Trial opens for 17 Turkish journalists in key press freedom case

by WorldTribune Staff, July 25, 2017

A court proceeding that is likely to have a major impact on the future of press freedom in Turkey got underway on July 24 as 17 journalists from Cumhuriyet newspaper went on trial on charges of “membership of a terrorist organization” or “actions that support a terrorist organization while not being a member.”

The journalists and their supporters say they are being prosecuted for criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his regime.

Activists, one holding the July 24 copy of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, march to a court in Istanbul to protest against the trial of journalists and staff from the newspaper. / AP

“Something which is purely editorial has been brought here to the courthouse today as a criminal activity,” warned Erol Onderoglu, Turkey’s representative to Reporters Without Borders.

The charges against the journalists have been widely used by Erdogan since the introduction of emergency rule in the aftermath of last July’s failed coup.

Erdogan, who has strongly backed the prosecution of journalists, insists the 17 journalists on trial are being prosecuted for terrorism offenses, not for being journalists.

Cumhuriyet is one of the last remaining mainstream newspapers that has been critical of the government and Erdogan.

The case against the journalists is increasingly seen as sending a message to wider Turkish society, Voice of America (VOA) reported on July 24.

“It will be much easier to silence all the rest of the small, diverse, media outlets critical of the government, after imposing silence on all these prominent journalists working at Cumhuriyet,” Onderoglu said.

The 17 journalists on trial include some of the paper’s top executives, leading columnists and even a cartoonist.

Speaking in his defense, Cumhuriyet editor in chief Kadri Gursel strongly condemned the charges, claiming prosecutors had broken the law in collecting evidence against him. He strongly refuted the evidence that included unsolicited texts from alleged supporters of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Cumhuriyet CEO Akin Atalay told the court the prosecution case against him and his fellow journalists is, “A complete legal murder.” Atalay accused prosecutors of seeking to either silence the paper or “take it over.”

Erdogan blames Gulen, who lives in self imposed exile in the Untied States, and his followers for being behind the coup attempt.

Gursel, who is accused by the government of supporting Gulen and the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, has for decades been one of the most outspoken critics of Gulen, and in the 1990s was kidnapped and held for several weeks by the PKK, the VOA report said.

Prosecutors said at the July 24 proceedings that Cumhuriyet’s change in its editorial policy was evidence the paper is following Gulen’s agenda.

“The paper decided to cover human rights abuses during the state of emergency, and even before, abuses committed during military operations against the PKK, and highlighting the responsibility of the government for cooperating with Fethullah Gulen. All these are taboos in Turkish media today,” said Onderoglu.

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