Media freedom on trial with RSF representative in Istanbul

The trial of Erol Önderoğlu, the representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Turkey, and three fellow journalists opened today in Istanbul. RSF calls for the strongest possible campaign of support until the next hearing, which has been set for 11 January.

The court was packed for today’s hearing in the Istanbul district of Çağlayan, with about 100 observers attending. The four journalists and human rights defenders are accused of “terrorist propaganda” in connection with a campaign of solidarity with Özgür Gündem, a Kurdish daily that has since been closed by the authorities.

The other three defendants are Şebnem Korur Fincancı, the head of the leading human rights group TİHV, Ahmet Nesin, a writer and journalist, and Özgür Gündem editor İnan Kızılkaya.

Önderoğlu and Fincancı appeared in court, rejecting the charges and insisting that they did no more than exercise their right to free speech. Both also rejected the possibility of suspended sentences if found guilty. Three lawyers appeared for the defence, calling for the withdrawal of all charges, which the court refused. The two other defendants did not attend the hearing.

“For the past 20 years, I have been defending media freedom and Turkish journalists engaged in the provision of news and information, regardless of their political leanings,” Önderoğlu said as he left the court after the hearing.

“I totally reject the false charges brought against us. I find it completely unacceptable that we were imprisoned because of a campaign of solidarity with a newspaper. No one should ever be jailed for defending critical views and for exercising a fundamental right.”

An RSF delegation attended the hearing in a show of support for the defendants. It consisted of Rubina Möhring, the head of its Austrian section; Lucie Morillon, its programme director; Johann Bihr, the head of its Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk; and Anne Renzenbrink, the German section’s media officer.

They all also took part in a demonstration outside the courthouse and in an “International Forum for Justice and Freedom,” along with representatives of many other Turkish and international human rights NGOs.

Yesterday, the RSF delegation observed the trial of Nadire Mater, the editor of the leading news website Bianet, who is also being prosecuted for taking part in the Özgür Gündem solidarity campaign by acting as the newspaper’s “editor for a day.” The delegation also visited the headquarters of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, 9 of whose employees were jailed on 5 November.

“It is now up to the court to finally withdraw these absurd charges,” Lucie Morillon said. “The broadest possible campaign is still needed to ensure that the justice system recognizes the innocence of Erol, Sebnem, Ahmet and the dozens of other participants in the Özgür Gündem solidarity campaign. Defending pluralism is more necessary than ever at a time when the last critical media outlets are being shut down one after the other and more than 100 journalists languish in prison.”

Önderoğlu is being prosecuted over three articles published in Özgür Gündem on 18 May. They covered the power struggles among various branches of the Turkish security forces and operations against rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in southeast Anatolia.

RSF’s representative in Turkey since 1996, Önderoğlu compiles quarterly reports for the Bianet website on the state of freedom of expression in Turkey. He is a council member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange and works regularly with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as other international organizations.

Turkey is ranked 151st of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index. The state of the media, already a cause for concern, has become critical since the July coup attempt.

The premises of Özgür Gündem were sealed off in August and the newspaper was definitively closed down on government orders on 29 October. Bans have been placed on almost 150 media titles and a similar number of journalists are currently in prison.

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Updated on 09.11.2016