Turkish journalists go on trial
Rights activists slam proceedings as a bid to muzzle free speech
The trial of 17 reporters and executives from Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s last opposition newspapers, began on Monday with human rights activists condemning the muzzling of free speech in a country that imprisons many journalists.
The charges being brought include accusations that Cumhuriyet’s journalists aided the separatist Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) and the movement led by the cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is widely believed in Turkey to have orchestrated a coup attempt last year, and complaints of irregularities in the elections of the newspaper’s board of executives.
Rights activists said the trial was an assault on freedom of expression and the accusations were absurd because Cumhuriyet, the country’s newspaper of record and one that is committed to secularism, has long warned of the dangers of the Gülen movement, which itself has long been at odds with the PKK. They argue that the other charges are an attempt at replacing the newspaper’s board of directors with government appointees more pliable to the ruling party’s influence.
“I have been a journalist for a long time and have dealt with this for a long time,” said Aydin Engin, who is standing trial, but had been released for health reasons. “I am ashamed and in agony for my country because of these irrational accusations.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development party have for years worked to dismantle or co-opt Turkey’s free press. That crackdown has accelerated in the year since the coup last July, with more than 150 journalists believed to be behind bars in Turkey.
As of March, 173 media outlets had been shut down, including newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites and news agencies. More than 2,500 journalists have been laid off and 800 have had their press cards revoked, says the Republican People’s party, the main opposition bloc.
The government has also exerted pressure on media outlets that do not toe the official line by pressuring advertisers not to do business with them and pursuing cases of defamation, or by slapping them with large, unpayable fines. After media outlets that once belonged to the Gülen movement were seized, the government appointed trustee boards that have transformed those newspapers and TV stations into a loyalist press.
That threat of a trustee board hangs over Cumhuriyet, a newspaper that was founded in 1924 and is the only serious newspaper in circulation that is vehemently opposed to government policies. It has described the crackdown after the coup in which the government dismissed or detained tens of thousands of civil servants, police and military officers, academics, judges and journalists as a “witchhunt”, and has repeatedly criticised Erdoğan as an authoritarian attempting to destroy democracy.
“Erdoğan has described democracy as a train before,” said Engin, a reference to a quote from the president who once described democracy as a train that people could get off when they had reached their destination.
Court protest … opposition newspaper is under threat