[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News]
If you want to get a sense of what has been going on in the Turkish political scene lately, you should take a look at the case of Mustafa Balbay.
Balbay is the Ankara correspondent of daily Cumhuriyet, the beacon of Kemalist (i.e., secularist and nationalist) ideology. He was arrested 10 days ago, as a part of the Ergenekon trial. (Ergenekon, if that sounds like Chinese to you, is a covert network that allegedly organized bombings and shootings in order to provoke a military coup.)
Yet when Balbay was arrested for being a member of Ergenekon, quite a few journalists considered this to be an assault on press freedom. A “signing day” was organized in the offices of Cumhuriyet, at which Balbay’s books were bought and signed by fellow writers who expressed sympathy for their detained colleague. “I don’t want a country,” said Mehmet Barlas, a pundit who writes for daily Sabah, “where people are jailed because of what they think.”
Media With a Mission
All this solidarity for free press was inspiring and moving, especially to those unversed foreigners who had little clue about Ergenekon, but it was a little bit off the target because Balbay was not arrested for something he wrote. No, he was arrested for his alleged role in the covert coup plans of Ergenekon.
And, lo and behold!.. Amazing stuff came out from his world. Apparently, he had a detailed diary in his computer, which he thought he deleted, but which was recovered by the police experts. (Lesson: Never trust the trash bin of your PC; digital files are very hard to fully shred.) And this diary included jaw-dropping accounts of a military coup plan in which Mr. Balbay apparently took an active part. The document was “leaked” to the press, as it is often done in popular cases in Turkey and was first published by the Tempo24 magazine. In a matter of hours, the whole Turkish media was all over it.
So, what is there in this hot diary? Well, there is the story of a coup plan that some hotheaded generals and their civilian allies such as Balbay started to develop as early as 2003. These generals were very unhappy with the election victory of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which they saw as a both “religionist” and “unpatriotic” force. A two-star general, Erdal Şener, is reported to have regretted that they hadn’t “finished this business” in the previous “soft coup” period of Feb. 28, 1997, and has argued: “We need to come and stay [in power] for 10 to 15 years, and put things in order… It was much easier in 1997; there was no EU or Copenhagen [criteria]… Now it is more difficult.”
You see the idea? A military regime that will go on for 10 to 15 years and put all of society “in order.” God knows how many people would be imprisoned, tortured and killed, and how many lives would be traumatized during this period of ideological restoration.
In the rest of the diary, we see how Mr. Balbay took an active part in convincing the radical generals that they need to find a way to neutralize their more moderate superiors, especially the then chief of general staff Gen. Hilmi Özkök. (Özkök was an exceptional soldier who said, “The only thing Turkey needs more is democracy.” He was despised and even depicted as a traitor by radical Kemalists.)
In one interesting episode, retired gendarme commander Gen. Şener Eruygur is reported to give instructions to Balbay and tell him why “patriotic” journalists like him are all too important in the battle against the elected government. “It is crucial that the media does its job,” he says, “but you are just a few people.” The “job” the general mentions is to convince the public about the evil intentions of the government and thus create public support for the suspension of democracy.
The Story Behind
But the media, except those “few good people,” failed to do the “job” that the irritated generals gave them. “We told Milliyet to put a photo of a covered woman everyday to its front page; the next day they put Hülya Avşar’s back!” a general whines. “With a media like this, how can you make a coup?” (For the uninitiated, let me note that Mrs. Hülya Avşar is a famous Turkish film star whose eye-catching “back” would be reminiscent of, say, that of Mrs. Jennifer Lopez. And the logic behind the covered women photo on the front page is to give the impression that Turkey is rapidly becoming like Iran, and hence we urgently need to be saved by our gallant generals.)
Balbay’s alleged diary is full of so many other details, which makes it highly credible. It also perfectly fits into the details given in another exposed diary — that of retired admiral Özden Örnek, which also documented the proceedings of failed coup plans in 2003 and 2004.
So, this is the story behind the curious case of Mustafa Balbay. If he were arrested simply for his ideas, I would happily join the people who defend him. But things look much more complicated. I just strongly hope that the judges of the Ergenekon trial will be able to unravel them truthfully.