing military abuses of being co-conspirators.
The journalists, Ahmet Şik and Nedim Şener, were arrested March 3 along with five other journalists and two writers. They were charged three days later with "membership of a terrorist organization," according to their lawyers. Şik and Şener join more than 200 people accused in an alleged plot in 2003 and 2004 to persuade Turkey's military to step in against the government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The investigation, dubbed the Ergenekon case, has divided Turkey from the start. Some have belittled it as a ploy by a government rooted in political Islam to undermine the staunchly secular army. Others have depicted the arrest of scores of once untouchable military officers as evidence Turkey is moving to eradicate a tradition of military meddling that has claimed countless lives since Turkey suffered the first of its four coups in 1960.
Over the past 18 months, however, some Turks who have until now been broadly supportive of the investigations have begun to bridle at the way some suspects have been kept in custody for over two years, with courts so far being unable to secure a single conviction. The arrest of Şik and Şener could end up being the straw that broke the camel's back.
One of Turkey's top investigative journalists, Nedim Şener was declared a Hero of World Press Freedom in 2010 by the International Press Institute for a book he wrote revealing state involvement in the 2007 murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. The book sparked investigations into 28 senior state officials, including Istanbul's former governor and police chief. Taken to court by police for defamation, Şener faced 27 years in jail. He was acquitted last June.
Ahmet Şik was part of a team of reporters behind the 2007 scoop that now forms one of the key pieces of evidence in the on-going coup investigations: the publication of extracts from a diary allegedly written by a former Turkish navy chief.
"I don't know what to think, it is the height of absurdity," said Alper Gormus, the former editor of Nokta, the magazine that revealed the diaries and was closed down by a court immediately afterwards.
"Accusing a reporter who revealed a plot of having masterminded it - it is like Stalin's Russia," commented Irfan Aktan, a former colleague of Şik's at Nokta.
On March 4, roughly 500 journalists marched to the Justice Ministry in Ankara to protest the journalists' arrests. At a larger protest the same day in Istanbul, many stuck black tape onto their mouths in protest at what they saw as growing restrictions on press freedoms.
Facing heavy criticism from all quarters of Turkey's media, including some of his strongest supporters, Prime Minister Erdogan has repeatedly insisted over the past few days that the government has no hand in the arrests. Yet Turks know that no prosecutor could haul in scores of top military officers without strong political backing. Few have forgotten Erdogan's description of himself - three years ago - as "the prosecutor" behind the coup investigations either.
Interviewed on March 6, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, a former AKP foreign minister, expressed concern at the arrests, and called on prosecutors to "act with greater care" so as not to "harm the honor and rights of people and institutions." In what appeared as much a response to Gul as to public outrage, the Istanbul prosecutor's office issued an unprecedented statement on March 7 saying that critical media coverage of the arrests was "clearly helping the aims of the terror organization."
The reasons for Şik and Şener's arrest remain unclear. The prosecutor's statement said they had been charged based on evidence that "could not be revealed at this stage because of the secrecy of the investigation." The defendants’ lawyers, meanwhile, complain that they have not been informed of the reasons for their arrests.
As he was taken away by police March 3, however, Ahmet Şik made it clear why he thought he was being targeted. "Get too close and you burn," he told bystanders, referring to the Fethullah Gulen Movement, Turkey's most powerful faith-based movement.
The founder of schools and business associations in over a hundred countries around the world, the Fethullah Gulen Movement has attracted plaudits from the West for its moderation. Back home in Turkey, where an estimated 6 million people are believed to be linked to it, many worry that its real aim is to infiltrate the organs of the Turkish state.
Suspicions about the Gulen Movement began to grow exponentially last October, when authorities arrested a highly-respected police chief shortly after he published a book describing the influence of the movement in the police force. Known for his conservative views, Hanefi Avci was charged with having links to an ultra-left-wing terror group that he spent most of his professional life fighting.
Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şik also have connections to the movement. Şener's book about the murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist presented a wealth of evidence about the role policemen believed to be close to the Movement had in preparing the ground for the murder. Ahmet Şik, meanwhile, was on the verge of publishing his book about pro-Gulen policemen when he was arrested.
This is not the first time the Gulen Movement has been in the spotlight. Since the 1980s, when it began to expand across the country, it has had periodical brushes with the army, most recently during a crackdown on Islamic movements in 1997 that led to an Islamist government being forced from power.
Since 1999, Fethullah Gulen, a former state imam, has been in the United States, ostensibly for medical treatment, though he left Turkey as prosecutors prepared to charge him for anti-secular activities. He was subsequently acquitted, and his followers today deny all allegations that the movement is building up its forces inside the state.
"If those who touched Gulen are getting burned ... how come life-long enemies of Gulen" have not been touched, the chief editor of the Gulen Movement's flagship daily Zaman wrote in his column March 7, referring to a well-known secularist author known for his antipathy to the movement. "Not every journalist in this country is actually a journalist," Ekrem Dumanli added. "The media is a leg of junta movements and coup plots."
Zaman has been a leading cheerleader for the coup investigation, and recipient of many unsourced leaks - widely assumed to come from the police - that have preceded the ever-widening circle of arrests.
Writing in the same edition that Dumanli’s editorial appeared, a prominent columnist warned that the investigation seemed on the brink of spinning out of control. "If just one innocent person is 'mistakenly' tried along with the coup supporters … this [investigation] will not be a success," wrote Fehmi Koru, a close friend of President Gul.
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.