Amid silent press, Turkish journalists use social media to condemn editors’ arrests

When police detained the editor-in-chief of Turkey’s biggest newspaper Sunday along with two dozen others on bizarre charges of taking part in a terrorist organization, much of the Turkish media was silent, and many pro-government news outlets, which dominate the scene, were openly supportive.

For some independent reporters, Zaman, the newspaper, was getting a taste of its own medicine.

The paper, with a circulation of 1 million, has close ties to Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim religious scholar self-exiled to the United States. In the past the newspaper had supported trials of journalists who’d criticized the movement.

“Those who became a partner in the massacre of the law, against those they saw as opposition, now have become a victim of the gun that they created,” tweeted Nedim Sener following the detention of Ekram Dumanli, the Zaman editor-in-chief.

Sener, who last year won the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award, has been on trial for 3 1/2 years with other well-known Turkish journalists on similar charges to Dumanli, including “aiding an armed terrorist organization” and “inciting hatred and hostility.”

The evidence in the case centered on a single computer file, which, according to Turkish and American experts, was falsified and planted.

But Gulen’s movement here, which includes Zaman, endorsed the journalists’ trial, which grew out of their criticism that Gulenists had undue influence in the police and judiciary. The movement also supported a mammoth series of trials of military officers accused of plotting a coup.

Now the Gulenist movement is having second thoughts about the Odatv case, named for an independent news portal to which many of the defendants contributed.

The case “took place in a completely different environment,” Zaman foreign editor Mustafa Edib Yilmaz told McClatchy, referring to the time that Gulen and now-President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both of whom favor a bigger role for Islam in public life, were close allies. Just two years ago, he said, the European Union saw Turkey as “the democratic locomotive of the region,” and Zaman was “not alone in lending support to government policies which we believe were democratizing.”

After Dumanli’s arrest , which Zaman headlined Monday as a “Black Day for Democracy,” that is clearly no longer the case for Gulen’s followers.

“People who are affiliated with this movement might have made bad decisions and statements that today seem totally inappropriate,” Yilmaz told McClatchy. “Today they are showing the courage to mend fences.”

As an example, he cited the exchange Dumanli had with journalist Ahmed Sik, winner of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize, who’s also on trial in the Odatv case. His tweet was only slightly less acerbic than Sener’s.

“The former owners of the period of Fascism we experienced a few years ago today are experiencing Fascism. To oppose Fascism is a virtue,” Sik tweeted Sunday.

Dumanli learned of Sik’s message shortly before his arrest and responded with gratitude. “I heard his tweet. Give my greetings to him, and tell him that I congratulate him,” Dumanli said before the television cameras. “He will be one of the first people that I meet when I am out of prison.”

Zaman’s Washington correspondent, Ali Aslan, concurred in a tweet that fully captured the irony of the moment. “Thanks for saying Fascist to a Fascist, Ahmet Sik. Please give your blessing. We couldn’t defend your freedom as you are now doing for us.”

Just to be clear, Sik has not forgiven the Gulenists. He wrote Monday in the daily Cumhuriyet newspaper that he had not forgotten his oath after he was released from over a year in pretrial detention. “Those who arranged this conspiracy should go to prison,” he said. “But they should be judged by the rule of law and democracy.”

Whatever the Gulenists’ role in past encounters with independent Turkish journalists, the detention of Dumanli is yet another point of contention in Turkey’s troubled dealings with the European Union.

Responding to the EU statement Sunday that the arrests of journalists and television executives linked with Gulen was “incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy,” Erdogan on Monday told the organization that Turkey still aspires to join to mind its own business.

“We have no concern about what the EU might say, whether the EU accepts us as members or not,” he told an audience in the town of Izmit in northwest Turkey, Reuters reported. “Please keep your wisdom to yourself.”

Even before Erdogan spoke, Taraf, a liberal daily with links to the Gulen movement, carried the headline: “Turkey gives up EU bid.” The Gulen movement has championed Turkey joining the EU.

Erdogan, whose increasingly autocratic rule has aroused strong criticism, especially in Europe, publicly denounced the newly arrested Zaman editor-in-chief.

He said the fact Dumanli was waiting at his office when police came to arrest him was further evidence that Zaman is part of an illegal operation. According to Yilmaz, Zaman’s foreign editor, Dumanli slept at his office for two nights running because he didn’t want to be arrested at home, where his pregnant wife is near her due date.

But Erdogan said the editor and other colleagues were at their office early Sunday “with the hope that they would avoid detention there.” He went on: “They are well aware of the scope of their treason. That is why they are showing off.”

In fact, the tip that police were about to arrest Dumanli came a few days before from a mystery tweeter, who apparently is extremely well connected in multiple ministries of the Turkish government. Many in and out of government suspect that the twitter user, who operates under the pseudonym Fuat Avni, is yet further evidence of the Gulenists’ undercover influence.

McClatchy special correspondent Duygu Guvenc contributed from Ankara.