Known in Turkey for their investigations on the "deep state", Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener have been arrested in 2011, accused of being part of the"Ergenekon" terrorist organization, the same they contributed to expose. A case that soon became a symbol untransparent sides of the investigation. OBC met them in Cyprus, a few weeks after their release
Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener are prominent Turkish journalists. They were both arrested on 3 March 2011, on chargees of being members of “Ergenekon”, an alleged terrorist organization accused of plotting to overthrow the Turkish government's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) using terror and disinformation. Their arrest caused major protests, both in Turkey and abroad, as their case soon became a focus for criticism of Turkey's record on media freedom.
Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener were released on 12 March 2012 after a one year detention, but remain on trial together, along with 11 reporters from the website “OdaTV”. The next hearing is scheduled for June 18. If found guilty, they face a maximum of 15 years in prison. Our correspondent met them in Nicosia, Cyprus, where they were awarded the “Kutlu Adalı” Awards from the local journalists' association for their contribution to press freedom.
When did you understand that you were going to be released? What was your first reaction?
A.Ş. We heard about it only after the court made its decision because the judge did not announce it to us in court, therefore we were quite surprised since we weren't expecting such a development. We learned that we were going to be released while being brought back to prison, in a police vehicle. We were together with two other co-defendants, who unfortunately weren't freed like us. So we were so upset and disappointed that we couldn't really celebrate.
Do you believe that your release marks a turning point in your case?
A.Ş. I believe that the reason why we were released lies in the struggle between Turkey's current two main power centers, Tayyp Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), party and the Gülen religious community. With our detention I think they have gone too far, and after facing a strong international reaction, they realized our arrest could no longer be sustained. It was becoming too big an embarrassment to keep us in jail, so they had to let us go. It is possible that this will lead to a different approach to our case, since it exposed too much of the conflicts and contradictions between the leading powers in Turkey. It might also lead to some reforms in the judiciary system.
N.Ş. In general, I agree with Ahmed's analysis, even if I believe that ultimately the main reason behind our release is the international pressure coming from the US, the EU, and many international organizations. There's an on-going clash between Gülen's movement and the AKP, and our arrest has a lot to do with this struggle. Anyway, I don't blame or put the responsibility only on the Gülen movement, but also on the government itself. I fear AKP's understanding of basic rights and democracy is not that different than Gülen movement's, otherwise the prime minister wouldn't have compared journalists with terrorists, or described books as potential bombs.
So, with time, I started to believe that our arrest wasn't much the result of a clash, but of an agreement behind closed doors between these two actors, and that to silence us was a mutual goal for them.
How do you perceive the charges brought against you?
A.Ş. They accuse us of being members of the clandestine Ergenekon organization, but what they put forward as evidence is basically just our journalistic activity. From our point of view, we were just doing our job, but according to the prosecutors we were part of the organization. It is very difficult to explain to the outside world, to anyone, how this could happen. Both Nedim and I spent our professional life investigating and uncovering shadowy “deep state” issues. To be accused of being part of Ergenekon is difficult to understand, or describe. Anyhow, nobody could really explain on which basis we were indicted, or convince anyone that the charges against us were real. In the 1980's people were killed to be silenced, now they're putting them in jail to keep them quite.
You've reported on different aspects of the so called “deep state”, from the Hrant Dink assassination to the Energekon case. Where does the “deep state” lie today?
N.Ş. I don't really understand the term “deep state”, since I believe there is and there's always been just one state. In Turkey the state itself is behind dirty jobs such as the Susurluk case, Dink's assassination and the Ergenekon case. To speak about two states, an official one and a “deep one”, is like muddying the waters, and eventually makes thing more difficult to understand. Even before we came across the Ergenekon case, we knew very well where the “deep state” lied: we used to call it “counter-guerrilla”, something like the Italian “Gladio”. We knew who these people were and whom they were taking orders from. But now these circles are trying to create an illusion, to make us look like we are somewhere else. To speak about a “deep state” is therefore a way to divert the attention from the real issue of “counter-guerrilla”. In Hrant Dink's case we saw that officials, bureaucrats, and police officers involved were not exposed and punished, but on the contrary protected or even promoted. So there's a clear state policy to protect who's in charge of the “dirty jobs”.
A.Ş. I somewhat disagree with Nedim on this point. When he's explaining why he believes there is no “deep state”, I believe he's actually describing it. The “deep state” lies exactly in all these activities that no-one can investigate or make people accountable for. In my opinion the “deep state” is exactly were it has always been, only the players of the game have changed. Now the state pretends that is putting the key figures of the deep state on trial through the Energekon case, exposing and judging these people, but I don't believe that's happening. It's just an illusion. I believe the only way to do it properly would be to put people on trial for their real crimes. Of course, some of the people in jail, accused of being part of the Ergenekon organization, are really involved in it, but they're not charged with their real crimes. The moment it happens, we'll have a chance to get rid of the current system.
In the last ten years, how did things develop in terms of freedom of speech in Turkey?
N.Ş. In democracy you have three institutional powers, and then the media, often referred to as the “fourth power”. Since AKP came into power, it has managed to control all the three institutional ones, and now is trying to grab the fourth, to gain control of the media system too. But the media opposes this move, and outside factors like the USA, that in the past years turned a blind eye to what was happening in Turkey and actively supported the AKP, are objecting to the way Erdoğan's party is trying to occupy the whole power system. All authoritarian regimes have started by silencing the press, and Turkey is not an exception.
A.Ş. Even if all the journalists now imprisoned were to be freed, this wouldn't mean that the Turkish media is free. Because they would come out of their little jail to find themselves in a bigger one, and I'm referring to self-imposed censorship. By the way, freedom of speech is not just about the media, journalism is just the public face of this fundamental right. Today about 600 university students are in jail for expressing their opinions, not to mention many of the people behind bars accused of being linked to the KCK [Koma Civakên Kurdistan - Union of Communities in Kurdistan, allegedly the urban wing of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)] . The real problem in Turkey is the acting anti-terrorism legislation. Within the Turkish criminal code, there are some “fascistic” articles that are completely inconsistent with freedom of speech: without changing them, we're not getting anywhere.
Turkey is often described as a country that, despite many persistent problems, has been nevertheless opening up and reforming itself since AKP came into power. Do you think this analysis fits the actual development in the country?
N.Ş. Soon after the 2000 economic crisis, the International Monetary Fund and other external factors forced Turkey to undertake deep economic reforms. Continuing on this path, the AKP government really achieved some significant economic success. And as long as it kept strong relationships with the EU, it also performed well in democratizing the country. Now, unfortunately, thing have changed for the worse. Economic development alone is not enough to create a democratic society, and Turkey is a good example of that. Turkey still receives the most sentences from the European Court of Human Rights, and is second only to Russia in the number of complains addressed to the court by its citizens. There are around 30 thousand detainees in the world for terrorism: of those, around 12-13 thousands are behind bars in Turkey alone. Either we have an abnormally high number of terrorists in Turkey, or else there is something abnormal about the Turkish counter-terrorism legislation.
A.Ş. In its first two years in power, AKP made some very important and significant reforms that should be included in its record of successes. After 2005, though, these democratic reforms were stopped, or even reversed. When Erdoğan became prime minister, one of the first things he said was “we're going to be part of the EU”. In the last six years, though, he hasn't said anything like that. AKP and Erdoğan's priority is not to transform Turkey into a truly democratic country, because a democratic country would be much more difficult to dominate. Yes, there was impressive economic growth in Turkey. Economic growth, however, is not a measure of the development of democracy in one country. And, by the way, for many people this didn't mean better living conditions. China is struggling to become the biggest economy in the world, but a lot of people there are still extremely poor. In the old days, Turkey dreamed of becoming a “little America”, now I fear we're trying to turn our country into a “little China”.
This interview was conducted during a visit to Cyprus organized by the Association of European Journalists - AEJ