[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments]
What you read in the headline is what I said to myself two mornings ago, on the new “wave” of Ergenekon arrests, involving almost a dozen journalists. One of them was Nedim Şener, a meticulous reporter I barely know yet genuinely respect, for his exposure of the “deep state” in the infamous Hrant Dink murder case. Another was Ahmet Şık, who is also known for his brave journalism on the criminals within Turkish security forces.
“This is unbelievable,” said a friend of mine, who is a dedicated human rights lawyer, on the phone. “This Ergenekon thing has gone out of control.”
In fact, that was my sense for a while. Unlike most Kemalists, I do not think that the Ergenekon case, the most controversial trial of recent Turkish history, is a political operation “to crack down on patriots.” Unlike foreign journalists such Gareth Jenkins, I also do not think that “fantasy” is what really lies behind much of the case. I rather believe that most suspects involved in the Ergenekon trial were really craving and scheming for a military coup against the elected government. But that does not blind me from the excesses of the investigation, which seem to have skyrocketed this week.
Let me elaborate a bit. Those who are not yet initiated to Turkey might find it bizarre that any journalist can ever be a suspect for a military coup scheme. But history suggests otherwise. The two military coups that targeted a particular political line, those of May 27, 1960, and Feb. 28, 1997, were carried out with the active support of the media. Both of these coups overthrew governments that were found too pro-Islamic, or not Kemalist enough, and the Kemalist-minded media supported them rigorously through black propaganda. Especially in the latter case, the “post-modern coup” of 1997, the generals and their media yes-men worked in perfect harmony, with false stories created in the barracks and promoted in the headlines.
When the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power in late 2002, the same coalition felt uneasy once again. As the AKP proved to be resilient to the military’s dictates, and dared to disobey the generals who saw themselves as the ultimate owners of the state, the Kemalist anger grew. So, “meetings” began between generals, and some of their civilian friends, which included journalists, on how to overthrow the AKP. We know this clearly from the electronic diaries and phone conversations of the Ergenekon suspects, which the police were closely monitoring.
According to the Ergenekon prosecutors, this coalition even planned some killings and bombings, such as the shoot out at the Council of State and the bombing of daily Cumhuriyet, to hit these secular targets and then put the blame on the “Islamists.”
The two iconic journalists who have been Ergenekon suspects since 2008, Mustafa Balbay and Tuncay Özkan, are on trial for not what they have written, but because they were conspiring with the coup-craving generals. That’s why I never saw their trial as an attack on press freedom. (I just object to the fact that they are on trial under custody – a terrible Turkish legal tradition to that I object to in general.)
Yet as the Ergenekon probe extended, I began to see a risk: Some people seemed to have become suspects merely for being passionately anti-AKP and having “connections” with more established suspects – connections that could have been just normal contacts and friendships. That’s why I have insisted on making a crucial distinction: between people who merely have a radical Kemalist ideology, and those who have decided to commit crimes (such as planning a coup) for the sake of that ideology.
When Soner Yalçın and his colleagues were arrested two weeks ago, I re-emphasized that distinction, remaining skeptical about the charges. But in this recent case, that of Nedim Şener et al., even the ideological element is not there! And the “evidence” proposed, that files written about or by them are found in Soner Yalçın’s computer, is all too unconvincing.
Hence, I agree with the critics who see a risk of “McCarthyism” here – with the important difference being that while the Red Peril of Senator McCarthy was totally delusional, the Ergenekon threat is real. But exaggerating the threat and over-extending the probe is all too dangerous. It risks not only harming innocent people, but also unintentionally whitewashing the real criminals.
Finally, the pro-AKP conservatives who have passionately supported the Ergenekon case must be careful to be principled. Their fear of a Kemalist backlash is most understandable, but they would become like their enemy if they begin to believe that the end justifies the means.
Let’s make no mistake: the “new Turkey” these conservatives are proud to build must be a country in which everybody, including the Kemalists, is free – and free from fear. Otherwise, there will only be new winners and new losers, instead of the old ones. And the “new Turkish model,” so popular in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, will fade all too quickly.