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Man bites dog, reporter gets mauled: Turkish muckraker languishes in jail since 2015

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Bünyamin Tekin

When people you entrust with your own safety abuse that power, that’s news. When you do that in a place where power is used to evade justice, you definitely need to watch your back. That’s why journalist Mehmet Baransu was once assigned a bodyguard to protect him when he put his life on the line to inform the Turkish public about the abuse of power in the government and military.

“In all cases in which Mehmet Baransu is on trial, [his] name is the offense, not [his] deeds,” Çiğdem Koç, Baransu’s lawyer, told online monthly Journalist Post for its November cover story about the investigative journalist.

Journalist Post is published by the International Journalists Association e.V., an organization founded in Germany by media professionals who were forced to flee Turkey due to government pressure and now live in exile.

The periodical’s November issue focuses on the story of Baransu, a former correspondent for the now-defunct Taraf newspaper.

Baransu, a journalist known for his investigative reporting, particularly on military and government issues in Turkey, has faced numerous legal challenges and has been in prison since March 1, 2015. His reporting on sensitive topics, such as alleged customs fraud involving genetically modified rice and a National Security Council decision concerning plans to eliminate the Gülen movement, a faith-based group outlawed by Ankara, led to multiple charges against him, including attempting to overthrow the government and membership in a terrorist organization.

Koç told Journalist Post that she took on Baransu’s defense at a critical juncture, driven by her understanding of the Turkish judiciary’s workings and her belief that Baransu’s trial was conducted in a manner that restricted the right to defense and ignored universal legal principles. Koç emphasized that Baransu’s trials were more about prosecuting a name than a crime.

Koç criticized the way the Turkish judicial system handled Baransu’s case, pointing out the disregard for evidence that could prove his innocence and the irregularities in his indictment. She also noted the lack of support from journalist organizations and rights defenders, describing their behavior towards Baransu as a historic disgrace.

Baransu’s work was cited in one of the 47 stories in Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World, an anthology of investigative reporting edited by Anya Schiffrin.

The anthology features reporters who risked their lives and reputations to expose corruption, labor abuses and environmental destruction throughout the developing world.

The story by Baransu featured in the book is about the killing of four Turkish conscripts in 2009 after a primed grenade handed to one of them by their lieutenant as punishment for sleeping on duty exploded.

The incident was initially reported as an accident, but Baransu’s report exposed what would later be brought to court as manslaughter and deep-seated corruption in the country’s military, which was once the bastion of Turkey’s secular old guard before then-prime minister and current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan secured his grip on power.

Baransu exposed crimes committed by the high ranks of the military, when it was powerful enough to challenge the country’s government, through the publication of a series of reports he had produced between 2007 and 2010 for the Taraf newspaper. He was assigned security to protect him since he regularly faced death threats.

One report that propelled him to fame was the disclosure of a coup plot called Sledgehammer.

Sledgehammer was an alleged coup plot against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) devised in 2003. The military is claimed to have planned drastic measures to foment unrest in the country in order to remove the AKP from power.

Baransu reported on the plan in the Taraf daily in 2010 and handed over documents related to the plot to prosecutors the same year, which led to the trial of dozens of military officers and generals.

His reports at the time were widely accepted by the progressive segments of society but later became his undoing when Erdoğan embraced the country’s secular old guard to punish the Gülen movement, an influential civic group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, after he faced a corruption probe targeting his inner circle in 2013.

The corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-prime minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle, caught Turkey’s strongman off-guard. He responded by alleging a conspiracy of historic proportions that aimed to topple him to save face.

Dismissing the corruption investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. 

Baransu at the time published a report about a 2004 National Security Council (MGK) decision, taken by country’s military commanders and prime minister Erdoğan, concerning plans to eliminate the Gülen movement.

Along with his many reports about the military, he angered Erdoğan with his work, which put him in the strongman’s crosshairs.

Prior to his arrest in March 2015, Efgan Ala, a prime ministerial undersecretary at the time, had instructed the police to “break down the door of his house and detain Baransu,” without regard to due process. When the police chief implored Ala to see reason — that police would need arrest warrants to do such a thing — Ala responded that the ruling AKP had the votes of 50 percent of Turks and that the rule of law and due process were mere details.

“We make the laws, the constitution,” Ala said to the police chief. We will do whatever it takes to protect you,” he said.

Baransu was arrested in 2015 for allegedly obtaining and publishing secret state documents in connection with the disclosure of a war plan called the Egemen (Sovereign) Operation Plan. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, six years for acquiring secret information and seven for “exposing secret information” in March 2022. A higher court overturned the verdict in October and ruled to release Baransu on the grounds that his legal period of detention had expired.

Baransu is also jailed pending trial in a separate case that concerns his reporting in 2013 on alleged customs fraud involving genetically modified rice.

The report is about 25,000 tons of potentially carcinogenic rice that was fed to conscripts in 2010/11 and was imported by a pro-Erdoğan businessman through falsifying food security reports.

For reporting on this, the indictment accuses Baransu of “attempting to overthrow the government” and “membership in a terrorist organization.”

In July and October 2019 the Anadolu High Criminal Court sentenced Baransu to one year, nine months and three months, 15 days of imprisonment in another criminal case for defamation of a public official and defamation through written, audio or visual messages. On Jan. 27, 2021 Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals upheld these judgments, and Baransu began serving his sentence on March 8, 2021.

Another criminal proceeding was initiated against Baransu before the Mersin 2nd High Criminal Court for membership in a terrorist organization. On July 17, 2020 that court convicted him of the alleged offense.

On March 4, 2022 the İstanbul 13th High Criminal Court sentenced Baransu to six years’ imprisonment for obtaining classified documents related to state security and seven years for disclosing classified documents related to state security and political interests.

Finally, considering the judgment of July 17, 2020 rendered by the Mersin court, the İstanbul court rejected the criminal action concerning membership in a terrorist organization. The criminal proceedings are currently pending before local courts.

The Turkish government has gone to great lengths to keep him behind bars. Baransu has no friends among the country’s secular population because his reports exposed corruption in the military when it was still a bastion of secularism. For obvious reasons, he also has no friends among government supporters. That’s why a clear case of corrupt officials silencing an investigative reporter is not given due attention by the country’s rights groups. Disturbing details about his arrest, including the testimony of his brother Ahmet Baransu, can be found at Journalist Post, which compares his situation to that of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew wrongly convicted of treason at the turn of the 20th century.

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