ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish journalist Erdem Gul was locked up in a high-security prison for 92 days, nearly half of those in solitary confinement. But looking back on it, he allowed himself a wry smile, eyes crinkling at the corners. “For the sake of journalism, it was actually quite beneficial,” he says. There was “a lot of time to read and write.”
He mostly read autobiographies. A bit of political science and women’s rights commentary. Books about jailed writers, scientists and activists – like the Marxist revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg. And he read about his jailers: Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, known locally as the AKP, a center-right Islamist movement that has been in power for the last 14 years.
Gul is the Ankara Bureau Chief of Turkey’s longest-running newspaper, Cumhuriyet, a left-leaning daily with a circulation of about 50,000. Last May, he and the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Can Dundar, published a video that appeared to show that Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency was supplying weapons to Islamist insurgents in Syria.
Their reporting contradicted the government’s official line that it was only providing humanitarian aid to its southern neighbor. The video showed prosecutors in southern Turkey searching a convoy of trucks belonging to Turkey’s intelligence agency.
Beneath a layer of medical supplies, the authorities discovered crates filled with mortars and ammunition. Prosecutors claimed the munitions were bound for Al Qaeda fighters in northwest Syria’s Idlib province.
Turkey’s increasingly litigious president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, immediately filed a complaint with prosecutors, and publicly vowed that there would be a “heavy price” to pay.
In November, the journalists were sent to Istanbul’s Silivri prison, the largest high-security penitentiary in Europe, to await trial on charges of espionage and seeking to violently topple the government.
Gul and Dundar stand by their work. “Turkey is interfering directly in Syria and supporting groups opposing the Assad regime,” Gul said. “The danger of this was evident, and it was our duty to inform the public about what was going on.”
Turkey’s Constitutional Court ordered the release of the two journalists on Feb. 26, ruling that their personal rights had been violated. Erdogan said he would neither “obey” nor “respect” the decision.
Critics say Erdogan is waging a full-scale assault on the free press as he seeks to accelerate his plans for what he describes as the “New Turkey.” “Cumhuriyet is not the only organization facing pressure because of its secular and western values,” Gul said. “These days, all parts of Turkish society – and our personal liberties – are being put under pressure.”
When Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, he and the AKP initially wooed foreign dignitaries and Turkish liberals, promising democratization and temperate Islamic rule – a model for a region long ruled by autocrats, kings and despots.
And for the party’s first two terms in power, it mostly delivered.
But emboldened by a landslide third national election victory in 2011, and seeing an opportunity to realize his broader regional ambitions as Arab Spring revolts roiled the Middle East, Erdogan sought to consolidate and expand his powers.
Since then he has grown increasingly intolerant of those who stand in his way, critics say, and the country has lost standing in global press freedom rankings. It now ranks 151st of 180 nations on the World Press Freedom Index, published annually by the nonprofit advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.
Journalists are regularly imprisoned on terrorism charges. Blanket bans are imposed on news seen as damaging to the government. Critical columnists have been fired in response to government pressure. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have intermittently been blocked. Since he rose to the presidency in 2014, Erdogan has filed some 1,845 criminal complaints against people for “insulting the president.”
“Pressure on the media is at its worst in our history. Anyone who is not pro-AKP can now lose his job,” said Erkan Saka, a media studies lecturer at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. For Saka, much of the problem is that Erdogan has assumed near-total control of the state – including the judiciary.
The “checks and balances,” to rein in Erdogan have eroded, said Saka, and “there is now almost no institution that can control him.”
A prominent AKP figure, Abdurrahim Boynukalin, last September led a mob to the offices of Hurriyet newspaper.
They pelted the building with stones, smashed windows and stormed inside. Boynukalin was promoted to the position of deputy minister of youth and sports in December.
Meantime, prosecutors are presently preparing a case – seeking a 23-year prison term – against the paper’s owner, Aydin Dogan, on charges that he led an oil-smuggling ring a decade ago.
One of Dogan’s most respected and fiercely critical newspapers, Radikal, closed last month, in what was widely interpreted as an attempt to placate Erdogan.
Holding companies have also been buying up critical media houses in exchange for lucrative government contracts, according to a report by Freedom House, a U.S. human rights advocacy group.
In one high-profile example, the once-critical Sabah-ATV group was seized in 2007 by a debt-recovery agency attached to the prime minister’s office and sold to Calik Holding for a rock-bottom $1.1 billion. Erdogan was prime minister from 2003 to 2014.
That holding company was led by Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law. The purchase was partially financed with loans from two state-run banks, VakifBank and Halkbank, according to a Calik Holding statement at the time.
Albayrak is now Turkey’s minister of energy and natural resources, and Sabah is among the most vehement of the pro-government newspapers.
And Erdogan is increasingly setting his sights on foreign journalists. Many have been refused accreditation in the country, others expelled. Last month, a reporter with German State Television was denied entry to Turkey and deported.
Meanwhile, the government has established a flagship English-language television channel called TRT World. Paying top dollar for skilled Western reporters and producers, the station appears to be an attempt to influence the narrative about Turkey in the West.
In his office in Cumhuriyet’s Ankara Bureau, Gul smoked a Marlboro red and held a small toy truck that was given to him as a gift after his release. The 49-year-old is the father of two young boys. “The most difficult thing about being in jail was worrying about their psychological well-being,” he said. “I believe prison is harder on the ones who are outside, waiting for you.”
Gul began his career in the early 1990s, as violence between Kurdish militants and the state escalated. Back then, the government largely cracked down when it came to reporting on Kurdish issues. Under Erdogan and his ruling party, he said, the pressure is applied more broadly.
“This attitude is similar to the period of the military junta,” Gul said. “They label people who don’t think like them traitors, terrorists and even accuse them of espionage.”
His desk was scattered with newspapers providing a broad sweep of Turkey’s media landscape: the tabloid Posta, the republican Hurriyet and the Islamist Zaman.
On March 5, police raided Zaman’s offices in Istanbul, peppering protesters with tear-gas and water cannon. State-appointed trustees seized control, and the paper is now little more than a pro-Erdogan mouthpiece.
Meanwhile, the government has banned media organizations from attending Gul’s trial, citing risks to “national security.”
“I am not pessimistic. I believe we will be cleared of all charges,” Gul said. “If we are found guilty, it is journalism in Turkey that is being put behind bars.”