COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — In 2011, Murat Sabuncu, the editor-in-chief of Turkey’s oldest, most respected newspaper, Cumhuriyet, made regular trips to visit the notorious Silivri Prison.
He would travel about 60 miles from Istanbul to a beach town where Turkey’s highest-security prison, now Europe’s largest penal facility, held his friend and colleague, investigative journalist Nedim Sener, who was accused of being a terrorist.
Sabuncu would go to Silivri No. 9, a separate maximum-security building complete with iris-recognition technology, where people charged with either being or supporting terrorists are kept. The concrete buildings there are painted yellow and partitioned from the rest of the campus by a high wall.
Five years later, during the early morning hours of Oct. 31, 2016, the police raided Sabuncu’s apartment in Istanbul. They stormed into his bedroom and a court later accused him of “aiding a terror organization without being a member.” He now waits in the same yellow building where he visited his friend six years before.
“The indictment is nonsense,” Utku Çakirözer, former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, said in an interview with Capital News Service. The evidence used against Sabuncu are tweets he shared and headlines he published, which Çakirözer said is not evidence of wrongdoing.
“These are not crimes,” he said. The charges against him “have nothing to do with journalism.”
Sabuncu’s imprisonment symbolizes the fate of much of Turkey’s opposition after a failed coup attempt in 2016 killed 241 people and injured 2,194 others. Since then, on the orders of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, more than 150 journalists have been arrested. Today, 81 remain behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Now declared a national holiday, July 15, 2016, resonates as Turkey’s bloodiest coup attempt in its political history. Erdogan’s unprecedented media crackdown has Turkey leading the global count for jailed journalists worldwide, according to CPJ.
Even former U.S. ambassadors recognize the president’s extreme measures to quell any form of opposition. “His relentless pursuit of power has just led to more paranoia and more desire to grab more power and to either silence or neuter those who are critical of him,” Ross Wilson, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said in an interview with CNS.
The Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on Sabuncu’s imprisonment and the lengthy detainment of other journalists.
In the only letter published during his imprisonment, Sabuncu wrote to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSEC), which has taken up his case.
“Every night I watch the sky from my bunk next to the window,” he wrote. “My glances first fall beyond the iron bars straddling my window, and then dare to venture just a little further, beyond the steel bars overhead of my ten-stride-long courtyard space. I think of the sea, the daisies, the meals that we have eaten and will eat with friends on long and big tables.”
Before Sabuncu was arrested, the 47-year-old husband and father had spent 25 years advocating for an independent media in Turkey
His career began at Milliyet Daily, where he worked as economics writer and columnist. He became editor-in-chief of Fortune Turkey, a financial magazine, then joined Cumhuriyet Daily as editorial coordinator in 2014. Two years later, he was named editor-in-chief.
Sabuncu criticized the 1997 Turkish military coup, the government’s 2013 headscarf ban, and the 2008 attempt to oust the ruling Justice and Development Party. “He is a free thinker who does not fear about anything,” his son, Muratcan Sabuncu, wrote in an email response to questions sent by CNS. “He knew that dissident journalists risk unemployment, imprisonment and even death.”
The Çaglayan Istanbul Court ruled that Sabuncu, along with Akin Atalay, lawyer and chairman of the Cumhuriyet Foundation’s board of directors, and Ahmet Sik, its star investigative reporter and 12 other Cumhuriyet staff, will remain in custody during the trial.
They face sentences ranging from seven-and-a-half years to 43 years in prison.
Prosecutors accuse the journalists of being members of Fethullah Gülen’s movement (FETO), which Erdogan blames for the failed coup attempt, and of helping the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that the Turkish government, NATO and the United States consider a terrorist organization.
Gülen is a self-exiled cleric based in Pennsylvania. Turkish-U.S. relations have been strained over Turkey’s insistence that he be extradited and Washington’s refusal to do so.
Censorship by arrest
The Cumhuriyet trials are a byproduct of Erdogan’s purge of suspected Gülen supporters from state institutions and society.
The country has been under a state of emergency for more than a year and during that time, the government has shut down more than 150 news outlets and arrested hundreds of journalists, according to the press advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders.
As a result, “the mainstream media (is) a lot more careful because people don’t want to get into trouble,” Wilson told CNS. “Prominent critical journalists...were able to function effectively as journalists in Turkey even up to 2013...and all of a sudden, they’re gone. They’re living in Europe, the United States, somewhere else.”
Even journalists living an ocean away from Ankara feel the need to censor themselves.
Turkish journalist Ragip Soylu has lived in the Washington area for the past three years writing for Sabah and Daily Sabah, which are government-friendly publications.
“As a person writing extensively about Turkish-American relations, I restrict myself a lot,” he said in an interview with CNS. “Over time you correct yourself when writing things that could be sensitive.”
Strained U.S.-Turkey relationship
Despite being NATO allies since 1952, the United States and Turkey have a tumultuous geopolitical relationship.
The United States views Turkey as a key ally in the fight against terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. air base at Incirlik has provided the United States with a strategic military presence in the Middle East since 1951.
Yet the relationship has deteriorated in recent years. “Our interests are not aligned the way they once were,” Marc Grossman, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, told CNS.
Relations declined further under President Barack Obama after Turkey criticized his reluctance to intervene in the Syrian civil war.
Tensions increased again in May after newly-elected President Donald Trump approved a plan to arm Syrian Kurds in an effort to regain Raqqa, Syria, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State or ISIS.
Turkey worried that the weapons could be used against it in the future. Turkey considers the People’s Protection Unites (YPG) an ally of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“The biggest flashpoint is U.S. material support for the YPG in northern Iraq and Syria,” Grossman said. “The Turks think they’re terrorists because they believe they are connected to the PKK.”
The rift grew wider in early October when Erdogan said he did not recognize the current U.S. ambassador, John Bass, following a diplomatic dispute that began after a Turkish U.S. embassy employee was arrested for alleging having links to Gülen’s movement.
The arrest triggered a U.S decision to suspend non-immigrant visa applications. In retaliation, Turkey suspended all non-immigrant visa services.
In an effort to mend relations, Trump promised Erdogan his administration would stop arming Kurdish fighters. However, U.S. officials plan to keep American troops in northern Syria and continue working with Kurdish fighters.
Can Dündar, who preceded Sabuncu as Cumhuriyet’s editor and is now exiled in Germany, said Turkey is nearing the end of its Erdogan chapter. The president is losing support in big cities, among the business community and from European governments.
The upcoming 2019 elections will serve as a crucial turning point in Turkey’s history, Dündar told CNS. “In the end, we will get our country back,” he said.
Because of Sabuncu’s status as an alleged terrorist supporter, his prison life is more restrictive. He cannot send or receive letters from his family and he can only see them once every two months, compared to the once-a-month visits other prisoners are afforded.
His sister Neslihan Sabuncu told CNS: “You cannot even write a simple note saying, ”‘We love you.’”