Whose media freedom is the US and EU advocating?

Not every foreigner is naive and confused over what has been happening lately in Turkey, following the recent arrest of two journalists who were allegedly involved in the media leg of the Ergenekon terror machine, a clandestine network of people plotting to overrun democracy by fomenting chaos in society. I’m sure ‘Turkey watchers’ are especially well aware of fine lines stretching over what seems to be a complex web of networking relations in Turkey.

For many security analysts, it is a given that you definitely need the media to accomplish your stated goals to overthrow a democratic and legitimate government and to make a post-coup era sustainable. After all, if you intend to wreak major havoc in society as the Ergenekon gang allegedly intended to do, you need people from all walks of life including journalists to amplify false-flag threats, fabricate stories, pump hate speeches to stir tension, mislead the people and disseminate untruthful information.

Last week, a Harvard-educated American analyst who has closely monitored Turkey for some time, paid a visit to my office in Ankara. For reasons of confidentiality I will not disclose his name. When I asked how he sees the recent controversy in Turkey over media freedom, he was surprisingly clear in describing the different aspects of freedom of speech issues in the EU-candidate country. For him, the issue of media freedom was divided into three distinct but often confused categories. They are exclusive of each other, he underlined.

First, he said, the issue of tax evasion, money laundering and racketeering and getting a slice of multi-billion dollar business dealings is pretty much driving the appetite of media moguls who use the media to influence government and employ journalists as proxies to advance that goal. The fugitive Cem Uzan, for example, whose family owned visual and print media outlets in Turkey before they were seized by the government, was sentenced to 23 years in 2010 by a Turkish court for running a criminal and fraudulent network.

He tried to use his media empire to shield himself from prosecution for shady dealings that victimized millions of consumers in Turkey. The government believes the Uzans siphoned $5.2 billion from a bank they owned, Imar Bankasi. The guy even defrauded US telecom equipment giant Motorola of $1.8 billion for which a US judge awarded a $4.2 billion judgment against the Uzans. Unfortunately, Motorola has been left out in the cold as the money is long gone, and Cem Uzan is still a fugitive living in Paris.

Another media tycoon, Aydın Doğan, is more notorious than Uzan when it comes to waging war on governments he saw as impediments to advancing lucrative business deals. Using patronage leverage, Doğan has pressured managing editors to change the editorial policies of papers and TV stations to either praise governments he likes or criticize ones he saw as an obstacle to business ventures he has pursued in energy, trade, tourism and financial services. When the popular Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government finally took a stand and came after Doğan for tax evasion, he cried foul, saying the government was censuring the free press.

The second category my American friend was telling me about is composed of journalists who are suspected of being involved in the Ergenekon criminal enterprise. Charges brought against these journalists have nothing to do with their profession. Rather it has to do with the conspiracy plots run by the Ergenekon organization, which wanted to terrorize the Turkish public by carrying out a killing spree on high-profile people including non-Muslim minority leaders, NATO personnel stationed in Turkey and politicians.

Take, for example, Mustafa Balbay, who was the Cumhuriyet daily’s bureau chief in Ankara until he was arrested by the court two years ago. To his dismay and surprise, the police were able to restore deleted files from his computer, and we have shockingly learned how he conspired with generals in devising a plan to overthrow the government. His diary reflects not a journalist’s work for an upcoming story or a book, but rather memoirs of an accomplice who stopped at nothing to try to convince generals to topple the government.

Before creating a rather disturbing noise in public over the fresh arrests of journalists, we also need to wait and see what kind of evidence the prosecutors presented to the court. The prosecutor’s office issued a statement on Sunday saying that the arrests had nothing to with the media profession. When the indictment is issued and the evidence is released to the public, we’ll know how convincing the prosecutors’ case will be. We hear these men have been under court-sanctioned surveillance for two years, and their communications were wiretapped due to a warrant approved by a judge. It is hard to believe that the court would go ahead and order the arrest of high-profile journalists unless there was compelling evidence. Time will tell.

The last category, my Harvard alumni friend was underlining, involves a real media freedom issue in Turkey and concerns a staggering number of cases that has exceeded 5,000 so far. Most reporters in this category are faced with pressure from overzealous prosecutors to censure their writings concerning the Ergenekon case. The articles are based on evidence publicly available in the thousands-of-pages-long indictments that were approved by the court. Reporters dig in these huge folders detailing the evidence, trying to make sense of what it means for readers in often abridged articles on a daily basis.

All the evidence seems to suggest Ergenekon is Turkey’s Gladio, and most Turks believe the country is trying to purge illegal armed networks from our midst, albeit too late. Otherwise the current government would not have won the public referendum in a landside vote last year. Even the powerful Turkish army, by and large, gave up on interfering in the trial proceedings after seeing the huge public backlash that resulted in the reputation of the army receiving low scores in polls.

It is true that the trial has polarized society and pitched one group against another. But that is quite understandable in a country where illegal structures were deeply embedded within legal ones, creating confusion that is not unique to Turkey alone. As prominent Italian prosecutor Felice Casson, who went after Gladio in Italy, told this paper during an interview, the final arbiter will be the evidence, and skeptics will start believing when they see the compelling case unearthing dirty secrets one by one.

Casson underlined that Gladio was an issue that divided Italian society as well. “The investigation sparked arguments in the government and within political parties. Similarly, media organizations were split over the issue. In general, right-wing papers defended Gladio as an organization, a legacy of the past, established to protect Italy from communists. However, we showed that it was used to control politics, trade unions and opposition political parties,” he explained.

I think both the US and the EU know very well what is going on with the Ergenekon case, more than my American friend was telling me in the nutshell analysis above, but it always comes in handy if you have one extra item on the negotiating table as leverage against Turks. But this is a double-edged sword, and it may come back and seriously hurt the credibility of our Western allies in the end. Believe me: They need every iota of credibility in an increasingly frustrated Turkish public opinion over the attitudes of officials in Washington and Brussels.

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