Turkish journalists go on trial on Press Freedom Day

Turkish journalists go on trial on Press Freedom Day
Turkey has marked its anniversary of the abolition of official press censorship by putting 17 newspaper staff on trial in what is being considered an attack on free speech.
3 min read
24 Jul, 2017
A rally is held in Istanbul in support of journalists on trial [Getty]
On the day Turkey marks the anniversary of the abolition of official press censorship in the country, 17 newspaper employees went on trial.

Turkey is now listed as the country with the biggest number of imprisoned journalists. Journalism organisations say more than 150 journalists are behind bars, most of them accused of terror charges.

Today, prominent journalists, editors and other staff at the Turkish opposition paper Cumhuriyet stand accused of supporting a terrorist group, in a case that critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have called an attack on free speech.

"Journalism is not a crime," chanted several hundred people gathered outside the central Istanbul court to protest against the prosecution of writers, executives and lawyers of the secularist newspaper.

Turkish prosecutors are seeking up to 43 years in jail for newspaper staff accused of targeting Erdogan through "asymmetric war methods".

"I am not here because I knowingly and willingly helped a terrorist organisation, but because I am an independent, questioning and critical journalist," one of the defendants, columnist Kadri Gursel, told the court.

Gursel, who, along with editor Murat Sabuncu and other senior staff, has been in pre-trial detention for 267 days, was prevented from hugging his son in the courtroom by security guards, the newspaper said on its website.

The 324-page indictment alleges Cumhuriyet was effectively taken over by the network of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed for the failed putsch last July, and used to "veil the actions of terrorist groups".

Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup.

The newspaper is also accused of writing stories that serve "separatist manipulation".

Other defendants include Ahmet Sik, who once wrote a book critical of Gulen's movement. Former editor Can Dundar, who is living in Germany, is being tried in absentia.

The newspaper has called the charges "imaginary accusations and slander". Social media posts comprised the bulk of evidence in the indictment, along with allegations that staff had been in contact with users of Bylock, an encrypted messaging app the government says was used by Gulen's followers.

"According to the government, everyone in opposition is a terrorist, the only non-terrorists are themselves," Filiz Kerestecioglu, a member of parliament from the pro-Kurdish HDP opposition party, told reporters ahead of the trial.

Gursel, the columnist, denied he had links to Gulen's movement, saying he had in the past revealed ties between Erdogan's AK Party and the Gulen movement.

Erdogan has his roots in political Islam and was an ally of the cleric until a public falling-out in 2013.

"I exposed the current government's de facto coalition with this group and I foresaw the harm that this sinister cooperation would do to the country," he told the court.

Rights groups and Turkey's Western allies have complained of deteriorating human rights under Erdogan. In the crackdown since last July's failed coup, 50,000 people have been jailed pending trial and some 150,000 detained or dismissed from their jobs.

Turkish authorities say the crackdown is justified by the gravity of the coup attempt, in which rogue soldiers tried to overthrow the government and Erdogan, killing 250 people, most of them civilians.