By Matthew Brunwasser
Eight Turkish journalists have been arrested over the past month. They are accused of, among other things, participating in a terrorist organization called Ergenokon. Lawyer Huseyin Ersoz represents three jailed journalists. He says it's clear from their interrogation that they were arrested because of their critical reports on the ruling AK Party.
"All the questions directed to our clients were not just about the events but about the reporting process: how they found their news and which contacts they used," Ersoz said: "They were interrogated about their sources, specific phone calls, and what their point in doing the story was?"
Turkish press groups say silencing journalists is a big problem that's gaining attention worldwide. There are now 61 journalists in detention and some 5000 pending court cases. Senior European Union and US officials have weighed in on the seeming discrepancy between Turkey's stated support for a free press and the detention of journalists.
"We are trying to make sense of this," The US ambassador to Turkey Frank Ricciardone told reporters.
Lawyer Huseyin Ersoz said there's no mystery.
"It's the beginning of an empire of fear," Ersoz said. "If the AKP were to use the law against offending the Turkish nation, then everyone in society and the international community would oppose them. But since they are fighting against terrorism, the greatest crime you can imagine, no one dares to resist."
Turkish legislation provides a rich arsenal of ammunition to silence reporters. There are laws against spreading propaganda and laws against obtaining sensitive information for example.
Those laws — alone – are used by the government to punish reporting on Kurdish rebels and national security issues. In one case, the government is accused of using tax authorities to punish a critical media group. Turkish Daily News editor and columnist Barcin Yinanc said the Turkish government is hypocritical when it criticizes others in the region for a lack of freedoms.
"While at home they don't implement some of the basic tenets of democracy," Yinanc said. "One of them is freedom of the press."
Emma Sinclair-Webb, who is with Human Rights Watch, said that Turkey still hasn't got a record that fits a democratic society. She said that Turkey today is politically more open than it was but that there is a "confusing" pattern of state harassment of journalists.
Reporters from the left and the right, secularists and Islamists all feel the pressure. And as the party in power, the ruling AKP is simply the worst offender.
"Until Turkey gets its own house in order, it will never be a fully credible leading country in the region to advise others what to do," Sinclair-Webb said. "And getting its own house in order, on issues like press freedom, freedom of expression, has to be a priority for a country which does seek a regional role and play as a big actor in the newly emerging Middle East."
Turkish politicians also launch personal legal actions to silence critical journalists, including one famous suit by the Prime Minister against a political cartoonist, for portraying his face on a cat tangled in yarn.
"What message does that send out about your tolerance of free speech, your tolerance of dissent, your tolerance of shocking and disturbing views, which are all permissible in a democracy?" Sinclair Webb asked.
Government officials deny any political motivations in the recent arrests. At a recent meeting of the governing AK Party, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wondered whether journalists considered themselves exempt from Turkish law.
"A legal action has been taken against a website," Erdogan said. "They say, the government muzzles the journalists. What it got to do with us? Certain chorus immediately weighs in. I wonder, are there any provisions stating media executives, journalists have legal immunity and we don't know about it? Are media entities privileged? Are they exempt from laws, taxes? Can't they be prosecuted?"
The Prime Minister's strong public warnings to journalists may have a chilling effect observers say — but Turkish journalists are still writing punchy stories. And the clash between the press and the state, loud and spirited under normal conditions, is just cranking up as Turkey enters the campaign season for national elections in June.