Endangered Turkish journalist speaks in Chicago—was anyone listening? | Bleader

Endangered Turkish journalist speaks in Chicago—was anyone listening?

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Kerim Balci at the Turkish consulate
  • Kerim Balci at the Turkish consulate

Turkish journalist Kerim Balci was advised that the reason the Chicago media paid no attention to his visit here is that Wednesday was an unusual news day. "Particularly because of the old lady who passed away," Balci explained to me, a reference to the funeral of Judy Baar Topinka. Besides, he went on, the audience he was speaking to wasn't in Chicago anyway; it was back home in Turkey.

Well, maybe. I can remember a time when there were enough reporters to go around, enough space in the papers to spare a Balci a few inches, and enough of a sense of Chicago as part of a wide and interesting world for a city editor to send somebody over to the Turkish consulate to hear what he had to say. Actually, said Balci, he did speak to a couple of radio stations while he was in Chicago; the thing is, one was in Colorado and the other in Toronto. Oh, and he talked to NPR for about 20 minutes. "I tried to explain to the American people the dimensions of the problem," he said. "It's about the future of Turkish democracy. I don't assume the United States will be able to continue on the same level of security cooperation with a country ruled by a dictator. That level of risk is unbearable for the U.S. I think I was able to deliver that message."

I have hazy memories of Iranians gathering at the Iranian consulate back in the 70s to denounce the shah and Savak, the shah's infamous secret service. I was sent by the Sun-Times to one or two of those rallies, and to similar events involving other countries. Balci is editor in chief of Turkish Review, a bimonthly journal that's part of the Zaman media group, and a columnist for Zaman and Today's Zaman, Turkish dailies (the latter in English). Last Sunday, when Balci was in the States for a conference in Bloomington, Indiana, police barged into the Zaman offices in Istanbul and arrested Zaman's editor in chief, Ekrem Dumanh. That wasn't the only raid on a media headquarters; the head of the Samanyolu broadcasting group and at least a couple dozen people in all were also taken into custody.

What's more, said Balci, a list was leaked of about 150 media people the government wanted to round up, and his own name was at the top of it. He couldn't be sure how valid the list was, but he put the likelihood of being detained when he got back to Turkey at about 90 percent. But you are going back? I asked him. Yes, he said. "I've made it clear I prefer to go back to Turkey to be arrested by these dictators rather than stay in the United States and be free. I know they'll use the fact I'm in the United States to start another smear campaign against me. I don't want my children to have to live with the claim I escaped."

On December 17, 2013, a Turkish prosecutor launched an investigation of corruption in high places that named names, and among the names were business and government leaders close to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In reaction, Erdogan accused followers of Fethullah Gulen, an immensely influential Turkish imam even though he lives in Pennsylvania, of plotting a coup. Erdogan and Gulen had been allies up to this point, and when the president turned against the imam everyone in Gulen's orbit became suspect. That orbit conspicuously contained the Zaman newspapers.

Balci says his media group turned against Erdogan's Justice and Development Party because its eyes were opened, not because Gulen gave marching orders. "We'd given them full-hearted support believing this government was clean, not corrupt," he said. "We were shocked. The point is, the decision to split from the Justice and Development party line came from the editorial board of the Zaman media group—because we felt betrayed."

Reading his statement outside the consulate, Balci recalled that betrayal. "Instead of trying to prove his innocence in front of the judge," said Balci, "Mr. Erdogan decided to fight dirty and forged a story whereby Zaman media group and Samanyolu broadcasting group was claimed to have perpetuated a plot against the elected government. Just because of our legitimate criticism of the governmental policies we were labeled as traitors or agents of foreign countries."

There was no response from inside the consulate. I called asking for comment but the consulate didn't call back.

The situation in Turkey is tangled. The New Yorker's Jenna Krajeski reports that when Gulen and Erdogan were allies, Zaman championed Erdogan's Justice and Development Party and skewed its coverage accordingly; but when Erdogan fell out with Gulen the Zaman papers fell out with Erdogan. Krajeski speaks with a columnist at another newspaper who recalls political trials a few years ago when Zaman's coverage was—in the view of many Turkish journalists—shameless. But that was then. Now solidarity is necessary—though it isn't easy. "It's a very difficult dilemma for us," says the columnist, "because we are fully aware that Zaman was silent [during the earlier trials]. They were not only silent, but also complicit. They applauded the arrests. We are very aware of that."

"But today is a different matter."

Balci agreed that it is. "Three years ago," he told me, "two Turkish journalists were detained unlawfully, and my media group was not able to support those two journalists because then we were giving our support to Justice and Development. It was a mistake on our side. We apologized to those journalists and to the Turkish media scene. They think we didn't protest that time so we don't have a right to their support this time." Balci's reply? "We failed the previous test but, OK—[if you don’t stand with us] you fail this test. The Turkish media scene is almost totally under the control of the president."

He said that if he's detained he could be held for up to four days before he'd have to appear before a judge. The judge could then order his formal arrest, and if that happened he could sit in jail up to five years while the prosecutor prepared a final indictment.

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