December 22, 2014

The case of jailed journalist Hidayet Karaca

Abdullah Bozkurt

The jailing of Turkey's top national TV network manager using trumped-up and abusive anti-terror charges because his station aired a popular fictional TV series that delegitimized terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, is the latest in a series of draconian measures adopted by the authoritarian regime to strangle critical and independent media in Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member and European Union (EU) candidate country.

Hidayet Karaca, the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group general manager who had also served as the president of Television Broadcasters' Association (TVYD), the advocacy group that has for years represented TV stations that hold 95 percent of the audience penetration in the country, is imprisoned on baseless charges in what is seen as a politically motivated campaign to intimidate free press in Turkey.

The man behind this unprecedented crackdown on the media is the embattled President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was incriminated last year in massive corruption allegations amounting to billions of dollars and further alleged to have been involved in supporting extremist and violent religious groups within Turkey and in neighboring countries. In fact it was a TV series that aired between 2007 and 2011, featuring an episode portraying an al-Qaeda affiliated group in a negative light, which was the basis for Karaca's arrest.

Erdoğan's open support of Tahşiyeciler's leader, Mehmet Doğan -- who in his recorded sermons urged his followers to take up arms, assassinate the country's leaders, decapitate Americans and join Osama bin Laden's army in Afghanistan -- tells the tale in this terrible saga of tightly clamping down on free media in Turkey. Karaca saw through this plot when he was questioned by the government loyalist prosecutor at the police department during which time he was subjected to numerous rights violations, including the right to due process and a fair investigation. He quickly understood the nature of the witch-hunt that aimed to hang him high in public in order to scare his colleagues in the media. He realized a guilty verdict had already been rendered by the political authorities, prompting him to defy the partisan and government loyalist judge in the arraignment hearing held in a kangaroo court setting.

Karaca is a veteran journalist who worked in print media for years before switching to the broadcasting industry. He was the leader in developing Samanyolu into a major broadcasting network with many TV channels and radio stations in Turkey, as well as abroad. His network has not shied away from covering corruption, human rights violations and other major wrongdoings in the government despite the huge pressure put on the network by the government.

First, the government sent inspectors and auditors to the network to levy administrative fines. Then government-agencies and government-owned enterprises like state-banks pulled their ads from the network with no explanation despite the network's high ratings. The government-controlled Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) imposed $2 billion worth of fines on the network in recent months, trying to cripple the finances of the TV station. RTÜK also imposed further penalties including bans on airing some 60 programs in the last year alone, in contrast to only one or two such fines imposed on Samanyolu in the network's 20 year history.

The government escalated the war against Samanyolu next by banning the network's reporters and TV crews from attending the usual press briefings held by government officials. Potential guests to appear in broadcast segments of Samanyolu's news channels as analysts and commentators were warned against it by the government under threat of government retaliation. As a result, even actors and actresses had to leave the cast of popular TV series contracted by the network after the government's relentless campaign to target Samanyolu. The pressure also led governors in several provinces to cancel long-held permits for shooting series aired by Samanyolu without justification.

Karaca successfully managed these turbulent years by positioning the network as the leading media outlet that continues to provide substantial coverage that is critical of the government, while all others have apparently been cowed into a deafening silence. This has led to an increase in the station's ratings. In the meantime, the lawyers of the network filed a series of legal challenges against the government, trying to stall the onslaught. When Erdoğan realized he wouldn't be able to shut down the network before the critical parliamentary elections six months from now, he wanted to take out the command and control center of the network by jailing Karaca.

The politically orchestrated sham trial that accuses Karaca of setting up and administering an armed terrorist group has no legal merits whatsoever. The only evidence cited in the case is a soap opera based on a fictional script that may have been inspired by real events. The scriptwriters, producers, directors and even an intern who worked as part of the cast for a short time, were all charged with the same crime, perhaps for the first time in Turkey.

The prosecutor also included an audio conversation Karaca had with Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen that came from an illegal wiretap and moreover featured nothing illegal. When the audio leaked a few months ago, Gülen's lawyers filed a criminal complaint asking prosecutors to determine who had wiretapped their client in violation of the sanctity of private communication. Karaca, who has said he has the utmost respect for Gülen, and helped his network defend him when Gülen came under vitriolic and hateful attacks by Erdoğan.

The pressure against the independent media has been building for some time in Turkey and it appears Erdoğan calculated that if he was able to crack down on the leading national TV network, others would take the cue and engage in self-censorship to avoid the fate of Samanyolu. It was certainly no coincidence that the raids on media outlets came right after new legislation was enacted -- after clearing the rubber stamp that is the Turkish legislature -- that granted harsh measures against critics. The most important issue here is not the investigation that imprisoned Karaca in pre-trial detention, but rather the Turkish government's use of anti-terror laws to stifle free speech, crack down on independent media and dampen the enthusiasm of the opposition to fight government excesses.

This veteran journalist realizes what the stakes are for the Turkish nation and the media industry and that is why he is standing firm against the government's attacks, which were themselves disguised as a purportedly independent judicial probe. In his manifesto-like statement in the court room, the footage of which was released by his lawyers to the media the other day, he vowed there would be no return from the democratic path, the rule of law and fundamental rights. He said if his imprisonment helps to advance Turkey's democratic struggle, he would welcome jail. In the first letter he wrote from his prison cell, to his son who is studying law, Karaca asked the young man to excel in his legal studies and uphold the rule of law when he becomes a jurist one day. It was touching.

For Erdoğan in order to sustain his tyrannical rule television is more important than print media because broadcast stations reach a much larger audience due to Turks preference for getting their news from TV rather than print media, partly because watching TV is cost-free versus the daily expense of buying newspapers. In other words, Samanyolu was chosen by the government to teach critical and independent TV outlets a lesson about what will come next if they do not toe the government's line.

It has become crystal clear that Erdoğan is taking these drastic measures to roll back the advances that independent and critical media has achieved in Turkey. He does not even care about maintaining a balancing act in the face of strong outrage at home and harsh condemnation abroad. That means he will continue to alienate Turks further and antagonize Turkey's partners and allies. Despite this pressure, Samayolu network's crucial role in striving to remain independent and critical of the government and to expose wrongdoings has prevented other networks from descending into total silence.

Erdoğan, whose speeches are aired live on more than a dozen public and private TV networks, wants to run down Samanyolu and the few remaining independent networks in Turkey, just as he did during the local and presidential elections this year, in order to mount an aggressive campaign against opposition candidates using government media and pro-government networks. In other words, Erdoğan wants to rein in independent networks leading up to the crucial parliamentary elections.

Erdoğan does not comprehend that the more control the government attempts to take from Turkish TV networks, which leads to relentlessly partisan broadcasts by propagandist mouthpieces, has further deepened public cynicism of Erdoğan and his government. The fact that Samanyolu network has broken all-time rating records since the top official of the network was arrested indicates that Turks see the situation clearly and support it in the face of government infringement on media outlets. Erdoğan shot himself in the foot, inflicting a wound that will serve to help mobilize Turks by making the gravity of situation clear -- the current risk to democracy and the extent to which the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms are under threat. The crackdown helped solidify the anti-Erdoğan base further.

Karaca's case also reinforced the perception that Erdoğan and his allies in the government will not tolerate critical thinking, dissent or independent voices despite publically promising to advance press freedom, the rule of law and democratic values. Both Erdoğan and his care-taker Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu defended the crackdown on the media and openly supported al-Qaeda affiliated figures whose complaints led the government to detain journalists. While denouncing the criticism, Erdoğan seriously harmed Turkey's international reputation.

The crackdown on the media may have already led to the loss of the critical constituency that Erdoğan needed to effectively govern the country. Perhaps Erdoğan does not care about that at all, given that he has no avenue left to exit gracefully from politics but the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) should if it wants to survive in politics. Erdoğan will likely escalate the war on his opponents, stage disturbances to instill security fears and even plot international crises with false-flag operations to ride out the storm. The citizens of this country as well as Turkey's partners and allies should brace themselves for the next showdown before this all ends badly for Erdoğan.

Published on Today's Zaman, 22 December 2014, Monday