Turkish Politics and the News II: the Ergenekon investigation

February 23, 2009
At the end of my post yesterday, I wrote that western media correspondents covering Turkey are failing to look closely enough at the efforts of the AK Party to silence media criticism. Indeed, Western (and particularly American) correspondents continue to see the Turkish military as the main threat to democracy and press freedom in Turkey--and the military is, of course, an important threat in this respect. But the AK Party itself, as I discussed yesterday, is also showing a troubling tendency to silence its press critics. As has been the case in Russia in recent years, this is being done through state-sponsored purchases of media companies whose media outlets criticize the state, and through seemingly targeted investigations into their tax payments. Unlike Russia, however, the AK Party government tends to receive generally good press in the American media, which continues to view the party as an important counterweight to the anti-democratic impulses of the military.
Nowhere has this tendency to focus on the military and ignore the AK Party been more pronounced than in American coverage of the Ergenekon trial.
Now, I've written about the Ergenekon trial a few times on this site, so I won't go into all of the details here. Nevertheless, here is a summary: since the early 1980s there have been various times when there has appeared to have been a connection between the state and right-wing death squads that have been used to kill journalists, Kurdish political figures, and other people viewed as enemies of the state. A window onto this shadowy network was briefly opened in 1996, in the wake of the Susurluk scandal, in which a member of parliament (Sedat Bucak) was found to have been riding in a car with Abdullah Çatlı, who by all appearances was a murderer who occasionally worked on contract for the Turkish "Deep State" (derin devlet, a term used by Turks to describe nefarious and secretive branches of the permanent goverment). The car in which the two men were riding crashed in the western Turkish town of Susurluk, killing all of the passengers except Bucak. In the car was found a cache of government-issued weapons, silencers, heroin, thousands of dollars in cash, and privileged passports (usually given to high-level government officials) with Çatlı's picture on them issued in a variety of aliases, all of them signed personally by the Turkish minister of the interior, Mehmet Ağar.
The Susurluk investigation ultimately fizzled out. A few things were learned, a number of lower-level figures were questioned, and the case went away. Bucak and Ağar, as members of parliament, were immune from prosecution, and life continued much as before.
Fast-forward to 2006. Again, a window opens (or is opened), this time in the wake of a police raid in the Ümraniye district of Istanbul. The raid set off an investigation into a series of crimes that had previously not been linked to one another, with the national police (who are by now largely under the control of AK Party sympathizers) announcing that the investigation would take them into the very heart of Turkey's Deep State terrorist network.
All of this is great. The Deep State definitely needs to be investigated. My problem with the Ergenekon investigation, however, is this: Over the course of 2008--that is, right around the time when the AK Party was facing a closure case on the grounds that it violated the country's secular system of government--the Ergenekon investigation took a sudden right turn away from the  Deep State  and towards the two principle foes of the AK Party government: the political opposition and the Army. Almost overnight, an investigation which supposedly began with the purpose of looking into crimes committed by the state against Turkish citizens was transformed into a hunt for coup-plotters allegedly seeking to overthrow the AK Party government! (Again, I go into more detail about this elsewhere, so I'm summarizing here).

Tip of the iceberg or tip of the tentacle?
Ergenekon as just a small portion of the
Deep State. 

The ways in which a newspaper covers the Ergenekon trial provides a litmus test of sorts about its political sympathies. Zaman, which is the Turkish newspapers most closely linked to the AK Party (although it is usually seen as an instrument of Fetullah Gülen's followers, rather than of the AK Party itself), can always be counted upon to present the Ergenekon trial strictly according to the terms laid out by the state's investigators. The newspaper's English edition has even created an Ergenekon file including all of the stories it has ever published on the trial. The stories are accurate and well-written, but there is absolutely nothing in them which suggests a counter-narrative, even when the official story begins to border on the ridiculous.
For example, even as the national police have arrested prominent opposition journalists and local leaders of the (opposition) Atatürk Thought Society for their supposed involvement in plotting a coup in Turkey (since when does the Turkish Army need so much help in plotting a coup?), obvious persons of interest like Sedat Bucak and Mehmet Ağar* have not even been questioned. How can an investigation which seriously purports to be interested in uncovering the Deep State in Turkey not have talked to these figures eighteen months after the investigation began?
In Turkey today there is an important power struggle taking place between the AK Party and the military. Ergenekon, which was supposed to open the window on crimes committed by the state, has turned into a hydra-headed phenomenon. On the one hand, it is unquestionably a good thing that the crimes of the Deep State are being investigated. These investigations should continue, no matter who they indict. On the other hand, it is extremely troubling that people obviously linked to the Deep State have not been questioned in relation to Ergenekon, while opposition figures have (literally) been dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night and thrown into jail.
My sense is that the counter-narrative on the Ergenekon trial that I am offering has not gained much traction among American journalists covering the trial because it flies in the face of what has now become the accepted wisdom among American observers of Turkey: namely, that the military is bad and anti-democratic, and that any liberal party standing up to them must be supported. There is definitely something to this argument, but the AK Party is showing signs of increasing authoritarianism that American journalists who are paid to cover the country are not sufficiently reporting.
In my next post, I'll talk about one newspaper, Taraf, that is fast becoming the darling of American observers of Turkey.

* Mehmet Agar has been recently questioned in relation to the Susurluk scandal. Interestingly, however, this case has been kept separate from the Ergenekon trial.

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