The clash between journalists and the establishment in Turkey has descended into a dialogue of the deaf. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is noted for its dedicated acquiescence to George W. Bush’s philosophy that the press is either “for us, or against us.” On the other side of this Mexican standoff is an equally dedicated press — though printing credible stories with detailed evidence to support the narrative is not necessarily part of that dedication.
As the battle now stands, dozens of journalists are in jail, accused of taking part in a vast conspiracy — dubbed the Ergenekon case — to overthrow the government. The mere fact that they have been accused is enough for organizations like Amnesty International to declare that the government is guilty of a low blow and is intent on curbing press freedom; the possibility that some of them may actually have something to answer for does not arise.
An impartial referee would do well to remember that the accused are journalists, not paragons of virtue who can do no wrong. In March the government introduced a draft bill purportedly to protect journalists from prosecution over articles related to judicial investigations. Foul play again, according to Ercan Ipekçi, a spokesman for the Freedom for Journalists Platform, who says the law would effectively ban journalists from reporting on judicial investigations altogether. Well, not quite.
The preamble to the draft law talks of a “clarification about the circumstances in which reporting on investigations would break the law,” meaning press campaigns demanding the release of suspects detained by the police would be illegal.
“This is a retreat from the current situation and is thus unacceptable,” said Ipekçi. Journalists might not like to admit it, but it is not their function to represent a defendant or to put up the arguments of a lawyer seeking a dismissal of the charges, in this or any other case.
Turkish journalists ought to have no interest in prejudicing the cases of those under arrest, so why would they want to try a case in print ahead of an actual hearing? Whether or not journalists should divulge early on the discovery of supposedly manufactured evidence underpinning the charges is a moot point; in a well-ordered system there is recourse for lawyers to present such findings to a judge for a timely ruling on alleged skulduggery by the police or prosecutors.
The Turkish judicial system is in a state of flux and reform, however, and defense lawyers in the Ergenekon case have not been able to follow this path. Even if the journalists do provide the only forum in which to raise issues of official impropriety, they do not earn many plaudits for persistence. Among the failings of a press that, with exceptions, frequently prevents detail from getting in the way of telling a good story, is that it has yet to learn the virtues of doggedly pursuing its investigations until it gets a result.
There have been many stories in the past few months alleging faked “evidence” adduced against some of the Ergenekon suspects. Yet once the initial flurry of excitement inherent in exposing such alleged corruption had subsided, there were few attempts to follow up and force the issue to a conclusion. Yesterday’s good story is tomorrow’s lining on the floor of the birdcage.
There may well be serious doubts about the freedom of the press in Turkey — certainly the AKP in general, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in particular, are very sensitive to criticism and shower the press with a confetti of writs — but interfering in judicial trials is not the battleground on which to fight.
The answer is that if a complementary set of laws safeguarding defendants’ rights were in place, these questions of interfering in the judicial process wouldn’t arise. In the developed world, for the most part, there is a time limit for detaining suspects without charging them and subsequently providing defense lawyers with copies of the evidence against those who do face trial. But in Turkey, under certain circumstances, a suspect can be held in jail for up to 10 years without facing a charge.
The government’s real sin may be its procrastination in reforming a judicial system still emerging from the dark ages. Instead of introducing contempt of court legislation, it might be better engaged in creating a judicial system that ought not to be held in contempt.
Peter Grimsditch is Executive’s Istanbul correspondent