Pulitzer Prize equals five years in prison in Turkey

Emre Uslu
Emre Uslu

Date posted: December 14, 2013


The statement in the headline belongs to Bülent Arınç, deputy prime minister and spokesperson for the Turkish government. Moreover, he is responsible for the government’s media policy.

For Western readers, I should clarify that he was not joking when he said, “A journalist might win the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, but he should face the consequence of five years in prison.”

The worst part is that Arınç is known for his tolerance of the media and journalism. I cannot imagine what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would demand if a journalist published confidential documents. Perhaps 10 years in prison?

For those who have not followed the debate, here is a summary. Journalist Mehmet Baransu of the liberal Taraf daily published a controversial document from a 2004 National Security Council (MGK) meeting which contained an action plan for the government against the religious movement inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.

As a follow-up story, Taraf also published confidential documents showing that the government had actually enacted the MGK’s recommendations. For instance, after the MGK meeting, the government began to store the personal information of individuals connected to the Gülen movement. Taraf also published documents showing that the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) still keeps files on individuals based on which community they belong to, which faith group they are associated with and so on.

Immediately after the documents’ publication in Taraf, Erdoğan slammed the report, accusing those responsible of “treason.”

Following the prime minister’s accusation, prosecutors began investigating Baransu and Taraf. The Prime Ministry, MİT and the MGK also filed separate criminal complaints. Baransu now faces a total of 47 years in prison.

This case will be a litmus test for Turkish democracy, for two reasons. Yes, of course it is illegal to publish MGK documents in the press. However, the Constitution prohibits governments and the state bureaucracy from developing plans to destroy law-abiding civil society groups. The Constitution also prohibits the government from keeping files of personal data on lawful groups or Turkish citizens.

The Taraf documents clearly show that the government undersigned a document advising criminal action against a civilian group. Because the Constitution prohibits the Turkish government from preparing or conducting such activities, the documents published by Taraf should be considered evidence of a crime committed by the government. Thus, their publication is not illegal. What is illegal, however, is the government’s signing such a document against the Gülen movement.

Moreover, in terms of journalism’s democratic standards, there should be no restrictions on the documents that can be published. And journalists should test the limits of what is publishable. The American and European media showed great examples of this in the WikiLeaks case, the Abu Ghraib prison case in Iraq and the latest National Security Agency (NSA) wiretapping scandals.

The Turkish government, of course, knows all these examples. It was this government that improved the standards of Turkish democracy. But since 2007, unfortunately, Turkey is returning to its old position in which democratic rules are not in effect.

Arınç’s unfortunate statement is just one sign of the direction in which Turkey is heading. This is what he said: “Leaking the story may be described as ‘successful journalism’ by some, but this does not mean it is not a crime. It is a crime to publish confidential documents from the MGK. The title ‘journalist’ does not give one the privilege of exemption from what’s written in the law. Someone who makes himself or herself a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize for successful journalism should understand that they could face five years in prison because of the law and should do the job accordingly with courage. Nobody has the right to complain,” said Arınç in a speech in Parliament.

“If you say: ‘I did it by choice. I am aware of the consequences. This is journalism,’ you have to stand and face the consequences of the law. If you say, ‘I have done this for my country, and I will face all charges,’ then you will do such things,” Arınç added.

At the end of his remarks, Arınç said: “I am not threatening the journalist. I am just saying what is written in the law. They will not be afraid of my threats. I am a lawyer.”

If this is not a threat, then what is? Western democracies and the European Union should pay attention to this poisonous mentality against the free press in Turkey and do whatever they can to accept Turkey into the EU. Otherwise Turkish citizens will have to pay the price for “Turkish-style democracy.”

Source: Today's Zaman , December 14, 2013

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