Turkey tries anti Er­do­gan jour­nal­ists on ‘ter­ror’ charges

Case in­ten­si­fies alarm over press free­dom in Turkey

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Staff from one of Turkey’s most re­spected op­po­si­tion news­pa­pers yes­ter­day re­jected as ab­surd “ter­ror” charges against them on the first day of a trial which has in­ten­si­fied alarm over press free­dom un­der Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan. The 17 de­fen­dants from the Cumhuriyet daily were de­tained from Oc­to­ber last year and a dozen of them have now spent more than eight months in jail with­out be­ing con­victed of any crime.

They have been held un­der a state of emer­gency im­posed af­ter the July 2016 failed coup aimed at oust­ing Er­do­gan that the au­thor­i­ties blame on US-based preacher Fethul­lah Gulen. The staff-in­clud­ing writ­ers, car­toon­ists and ex­ec­u­tives-were ap­plauded by sup­port­ers crammed into the Is­tan­bul court­room as the trial opened, an AFP jour­nal­ist said. Sup­port­ers re­leased dozens of mul­ti­col­ored bal­loons out­side the court­house, chant­ing: “Don’t be si­lenced! A free me­dia is a right!”

If con­victed, the de­fen­dants face vary­ing terms of up to 43 years in jail. In an ex­tra­or­di­nary co­in­ci­dence, the trial opened on Turkey’s annual na­tional day of the press which marks the end of of­fi­cial cen­sor­ship in the Ot­toman Em­pire in 1908 un­der Sul­tan Ab­dul­hamid II.

‘Il­log­i­cal’

Those ap­pear­ing in court in­cluded some of the best known names in Turk­ish jour­nal­ism in­clud­ing the colum­nist Kadri Gursel, the pa­per’s ed­i­tor-in-chief Mu­rat Sabuncu, car­toon­ist Musa Kart as well as its chair­man Akin Ata­lay. They are charged with sup­port­ing in the news­pa­per’s writ­ings three groups con­sid­ered by Turkey as ter­ror out­fits-the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK), the ul­tra-left Revo­lu­tion­ary Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Party-Front (DHKP-C) and Gulen’s move­ment, which Ankara calls the Fethul­lah Ter­ror Or­ga­ni­za­tion (FETO).

The in­dict­ment ac­cuses Cumhuriyet of be­gin­ning a “per­cep­tion op­er­a­tion” with the aim of start­ing an “asym­met­ric war” against Er­do­gan. But sup­port­ers in­sist the pa­per has al­ways been bit­terly crit­i­cal of the three groups, in­clud­ing Gulen’s or­ga­ni­za­tion. Gulen de­nies any link to the failed coup. “To say I was in con­tact with FETO mem­bers is il­log­i­cal and against good sense,” Gursel told the court. “There is noth­ing to jus­tify my jail­ing-noth­ing apart from slan­der,” he added. Ata­lay said it was the au­thor­i­ties who were scared. “But Cumhuriyet will not give in... in­de­pen­dence and lib­erty are writ­ten into the DNA of the pa­per.”

‘Test for Turkey’

Cumhuriyet (Repub­lic), which was set up in 1924 and is Turkey’s old­est main­stream na­tional ti­tle, has been a thorn in the side of Er­do­gan in re­cent years. It is one of the few gen­uine op­po­si­tion voices in the press, which is dom­i­nated by strongly pro-govern­ment me­dia and big­ger main­stream dailies that are in­creas­ingly wary of chal­leng­ing the au­thor­i­ties. Also be­ing tried in the case is the in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Ah­met Sik who in 2011 wrote an ex­plo­sive book “The Imam’s Army” ex­pos­ing the grip Gulen’s move­ment had on the Turk­ish state. Eleven of the 17 in­clud­ing Gursel, Sabuncu, Kart and Sik, are held in cus­tody, while the oth­ers are free. Since their ar­rests, Cumhuriyet has con­tin­ued pub­lish­ing the col­umns of the jailed jour­nal­ists but with a blank white space in­stead of text.

“This trial is a test for Turkey,” Ay­din En­gin, one of the writ­ers on trial who was freed af­ter his ini­tial ar­rest. “Er­do­gan says jus­tice is bal­anced in Turkey. Now we will see.” Be­ing tried in ab­sen­tia is the pa­per’s for­mer ed­i­tor-inchief Can Dun­dar, who was last year sen­tenced to five years and 10 months in jail over a front-page story ac­cus­ing the govern­ment of send­ing weapons to Syria. He has now fled Turkey for Ger­many.

‘Jour­nal­ism on trial’

The op­po­si­tion fears the emer­gency has been used to go af­ter any­one who dares defy the govern­ment and the trial is seen as a test for press free­dom un­der Er­do­gan. Turkey ranks 155th on the lat­est Re­porters With­out Bor­ders (RSF) world press free­dom in­dex, be­low Be­larus and the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo.

Ac­cord­ing to the P24 press free­dom group, there are 166 jour­nal­ists be­hind bars in Turkey, most of whom were ar­rested un­der the state of emer­gency. Er­do­gan, how­ever, in­sisted in an in­ter­view ear­lier this month there were just “two real jour­nal­ists” be­hind bars in Turkey and any­one else was jailed for of­fences in­clud­ing rob­bing ATMs. “It’s jour­nal­ism in Turkey, not just Cumhuriyet, that is be­ing put on trial,” said RSF sec­re­tary gen­eral Christophe Deloire.

The UN Work­ing Group on Ar­bi­trary De­ten­tion, in an opin­ion re­leased last month, said it found that the de­ten­tion of the staff was ar­bi­trary and that they should be im­me­di­ately re­leased and given the right to com­pen­sa­tion. Filiz Ker­este­cioglu, an MP from the op­po­si­tion Peo­ples’ Demo­cratic Party (HDP), com­mented: “Ac­cord­ing to the govern­ment, all of the op­po­si­tion are ter­ror­ists. The only ones that are not ter­ror­ists are them­selves.”

IS­TAN­BUL: A jour­nal­ist holds a ban­ner yes­ter­day out­side the head­quar­ters of op­po­si­tion daily news­pa­per Cumhuriyet.

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