ISTANBUL — He was anticipating retirement, after nearly half a century as a journalist. Then Aydin Engin, 76, a columnist for the daily Cumhuriyet newspaper, received a frightening visit from the law.
Eight policemen arrived at his Istanbul house early one morning last fall and took him into custody on terrorism-related charges. Across the city, police officers swept up a dozen of Engin’s colleagues, including the newspaper’s cartoonist, its editor in chief, a staff lawyer and Kadri Gursel, another noted columnist — the beginnings of a sudden and startling assault by the authorities on one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers.
Now, five months later, 11 members of the Cumhuriyet staff remain locked up, their portraits printed each day on the newspaper’s front page and its website in a plaintive protest. Engin and another columnist were released because of their age, but last week they were formally indicted along with their imprisoned colleagues on charges that included publishing propaganda for various terrorist organizations. Some could be sentenced to decades in prison.
Journalism has been a risky enterprise in any of Turkey’s recent eras, with reporters perennially facing arrest for offending the military or some government official, or facing dismissal by a media boss beholden to powerful political patrons. But since a failed coup attempt last summer sent the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a frenzied hunt for its enemies, members of the news media have faced exceptional peril, according to press advocates.
Prosecutors have focused most of their ire on outlets the government associates with the state’s two principal enemies: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is classified as a terrorist group by Turkey as well as the United States; and a network loyal to Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish cleric living in the United States whom the authorities accused of spearheading the coup attempt.
A crackdown has shuttered dozens of Kurdish or Gulen-related outlets and has landed more than 120 journalists in prison, Amnesty International reported. That earned Turkey the distinction last year of being the world’s leading jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Government officials dispute the figures and have repeatedly insisted that many of those arrested should not be considered journalists because of their alleged crimes.
But several of the prosecutions, including the decision to pursue Cumhuriyet — which is associated with the mainstream anti-government opposition and frequently attacks the Gulenists — is evidence, press advocates say, that the authorities are seeking to stamp out critical or independent voices altogether.
In the background is a referendum set for Sunday that could greatly expand Erdogan’s powers and extend his term in office. The government’s advocacy for a “yes” vote has dominated the public space, including the airwaves, in a sign of the shifting media landscape. The debate over the referendum, which has captivated Turkey for weeks, has included speculation that a government victory might prompt the authorities to ease their tightening grip, including over journalists.
Staff members at Cumhuriyet seemed doubtful, and they frequently used the word “irrational” to describe the campaign of arrests. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Engin, adding that he had worked through military coups and states of emergency and had been in and out of jail for his journalism seven or eight times. He sat at his desk at the paper’s offices on a recent afternoon, his plans for retirement postponed while his newspaper was under siege and as he took on the responsibilities of the now-imprisoned chief executive.
“Never before have I seen the law chewed up like it is today,” he said.
Those left behind in the sullen newsroom shuffle around their comrades’ empty desks as uncomfortable new habits and rhythms take hold. Engin said he and others had prepared “prison bags” for themselves, with slippers and sweaters for the feared trips back to jail. Then there were the visits to courtrooms and the families of those behind bars to comfort.
As journalists, “these are things we shouldn’t know,” said Pinar Ogunc, a reporter who covers human rights issues.
For the first four months after his colleagues were locked up, Bulent Ozdogan, Cumhuriyet’s acting editor in chief, said he worked without a break. There was no time for one. A thicket of legal cases threatened the newspaper and the foundation that runs it. The families of the journalists needed support, including a bus to shuttle them to prison. And the paper was facing a worsening financial crisis.
Advertisers, afraid of offending the government, were pulling their accounts, and newsstand sales were plummeting, he said during an interview in his office on a recent morning. It was becoming harder to pay salaries and even to produce the newspaper, he said.
When he finally did take a day off, he spent it on his couch, unable to move.
The pressure was not unfamiliar at Cumhuriyet, which has been a consistent voice of opposition to Erdogan’s government and has seemed to delight, at times, in poking Turkey’s famously sensitive president. Ozdogan assumed his post late last year, after his predecessor was imprisoned. A previous editor, Can Dundar, who lives in exile in Germany, was convicted on charges of leaking state secrets after Cumhuriyet published pictures that purported to show Turkish intelligence sending weapons to Syrian rebels.
The paper had touched on a sore subject for the government, and its pursuit of Dundar was perhaps predictable.
But after the coup attempt, the government’s red lines had become much harder to find, Ozdogan said. “Investigations are being launched against us for our news articles, even though other papers are producing articles on the same subjects.” As a result, it is hard to know where to step. “I wouldn’t say we are self-censoring,” he said. “We are acting a bit more cautiously given what we are facing.”
“If we sacrifice ourselves to self-censorship,” he added, “we would betray our friends who are in jail right now.”
Some of Cumhuriyet’s reporters said they felt paralyzed as a result of the scrutiny, or had started to question the impact of their work on a public that had become both polarized and inured to Turkey’s incessant political churn.
Fear, as well, had made some people withdraw. There was a shooting outside the paper’s offices recently that authorities insisted had nothing to do with Cumhuriyet. At one point, rumors surfaced that an Islamic State militant had cased the newspaper’s offices as a target, before unleashing a rampage at an Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people.
For Canan Coskun, Cumhuriyet’s 30-year-old court reporter, there was no escape from the realities of Turkey’s post-coup-
attempt landscape, as she covered the cases of some of the thousands of people facing trial in a court system that seems barely able to keep up.
Her daily routine sometimes bordered on the surreal. Coskun, who joined Cumhuriyet in 2012, is one of many of the newspaper’s journalists facing various investigations by the authorities. None of the charges were as serious as those facing her imprisoned colleagues, but they were enough to cast a shadow on a young journalist’s career.
At the same time, she found herself last month covering the trial of other journalists who worked for publications associated with the Gulen network, including people she knew. One of the defendants was Yakup Cetin, 32, a court reporter for the daily Zaman newspaper who used to sit near Coskun in the pressroom at the Istanbul courthouse.
As she covered a session from the crowded gallery on a recent morning, a judge asked the defendants to state their profession. “Former journalist,” some replied, with no hint of irony.
From time to time, the defendants would turn around, waving at the journalists covering the trial, their erstwhile colleagues, still free. Some of the journalists seemed hesitant to acknowledge the defendants, Coskun said.
“It is painful to watch,” she said. Cetin, the Zaman court reporter, was “just someone sitting next to us in the pressroom.
“He was a correspondent who did the same thing. He is being tried for the same things we wrote — the same trials we covered,” she said.
A few weeks after the court session, word spread that prosecutors had dropped the charges against the 29 journalists and that a judge had ordered them freed. But the order was reversed, and the judge who had issued the decision to free the journalists was suspended.
Coskun, who went from covering trials two or three days a week before the attempted coup to spending all her time in the courthouse, said she considering leaving journalism and starting law school in the fall.
“After all I have been through,” she said, “I would like to be a lawyer for the press.”
In a recent column, Engin wrote about his fear that the crackdown on journalists would become normalized in Turkey, his concern that he and others at Cumhuriyet were losing the public by constantly writing about the imprisonment of their colleagues. The response was heartening, he said. The column drew more than twice the traffic he normally receives.
But it seemed a small comfort to maintain the support of the paper’s loyalists, including what is known as the secular Kemalist elite. Journalists in Turkey face a far deeper challenge addressing their broader audience: a polarized society in a country arguing over its identity, the nature of its democracy and the question of who belongs.
In that environment, “whose idea can I hope to change?” asked Ogunc, whose reporting often focuses on minorities struggling for recognition in an increasingly rigid society. “Who is going to listen to the stories of the others?” she said.
“What I feel now is my kind of journalism is becoming powerless,” she said. “Day by day.”