From time to time the authorities intent on locking up journalists have second thoughts and we should mark it when they do. So it was this week when a Turkish court released Nedim Sener and three other journalists arrested in the Oda TV case connected to the (allegedly enormous) “Ergenekon” conspiracy.
Sener and several colleagues had been held for a year and had been the focus of a noisy international campaign, led outside Turkey by the International Press Institute. It’s easy for organisations like IPI to believe that while it may be their duty to protest and lobby when journalists are put in the slammer because of the opinions they hold, the results of such campaigns tend all the same to be meagre. So celebrations are in order when it seems to work. Sener was arrested a year ago this month, named a Press Freedom Hero by IPI in June 2010 and released nine months later. You can’t prove the causal connection, but….
It certainly seems to have made a difference to Sener’s time in jail. IPI director Alison Bethel Mackenzie said yesterday that Sener and his wife “today mentioned over and over and over again the impact of the letters that poured in from all over the world from IPI members and supporters, as well as the letters that were sent on behalf of the IPI board of directors and, separately, from the World Press Freedom Heroes. He also said that he had heard that board members sent letters to Turkish embassies in their home countries. He was very moved by that.”
The Ergenekon conspiracy trials are likely to run for years. Sener and three others are due back in court in June; six more defendants, mostly journalists, are still in custody (a taste of the arguments generated here) . Hundreds of people have been arrested for what is routinely described as a “conspiracy” to bring down the governing Justice and Development (AK) party led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I am not an expert on Turkey and no doubt there are no doubt parts of this complex story that I’m liable to misunderstand. But when I see a government arresting hundreds of people and constantly enlarging the scope of what cannot possibly have been any kind of efficient “conspiracy” – simply because the numbers claimed are so large – a warning light goes off in my head. Isn’t the alleged existence of this vast, all-connected conspiracy a bit too convenient to be plausible? (It predates Sener’s arrest and centres on the murder of Sener’s friend Hrant Dink, but there’s an excellent essay by British Turkey expert Maureen Freely on the complex politics of journalism and free expression in the country’s “embattled half-democracy”.)
Writing from Britain, where six more people were arrested this morning by police investigating phone interception, corruption and computer hacking, I can hardly pretend that journalists never commit crimes. But we think better of governments and laws which are reluctant to to lock them up before any charge is proved. Because otherwise one is tempted to think that the government may be hoping to stifle not criminals but critics. There are around a hundred Turkish journalists in prison. Is it really likely that they have all committed offences which any society would consider criminal? No, I don’t think so either.
(Declaration: I’m a member of the IPI board).