Seventeen employees of Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet are about to go on trial on charges of aiding a terrorist organization.
If found guilty, their sentence could be up to 43 years in jail.
A dozen of Cumhuriyet‘s journalists and managers are behind bars in pre-trial detention. Ten of them have been imprisoned for almost nine months.
On July 15, Turkey marked the first anniversary of a failed coup. There were massive commemorations held by thousands of jubilant people, hailing the day as the triumph of democracy.
However, critics argue that day – and the introduction of the state of emergency soon after – were actually the beginning of a massive crackdown, with more than 50,000 people arrested in the last year.
Image source Wikimedia
Press freedom groups say Turkish media has been particularly hard hit during this period, as about 150 media outlets have been shut down.
Turkey is currently listed as the country with the biggest number of imprisoned journalists. Journalism organizations say more than 150 journalists are behind bars, most of them accused of terror charges.
Can Dundar, the previous editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, is the number one suspect in the case starting on July 24.
He was give a three-month jail term last year for espionage in another case but was released on bail. He now lives in exile in Germany.
He too gives the figure of imprisoned journalists as more than 150.
In the indictment against Cumhuriyet, there are accusations such as “changing the paper’s editorial policy”, preparing “violent and divisive news” and “interviewing leaders of terrorist organizations”.
“This is an oddity, it is absurd,” says defense lawyer Adil Demirci.
“This is obviously a political case. They are targeting Cumhuriyet because it is an opposition paper.”
The head of media organization PEN Turkey, Zeynep Oral, believes the state of press freedom in the country is the worst it has been for decades.
“You never know what will happen tomorrow,” she says.
“Anybody can put anybody into jail these days. But even if a single journalist is behind bars for no reason, no-one will ever be free in this country.”
Journalists and press freedom activists all over the world will be watching the Cumhuriyet trial very closely. The hearings are expected to last all week.
Turkish prominent journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul have been jailed for revealing state secrets, in a case widely criticized by international observers.
Erdem Gul received five years and Can Dundar five years and 10 months.
Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, editor and Ankara bureau chief of opposition daily Cumhuriyet, had reported that Turkey had tried to ship arms to rebels fighting the Syrian government.
Shortly before the verdict, a gunman attempted to kill Can Dundar.
The attacker fired several shots while Can Dundar was briefing reporters outside the courthouse. The journalist escaped unharmed and the gunman was arrested. A reporter was lightly injured in the leg.
Speaking after the verdict, Can Dundar said the sentence, and the assassination attempt, were “not given only to suppress and silence us” but to “intimidate the Turkish media and make us scared of writing”.
Can Dundar and Erdem Gul were acquitted of more serious charge of espionage, which could have carried with it a life sentence. But their very prosecution has proved controversial, drawing sharp criticism from human rights campaigners and fellow journalists.
The two journalists are expected to appeal against the verdicts.
John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director for Amnesty International, called the convictions a “travesty of justice”.
He said: “The decision, which punishes good journalism with five years’ imprisonment, shows how the law has buckled and broken under political pressure in Turkey.”
Can Dundar and Erdem Gul were charged in November with espionage after their reports in May 2015 alleging that Turkey’s intelligence services were sending weapons and ammunition to Islamist rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkish security forces intercepted a convoy of trucks near the Syrian border in January 2014, and Cumhuriyet alleged these vehicles were linked to Turkey’s MIT intelligence organization.
Alongside the newspaper report was video footage showing police discovering crates of weapons hidden beneath boxes of medicine.
The Turkish government insisted that the trucks were not carrying weapons to the Islamist rebels as alleged, but bringing aid to Syria’s Turkmen minority, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the video footage was a state secret, and by publishing it Cumhuriyet newspaper had engaged in an act of espionage.
He said in a TV address: “Whoever wrote this story will pay a heavy price for this. I will not let him go unpunished.”
Referring to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Can Dundar said: “Today, we know that the reason for the threats we have been receiving for weeks and the bullets fired from that gun today are due to the fact that we have been shown as targets by the highest office in the state.”
Media freedom has plummeted in Turkey, which now ranks 151st of 180 countries in an index by the watchdog Reporters without Borders.
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