Turkey and a Fundamental Confusion About Press Freedom
The latest wave of Ergenekon arrests in Turkey, involving a dozen more journalists, has finally prompted many in Turkey who until now were willing to lend the benefit of the doubt to the AKP to say "This has gone too far." Among them is my friend Mustafa Akyol. I disagree with him often, but I am glad to see that today he's said what needs to be said:
What you read in the headline is what I said to myself two mornings ago, on the new "wave" of Ergenekon arrests, involving almost a dozen journalists. One of them was Nedim Şener, a meticulous reporter I barely know yet genuinely respect, for his exposure of the "deep state" in the infamous Hrant Dink murder case. Another was Ahmet Şık, who is also known for his brave journalism on the criminals within Turkish security forces.
"This is unbelievable," said a friend of mine, who is a dedicated human rights lawyer, on the phone. "This Ergenekon thing has gone out of control."
Mustafa continues, however, to make an awful argument, one I hear frequently in Turkey. It reflects a fundamental confusion about what press freedom is and why it should be valued:
Those who are not yet initiated to Turkey might find it bizarre that any journalist can ever be a suspect for a military coup scheme. But history suggests otherwise. The two military coups that targeted a particular political line, those of May 27, 1960, and Feb. 28, 1997, were carried out with the active support of the media. Both of these coups overthrew governments that were found too pro-Islamic, or not Kemalist enough, and the Kemalist-minded media supported them rigorously through black propaganda. Especially in the latter case, the "post-modern coup" of 1997, the generals and their media yes-men worked in perfect harmony, with false stories created in the barracks and promoted in the headlines.
Let's assume he is exactly right. Let's assume that journalists deliberately, knowingly, and maliciously spread propaganda on behalf of the military.
The point he's missing, the point so many here are missing, is that in an open society, this cannot be a crime. In an open society, it is not illegal to speak, even if what you say is false, subversive, and dangerous.
This is an all-or-nothing principle. Once you begin to set legal boundaries on political speech, there is never an end to it. In an open society, it is assumed that the proper response to a falsehood or a dangerous idea is a vigorous counter-argument, not a jail cell. In an open society, it is assumed, or at least hoped, that the people are ultimately wise enough to distinguish truth from falsehood, good arguments from bad.
The suppressed premise of Mustafa's argument is that the Turkish people are so stupid and childlike that they must be protected from "black propaganda." But who is to decide what is true and what is black propaganda? Mustafa, you don't want to give the state the power to decide this. No state will use it wisely. There are things governments cannot do well, and deciding what is true and what is false is foremost among them.
A fundamental, obvious point is repeatedly ignored by those in Turkey who deplore "coup-plotting journalists." It is this: Only the military can stage a coup. They are the ones with the the guns and the tanks. Journalists don't have the power to stage a coup. They have the power to argue in favor of a coup or against it, but not to stage it.
Mustafa's argument seems to be that it was okay to lock up Tuncay Özkan, because he was a bad man with bad ideas. But locking up Ahmet Şık--now that's going too far; he's a decent fellow. This is missing the point. It does not matter whether Ahmet Şık is a good guy or Tuncay Özkan a bad guy. They have both been put in jail for thoughtcrime. If there is no legal protection against this for the Tuncay Özkans of Turkey, there is no legal protection for the Ahmet Şıks--or for Mustafa Akyol. Who's in jail on any given day will just depend who's in power that day.
Mustafa, we have journalists in America, too, who work in perfect harmony with the enemies of democracy. We have quite a number of them. We always have. Every day I read articles full of lies. Every day I see evidence that our media is either preternaturally stupid or knowingly propagandizing for our enemies.
So every day I do my best to point out that they're wrong. That's what you do in an open society, and that's the only thing anyone can do or should do. You trust that the truth will win in the end because it's true.