Cumhuriyet trial in Turkey: “Stop treating journalists as terrorists!”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) plans to be in court in Istanbul on 24 July for the start of the trial of 17 Cumhuriyet journalists and other members of the newspaper’s staff. The organisation is launching a petition today for the dismissal of the case and the immediate release of the 11 defendants already held provisionally for months.

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The 17 Cumhuriyet employees are accused of being accomplices to terrorism for the sole reason that their newspaper is critical of the government. They are facing up to 43 years in prison. Ironically, the day the trial starts is celebrated as National Press Day in Turkey.

An international RSF delegation, including RSF’s Turkey representative, Erol Önderoğlu, will attend the first hearing. They will also take part in a demonstration outside the law courts in the Istanbul district of Çağlayan at 9 am, before the start of the trial, together with many other observers.

RSF will step up its campaigning throughout the week, releasing videos of well-known international media figures supporting Cumhuriyet. Members of the European Parliament will also participate, continuing a campaign launched in the spring. The French street artist C215, who has been joining in RSF activities in support of Turkey’s imprisoned journalists, will go into action again in Paris on 24 July.

“It’s journalism in Turkey, not just Cumhuriyet, that is being put on trial,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Journalists are yet again being treated as terrorists just for doing their job. We have had enough of these mass trials, crazy charges and arbitrary detentions that are tragedies for the victims. We call for the broadest possible campaign to tell the Turkish authorities they cannot continue to crush press freedom and the rule of law.”

Journalism treated as a crime

The prosecution claims that Cumhuriyet criticized the authorities in its articles in order to better “defend” three “terrorist” organizations – the Gülen Movement (which is said to have masterminded the July 2016 coup attempt), the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and DHKP/C, a small far-left group.

In fact the newspaper has been tireless in its criticism of all three organizations, whose ideologies are very disparate. The indictment is based above all on criticism of the government that the defendants expressed in in articles, tweets and statements.

Awarded the RSF Press Freedom Prize in 2015, Cumhuriyet is one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers and is now one the few remaining independent outlets in a media landscape that has been devastated by the government’s crackdown.

Cumhuriyet has criticized President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism and has been responsible for many revelations that embarrassed the government. Its revelations about Turkish arms deliveries to Jihadi groups in Syria led to the arrests of then editor Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül in 2015.

11 journalists held arbitrarily

Ten members of the newspaper’s staff, including editor Murat Sabuncu, columnist Kadri Gürsel, cartoonist Musa Kart and administrator Bülent Utku, were arrested on 31 October 2016. The United Nations has called for their immediate release, describing their detention as arbitrary. Investigative reporter Ahmet Şık joined them in prison in late December.

All requests for the release of these journalists have so far been systematically rejected. In the absence of any response from Turkey’s constitutional court, their lawyers have turned to the European Court of Human Rights.

RSF organized a demonstration outside the Strasbourg-based court on 29 May to press it to rule as quickly as possible on their cases and the cases of other imprisoned Turkish journalists.

The six defendants who are not detained include the columnist Aydın Engin, the newspaper’s fiscal affairs director, Günseli Özaltay, and former editor Can Dündar, who fled the country and now lives in Germany.

Turkey is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The situation of its media was already worrying but has become critical under the state of emergency proclaimed after the July 2016 coup attempt. Around 150 media outlets have been closed, mass trials are being held and more than 100 journalists are currently in prison – a world record.

Read the report that RSF published on 13 July, one year after the coup attempt.

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Updated on 21.07.2017