Turkey bans media from trial of journalists who criticized government

Special to WorldTribune.com

In a case seen as a test of press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish government has prohibited the media from covering the trial of two journalists who face possible life terms for espionage charges.

Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of leading opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, his Ankara bureau chief, were charged with espionage and revealing state secrets for an investigative report that accused Erdogan’s government of seeking to illicitly deliver arms to rebels in Syria.

Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar (L) and Ankara editor Erdem Gul (R) hold hands as they arrive at the Istanbul courthouse before his trial on March 25, 2016 (AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic
Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief Can Dundar, left, and Ankara editor Erdem Gul arrive at the Istanbul courthouse before their trial on March 25.  /AFP/Bulent Kilic

“The trial of Dundar and Gul is a test for the rule of law in Turkey,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of press freedom group Reporters Without Borders. “These are two journalists, not dangerous terrorists.”

The judge on March 25 ordered the trial, being held in Istanbul, to be held behind closed doors, granting a request by the prosecution which cited security concerns.

About 200 supporters chanted “you will not silence press freedom” as the journalists arrived at court.

“We are here to defend journalism,” Dundar said. “We will defend journalism and the right of the public to be told the truth.”

Observers say press freedom has come under heavy assault by Erdogan since his election as president. The opposition Zaman newspaper, which is allied to Erdogan’s arch-enemy, Fethullah Gulen, was forcibly placed under state supervision earlier this month.

Cumhuriyet’s report in May 2015 fueled speculation about Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict and its alleged ties to Islamist groups in the country.

Erdogan warned Dundar he would “pay a heavy price” for the report.

Dundar and Gul were arrested in November and held in custody for three months before being released in February on the orders of the Constitutional Court, one of the last Turkish institutions not under the full control of Erdogan.

Dundar said he and Gul had found themselves “caught between two palaces: the palace of justice and the palace of illegality,” referring to the lavish, 1,150-room presidential complex in Ankara which Erdogan had built at a cost of $615 million.

“The palace of justice, in following the decision of the Constitutional Court, released us, but the palace of illegality has done everything in its power to put us back in prison. We will see which of the two… emerges victorious.”

Gul said he had come to show that journalism “is not a crime.”

“The Constitutional Court has recognized that what we did came under the practice of journalism,” he said.

Nearly 2,000 people have been prosecuted for “insulting” Erdogan since he became president in August 2014, Turkey’s justice minister said earlier this month.