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No way to run a democracy

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The following editorial appeared recently in the New York Times:

Turkey has long provided a heartening model of democracy for the Muslim world. Now, with so many people in the region demanding freedom, Turkey's government is betraying its values and its citizens, pressuring journalists to mute critical reporting about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his administration.

Last week, a leading investigative journalist, Nedim Sener, was arrested. He had earlier angered the authorities by digging into the 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist who had also run afoul of the government. More recently, Sener has questioned the government's handling of an alleged terrorist conspiracy to overthrow the Erdogan government.

He is being held on the astonishing claim that he is somehow part of that conspiracy. His lawyers are not permitted to see any evidence the government may have against him. Human rights advocates fear that he could be detained for years. Similar charges have been leveled against another prominent journalist, Ahmet Sik.

These arrests are the latest fallout from the Erdogan government's seemingly out-of-control conspiracy investigations. A parallel investigation into an alleged military coup plot has resulted in the imprisonment of one out of every 10 high-ranking officers.

Neither investigation has yet come up with conclusive evidence of actual conspiracies. But hundreds of journalists have been subjected to criminal investigations for their reporting on these inquiries, leading some newspapers to engage in self-censorship.

Turkey has a painful history of military coups, and if the government has hard evidence of new conspiracies it should investigate and bring those involved to trial. But defense lawyers cannot be denied access to any evidence against their clients, and detaining journalists for what they write must stop. Erdogan's party must use its parliamentary majority to reform the penal code so that normal investigative reporting can no longer be prosecuted as a crime.

Since Erdogan took office in 2003, he and his party have changed Turkish society for the better. They have shown that a party rooted in Islam can reinforce democracy by expanding religious freedom. And they have reasserted civilian control over a politicized military. They must now set these spiraling conspiracy investigations on a sounder legal basis, or risk these achievements and their country's democracy.