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Turkey Cracks Down on Political Dissent, Again

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - A copy of Zaman newspaper with a headline that reads "free journalists" is held during a protest against the detention of its editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanli, Ankara, Dec. 17, 2014.

FILE - A copy of Zaman newspaper with a headline that reads "free journalists" is held during a protest against the detention of its editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanli, Ankara, Dec. 17, 2014.

Prosecutors are increasingly demanding jail time for people engaging in political dissent — from a former beauty queen to a top newspaper editor. And their efforts are likely to intensify in the run-up to June's general election even as human rights groups voice alarm over the crackdown.

Mehmet Baransu, a columnist for Turkey’s Taraf newspaper, was the latest prominent journalist to hear the knock on the door from police in an early morning raid.

Baransu was arrested Monday on charges of obtaining classified documents. Both the U.S. State Department and European Union officials voiced concern over his arrest, citing the importance of media freedom.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based press freedom watchdog group, described the arrest as absurd.

Andrew Gardner, a researcher on Turkey for the Britain-based human rights group Amnesty International, said the arrest is part of a worrying new trend.

"This is the latest of a series of arrests of opposition journalists across the political spectrum, and there is a tendency to use Turkish laws in a way which is unfair against journalists," he said. "And he is one of a number of people ... facing prosecution."

In December, Ekrem Dumanli, the editor of Zaman, Turkey’s best selling paper, was arrested on government conspiracy charges.

But Baransu's arrest has drawn particular criticism, because the ruling AK Party had earlier praised him for his writings exposing an alleged conspiracy by the pro-secular army to overthrow the government.

Over the past year, Baransu's paper has been at the forefront of publications writing about high-level government corruption.

Kadri Gursel, a political columnist for Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper, said with a general election set for June, the priority for the president and his AK Party is combating graft allegations.

"The reaction of the government against corruption [allegations] has been the suspension of the constitution," he said. "So new arrests of journalists [is] also another negative step, growing Turkey’s deficit of freedom of press. I expect when the election is approaching, there can be other arrests too."

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK Party insist the graft probes were a coup attempt by a former ally — Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S. The Turkish government insists those journalists detained were arrested for conspiring against the government rather than for journalism.

Last month, President Erdogan claimed Turkey has the freest media in the world. The government has won plaudits for recent reforms, which have seen many journalists released from pretrial detention. Human rights groups no longer designate Turkey as the world's worst jailer of journalists.

Amnesty’s International Gardner acknowledged there has been progress, but warned the country is again regressing.

"The situation is changing," he said. "It's got better, in terms of the number of journalists in Turkey who are being held in pretrial detention has actually reduced significantly compared to two years ago. But now many more journalists are being prosecuted, for example, under the offense of insulting the president."

Gardner said it was "highly unusual" for this sort of prosecution to be brought against journalists before Recep Tayyip Erdogan became president.

"But now he is president," he added, "we have seen a lot of these cases. ... Anyone who is writing in a way that is critical of the government ... can be potentially targeted."

The latest to face jail time are a former beauty queen who shared a satirical poem about the president on her Instagram account and a 16-year-old school boy who is accused of chanting "the president is a thief."

Meanwhile, prosecutors are bringing cases against anyone who dares to raise graft allegations. Observers warn with the June elections looming, the crackdown on dissent is expected to intensify.

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