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Caught in Erdoğan’s crosshairs: imprisoned journalist Mehmet Baransu

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Cevheri Güven

Imprisoned for the last six years, handed down dozens of prison sentences, charged in numerous criminal cases in some of which he is facing life in prison, Mehmet Baransu is number one among the victims of the crackdown on journalism in Turkey.

Prior to his arrest on March 2, 2015, he had become the direct target of then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government. Efgan Ala, a prime ministerial undersecretary at the time, had instructed the police to “break down the door of his house and detain Baransu,” something that is seared into the memory of many journalists targeted by the government.

What made Baransu a prime foe for Erdoğan was his reporting on the killing of 34 civilians by an airstrike. In 2011 Turkish air force F-16s hit 34 Kurdish civilians, among them youngsters, in the Uludere (Roboski in Kurdish) district of southeastern Turkey. Baransu’s report was published under the headline “The state has bombed its people,” and it documented that inaccurate intelligence provided by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was the reason for the airstrike. The secret service was headed by Hakan Fidan, to whom Erdoğan referred as his confidant. The prime minister was visibly angered by the report, unleashing direct verbal attacks against Baransu. The following days would not herald good news for Baransu nor for his newspaper, Taraf.

When he was arrested he was working on alleged corruption involving Erdoğan and high-ranking officials of his party, which would later become the cause of a rift between Erdoğan and the faith-based Gülen movement. Before that his reporting had mainly focused on the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), and some of his publications had dominated the national debate.

The publication of a series of reports he had produced between 2007 and 2010, which at the time were widely embraced by the progressive segments of society, were deemed criminal acts from 2011 onwards. Jailed Journos, a platform of solidarity with journalists in prison, started the hashtag #FreeMehmetBaransu on Twitter. Some 137,000 messages were posted under the hashtag. His loved ones and colleagues called for his release, which does not seem likely to happen under Erdoğan’s rule.

Refusal to disclose sources

Two of Baransu’s trials were concluded in 2020, with him being handed down a combined prison sentence of 36 years, seven months. At the hearings he faced intense pressure to disclose the sources of information for his reports, which he refused to do despite having spent years behind bars.

One of his reports, which earned him 19 years, six months in prison, was about some 23 tons of genetically modified rice that was brought to Turkey from the Far East. Previously withdrawn from US Customs due to a problem with the authorities, the product was purchased by a Turkish company and smuggled into Turkey under fraudulent documentation. Baransu’s report included lab results demonstrating that the rice was genetically modified, and the news shook the Erdoğan government since the importer, Mahmut Aslan, was close enough to Erdoğan to be hosted on his private jets during his trips abroad. In the following days Baransu wrote about the pressures exerted by the agriculture, trade and justice ministers to have the investigation dropped, at the direct request of Erdoğan himself.

The government subsequently fired 77 people including police officers and prosecutors who were involved in the investigation into the rice. Many of them were later arrested. One of them was Baransu, who was charged with disclosing confidential information. The case then changed course and became a terrorism-related prosecution. According to the government, all those who carried out the investigation were members of the Gülen movement and should stand trial for terrorism. Years later, the case was concluded, on July 19, 2020, and Baransu was sentenced to 19 years, six months behind bars. Prior to the final hearing, President Erdoğan’s lawyers had applied on his behalf to add him as a plaintiff to the trial.

Baransu’s second conviction was over a report on a National Security Council (MGK) document. According to the report an MGK meeting in August 2004, held with the participation of the president, prime minister, cabinet members and high-ranking generals at the time, was concluded with an agreement on an action plan aimed at eradicating the Gülen group. Baransu published the confidential MGK document on Nov. 28, 2013.

At the time of the report’s publication, Erdoğan’s government and the Gülen movement were locked in a dispute over educational institutions, and the government had begun shutting down the movement’s private tutoring centers (dershane in Turkish). According to Baransu, the tensions dated to much earlier, when Erdoğan had struck a deal with the military establishment to wipe out the Gülen movement.

The government’s initial declaration was that they had signed the documents upon pressure by the military and that they had never implemented its provisions. After 2016, however, Erdoğan, amid his widespread crackdown on the movement, changed course and openly owned up to the 2004 document.

The prime ministry, MGK and MİT jointly filed criminal complaints against Baransu. After a years-long trial, Baransu was sentenced to 17 years, one month in prison in November 2020 on the charge of disclosing confidential state documents.

The Taraf newspaper and Baransu

Baransu’s hard-hitting reports that dominated the national agenda were published in the Taraf newspaper, which operated under the editorial leadership of journalist Ahmet Altan, who is also currently imprisoned. The well-known novelist just spent his 71st birthday behind bars. The Altan family epitomizes the hard-fought battle for democracy in Turkey. Ahmet Altan’s father, Çetin Altan, had also spent years in prison, often over his tensions with the military “aristocracy.”

Ahmet Altan was also the founder of the Taraf newspaper, which served as a pioneer in fighting against military hegemony over politics. From the year 2007, when it was launched, Taraf focused on the military’s interference in politics as well as scandals in the army. Baransu was one of Altan’s favorite reporters due to his reports that dealt with these issues.

A report that left its mark on history

A report by Baransu in 2009 titled “How four privates died: He took out the pin and handed over the grenade” had earned him the most prestigious journalism awards in Turkey. The report had also made it into a list of the best news reports that left a mark on history, compiled by Columbia University Professor Anya Shiffrin.

The report concerned four army privates who had been killed in an explosion that took place in Elazığ province, which the General Staff had announced to the public as an accident that occurred during training. According to Baransu’s report, however, it took place when a commander gave a hand grenade with its pin pulled out to a private who had fallen asleep while on guard duty, as punishment. After having to hold down the safety lever for hours, the private had let the grenade slip from his hand and he had died, along with three others, in the ensuing explosion.

The report brought tremendous prestige to Baransu. After that, he published consecutive reports about scandals in the military. He also penned reports on details of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer coup plotting trials that led to the arrest of dozens of officers.

Some alleged that it was bureaucrats close to the Gülen group who were leaking the information to Baransu. Editor-in-Chief Ahmet Altan maintained that the reports were entirely accurate, that it was impossible to refute them and that the debate about who had leaked the information was a smokescreen to divert public attention away from enormous crimes and corruption.

Orders to break his door down

The fight against the military establishment served Erdoğan’s political agenda until 2010, and during that time Erdoğan’s officials were often supportive of Taraf’s reports. After 2010, amid Erdoğan’s transformation into an autocrat and his leaning towards a neo-Ottoman ideology, the newspaper as well as Baransu became scapegoats. For four years, Baransu reported on many scandals implicating Erdoğan’s government.

In 2014 Erdoğan was convinced that Baransu needed to be put in prison. Then-Prime Ministry Undersecretary Efgan Ala called İstanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu and instructed him to have Baransu taken into custody by breaking down his front door. Ala’s instruction was coincidentally recorded as part of a corruption investigation.

Shortly afterwards, Erdoğan got his wish. On March 2, 2015 Baransu was arrested. Ahmet Altan would also subsequently be arrested. Baransu, who has spent his sixth year in prison, is still standing trial in a number of cases, in addition to existing prison sentences totaling 36 years, seven months.

Professional press advocacy groups in Turkey are careful to exclude Baransu’s name from their reports so as to not draw Erdoğan’s ire.

In Erdoğan’s Turkey, Baransu tops the list of subjects to be avoided at all costs.

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