February 28, 2016

Selective justice is no justice at all

Sevgi Akarçeşme

Amid the depressing newsroom agenda of our “lonely and beautiful country,” to use the words of award-winning movie director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, something good happened in the wee hours of Friday. Two of Turkey's long parade of imprisoned journalists, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül of the Cumhuriyet daily, were released from prison following a decision by the Constitutional Court to set them free based on their appeals arguing that their pre-trial detention was a human rights violation.

Dündar and Gül had been forced to remain in prison for 92 days, a period of time that can only be fully understood by anyone whose freedom has been stolen. The verdict, however, should not be seen simply as justice being served since there are serious problems with how the judiciary works in Turkey. First of all, even though another imprisoned journalist, Mehmet Baransu from the Taraf daily, had also applied to Turkey's top court months before Dündar and Gül, the court chose to neglect his appeal. Dündar and Gül, however, were more successful in attracting the attention of the world and conducted a successful campaign for their freedom at home and abroad. Even US Vice President Joe Biden met with Dundar's family and praised their struggle. In other words, international pressure and widespread campaigns paid off despite the growing domestic pressure on Turkish media. And I am glad they did. The other imprisoned journalists, however, most of whose names are not widely known, remain behind bars. Justice should not only be served for “popular” journalists.

It's not only selective court decisions and international attention that prevent full freedom of the media in Turkey, but also the lack of solidarity among opposing segments of society. As joyous family members and colleagues were waiting for Dündar and Gül to be released, a lower court was hearing the fabricated charges against another imprisoned journalist, Hidayet Karaca. Even though Karaca supported his fellow imprisoned journalists, the lawyers and activists who were updating the public on Dündar and Gül's situation failed to mention Karaca. Even though Karaca's struggle for freedom has been ongoing since December 2014, these same lawyers and activists said the lower court was busy with “another” hearing without even mentioning Karaca, mostly likely due to his affiliation with the Hizmet movement. Once again we realized the “social pressure” on secularists and the degree of the grossly unfair stigmatization of the Hizmet movement. However, the movement, having learned from past mistakes, unconditionally stood by freedoms during the imprisonment of Dündar and Gül.

Fortunately, Dündar's statements after his release were not selective or biased. Unlike many in his social circle, he emphasized his solidarity with the many other imprisoned journalists and urged the continuation of the “Waiting for Hope” vigil in front of Silivri Prison, which began as a bid to secure their freedom. Solidarity among the Turkish media is still insufficient, an unsurprising fact given that a huge chunk of the media is directly and indirectly controlled by the government -- a situation that is growing due to the unprecedented pressure on freedom of expression in this country. An insufficient number, it may be, but more journalists and freedom fighters are realizing that, despite their differences, they have no choice but to unite based on shared universal principles.

One lesson the international community should learn from Dündar and Gül's case is that the idea that the West has no leverage on Turkey's regime is a false assumption. But for international pressure, Dündar and Gül would still be in jail, just like the many other jailed journalists.

So, we should celebrate the freedom of journalists who have been set free without forgetting that selective and arbitrary justice is no justice at all. Turkey is still far from institutionalizing its judiciary and setting it free from political and societal pressure.

What a pity.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 28 February 2016, Sunday