Award-winning investigative reporter Ahmet Sik is no stranger to danger. In 1998, he was hospitalized after a pro-police mob, furious about a murder conviction against several cops in a torture case, attacked the victim’s lawyers, the prosecutor, and journalists. In 2009, he fled the country for a year, fearing officials who had been targets of his reporting. Short, muscular, and brutally blunt, Sik has a spent a career working on mainstream and leftist newspapers, digging into human-rights abuses and questionable government operations.

So when word leaked out in Turkish newspapers last year that he was the target of a government investigation, he knew the routine: He was being set up. “I was angry. They were linking me to a right-wing, fascistic, ultranational plot—everything I’ve been fighting against,” Sik said, his words spilling out fast, because he has a lot to say and because he does so with great passion.

Along with a handful of other journalists, he was charged under antiterror laws last year with taking part in a shadowy plot to destabilize the government. He faces a 15-year sentence, joining a steadily growing line of reporters confronting prison terms. The number of imprisoned journalists reached 90 earlier this year, according to Turkish journalism groups. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) counted 49 members of the media in prison, as of December, for the content of their work. That makes Turkey CPJ’s No. 1 jailer of journalists—ahead of Iran, Eritrea, and China.

Yet it’s not just the number of journalists behind bars that is so worrisome. It’s the frailty of freedom of expression in a country of 75 million that some consider a model for its Arab neighbors, as well as for other countries embracing democracy. “It is a very serious situation,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of CPJ, which issued a blistering report in October on the problems facing Turkish journalists, and has sent two delegations to meet with Turkish government officials.

“You have a whole array of laws that can be used or misused to silence journalists and intimidate a free press. We’ve seen waves of arrests of journalists, particularly Kurdish journalists, which is unacceptable in a democracy,” Mahoney said.

Turkish journalists complain about laws that led to some 5,000 court cases pending against them at the end of 2011—cases that tie them up in court and saddle them with fines. They complain about being fired if they criticize the government. And, as a result of all this, they describe chilling self-censorship that eliminates coverage unwelcomed by the government or its allies. Some reporters have spent up to three years in prison awaiting trial, and some are in prison for five years or more while their trial is ongoing, according to a blistering report in April from the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Journalists aren’t the only group burdened by a legacy of laws and traditions from years of authoritarian military rule. Human-rights activists, students, lawyers, and union members raise similar complaints. Indeed, between 1959 and 2011, the European Court of Human Rights handed down more judgments involving Turkey than any other country.

Beyond a few members of Turkey’s small leftist press, it is generally those covering the Kurdish minority who are targeted. They constantly worry about being picked up on antiterror charges, waiting months or years in maximum-security prisons before trial, and then serving long prison terms. Vedat Kursun, a former editor of Azadiya Welat, a Kurdish daily, got a sentence of 166 years and six months in May 2010, which an appeals court cut to 10 and a half years. In July, a court released him after more than three years in prison. His crime? Making propaganda on behalf of a terrorist group.

“Your freedom depends on who you are,” said Vildan Ay, an editor at Haberturk, a mainstream television station in Istanbul, at an informal meeting of journalists in July, where dismay about their profession was deep.

So why, I asked, do you continue?

“I’m desperately optimistic,” she replied.

While mainstream journalists may not fret about winding up behind bars, they have other worries. The “most dangerous problem,” explained Erdinc Ergenc, a veteran editor and reporter, “is self-censorship. You don’t even ask questions—and that kills journalism.”

Andrew Finkel, who has written for Turkish newspapers for the past 20 years, agreed. “The government is able to command the loyalty of the press through a vast number of mechanisms,” he said. “The press is free but not free.”

Stephen Franklin is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, The Philadelphia Bulletin, the Miami Herald, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he has trained journalists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, and Pakistan. He is currently the ethnic and community media director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago, a nonprofit organization that helps Chicago's diverse communities and nonprofit organizations tell their stories. He is working on a book about his longtime bond with the Middle East, Captured by the Light.