Ahmet Şık, the outspoken emblem of Turkish journalism
Anyone who knows jailed Turkish journalist Ahmet Şık, knows he never minces his words. It was Şık’s blunt, frank and fearless style that made him emblematic of journalism in Turkey, but also landed him in trouble with both President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party and the rival Islamists from the movement of reclusive exile preacher Fethullah Gülen.
There are 151 journalists currently under arrest in Turkey, according the independent news platform P24. Most of these reporters were arrested in the aftermath of the failed coup of July 15, 2016. Şık is perhaps the most prominent of those, detained on Dec. 29, last year.
Turkey’s slide into authoritarian rule has cost it much foreign investment and the European Union has also cut funding due to concerns about democracy, the rule of law and press freedom.
Şık is one of 17 journalists, lawyers and executives from the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper facing terrorism charges.
Şık is accused of spreading propaganda for a range of proscribed groups, some of them bitter opponents of each other. From the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to the far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) and the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ), Şık supported them all, prosecutors say.
It is a bitter irony that Şık is accused of supporting FETÖ, the government’s name for the Gülen movement. Prosecutors linked to Gülen jailed Şık in 2011 after he wrote a book called “The Imam’s Army”, describing how Gülenists had infiltrated the ranks of the police.
He was freed a year later after the charges were thrown out as the Gülenists fell out with their erstwhile allies in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“The police, prosecutors and judges who set up and carried out this conspiracy will enter this prison. When they are inside, there will be justice,” Şık said as he released from jail. “The AKP government is politically responsible for not making a sound about this.”
After it came to power in 2002, the ruling AKP turned a blind eye as Gülen’s followers filled the ranks of the judiciary, police and armed forces, and set about purging and jailing members of the secularist former establishment.
But a power struggle between the rival Islamist camps came to a head when Gülenist prosecutors ordered the arrest of dozens of figures close to the government on corruption charges in late 2013. After being initially wrong-footed Erdogan ordered the arrest of the police and prosecutors involved in the case who then changed places in jail with those they had accused.
After being one of the first to expose the Gülenist penetration of the police and attempts to capture the state from within, Şık fell victim to the backlash against the secretive group. As well as being accused of supporting terrorist groups, he is also accused of insulting the state, judiciary, military and the police.
Almost a year after his latest arrest, Şık appeared as a witness in his trial this week and urged the presiding judge to drop the charges on the grounds of lack of evidence and that his warnings of creeping authoritarianism were indeed accurate. But the judge refused to allow Şık to make a political defence, to which the journalist replied that the trial was itself political and was then dismissed from the court.
Şık came from a humble background. Born in the southern city of Adana, he studied journalism at Istanbul University and became an intern at the Milliyet newspaper. By 1991, he was a full-time reporter, chasing stories for Cumhuriyet and later the left-wing Evrensel.
In 1995, a colleague at Evrensel and one of Şık’s best friends, Metin Göktepe was arrested and beaten to death. Göktepe’s death was a shock to all involved in the media, even at a time when extrajudicial killings were rife, but those who worked at Evrensel feared Şık could be next.
Şık moved abroad for a while, but soon returned and embarked on investigative reporting, working first for the mainstream Yeni Yüzyıl daily and the left-leaning Radikal, and then the Nokta news magazine. He also worked for Reuters as a photographer.
It is usually the case in Turkey that reporters retreat behind their desks and become columnists, or take up an editorial position once they have made a name for themselves. Reporting is perceived as being an inferior and junior role. Despite this, Şık never gave up reporting, but tried to excel in it as one of the few investigative reporters in Turkey’s media history.
But that meant Şık never stayed out of trouble for long. He was prosecuted under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for insulting Turkishness for interviews he published in Nokta on the 2007 assassination of the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.
Other prosecutions under Article 301 followed, including for reports on the army’s intervention in politics and about a military crackdown in prisons.
Throughout his career, Şık also confronted Turkish media moguls and brought repeated legal cases against his employers leading to him being blacklisted. Unable to find jobs, he worked for smaller independent media outlets. At the time of his 2011 arrest, Şık was teaching journalism at an Istanbul university.
As he emerged vindicated from jail a year later, Şık was angry, but not bitter. Though he must have known there was a good chance of another jail term, Şık did not shrink from speaking his mind as freedom of expression was further restricted under the state of emergency imposed after the failed 2016 coup.
When he was detained in December 2016, Şık said it was déjà vu.