For The Boston Review:
When I first visited Celil Sağır in December 2014, hundreds of protesters and police were arrayed outside his Istanbul office. They had come for his boss, Ekrem Dumanlı, editor of one of the largest daily newspapers in Turkey, Zaman. The government accused Dumanlı of supporting Fethullah Gülen, the exiled seventy-four-year-old cleric and rival of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who has lived in Pennsylvania since fleeing charges of trying to topple the state in 1999.
Not too long before, Sağır, the paper’s managing editor, had been an ally of the AKP. Like “many other people from different ideological, religious, and ethnic backgrounds,” Sağır said, his “media group supported [the] AKP government against [the] Kemalist establishment in the fight to make Turkey a real democracy, a member of the EU.” He was close to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. “I flew around with Davutoğlu, and we would talk,” he told me.
But in the months leading up to that December, Sağır had grown concerned about the AKP agenda he had once backed. He warned me Erdoğan’s campaign against Gülen’s supposed “parallel state,” then in its early stages, would not be limited to Dumanlı and Zaman but would eventually ensnare all AKP critics.
Sağır’s intuition was well founded. In the past year, hundreds of Turkish journalists have been prosecuted or threatened with criminal charges. Though their reporting has never been disproved, and their destabilizing motives never established, some have been charged with espionage or attempting to overthrow the state. As the nation confronts a wave of bombings—from Ankara last October to Istanbul and Cinar last week—journalists and government officials have been accused of terrorist activity. Others have faced lesser allegations for, in essence, offending Turkey’s leadership. More than a thousands scholars who spoke out against civilian casualties resulting from military operations against Kurdish separatists are now under investigation from state prosecutors and their own universities.
When we met again in December of last year, Sağır—a bearded, religious man—had just returned from a protest against the detention of Can Dündar, editor of the secular newspaper Cumhuriyet. Dündar had run a story revealing that the government’s intelligence agency (MIT) was supplying weapons to Islamist rebels in Syria, possibly even to the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra. Cumhuriyet’s front page carried pictures of investigators rummaging through mortar shells and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Soon after the story broke, Erdoğan appeared on state-owned television suggesting that the paper had acquired its evidence through the Gülen movement. He vowed that the editor would “pay a heavy price.” Dündar, now charged with spying, faces life imprisonment if found guilty.
For all his AKP bona fides, even Sağır is not immune. Along with two colleagues at Zaman, he has been handed a suspended sentence of more than a year for insulting the president and prime minister. On three occasions, Sağır’s Twitter accounts have been suspended, and Sevgi Akarçeşme, editor in chief of Zaman’s English-language edition, was found guilty of insulting Turkey’s leaders for tweeting, “Davutoğlu, the prime minister of the government that covered up the corruption investigation, has eliminated press freedom in Turkey.” Akarçeşme was even held liable for a reply by another Twitter user calling the prime minister a “big liar, puppet of the palace, scumbag.”
On January 6, Gülen himself was placed on trial—in absentia—along with dozens of former police officers loyal to him, charged with attempting to overthrow the government. “It’s not a war between Erdoğan and [the] Gülen movement,” Sağır told me. “It is a question of whether or not Turkey will be a real democracy.”