Update: Özgür Gündem journalists İnan Kızılkaya and Kemal Sancılı were released at the end of the hearing held on 31 October. Their trial is now scheduled to resume on 6 March. But no one was released during the hearing in the Cumhuriyet trial, which will resume on 25 December. Nedim Türfent's pre-trial detention was also extended on 1 November. His trial will resume on 17 November.
A total of 26 employees of the opposition newspapers Cumhuriyet and Özgür Gündem are being prosecuted in two emblematic trials that resume today in Istanbul, while a news agency reporter is due to appear in court tomorrow at the other end of the country, in the far eastern city of Hakkari.
All three trials are examples of how Turkey’s judicial system is being used to punish media that criticize the government.
As these trials slowly advance, the periods that the defendants are spending in provisional detention get longer. Cumhuriyet editor Murat Sabuncu will complete his 366th day in detention as an Istanbul court today resumes trying him and 16 other members of the newspaper’s staff.
Cumhuriyet investigative reporter Ahmet Şık, executive board president Akın Atalay and accountant Emre İper are also among those still detained. After long periods in detention, eight Cumhuriyet employees were gradually released in the course of previous hearings.
The 17 defendants are facing the possibility of up to 43 years in prison for criticizing the authorities and for supposedly “defending” what are regarded in Turkey as three terrorist organizations: the Gülen Movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a small far-left group, the DHKP/C.
The very different ideologies of these three movements have always been criticized by Cumhuriyet, which was awarded RSF’s Press Freedom Prize in 2015. The evidence being used by the prosecution is nonetheless based above all on the newspaper’s articles, interviews and comments and what its employees posted on social networks.
In the other trial resuming today in Istanbul, the defendants are nine employees of Özgür Gündem, a pro-Kurdish daily that was closed by decree in August 2016. They include the well-known novelist Aslı Erdoğan, the linguist Necmiye Alpay and publisher Zana Bilir Kaya. All three were released on 29 December 2016.
They also included editor İnan Kızılkaya and reporter Kemal Sancılı, who are still in provisional detention. All are facing possible life imprisonment on charges of “membership of a terrorist organization” and “endangering the integrity of the state.”
Reporter still held, despite lack of witnesses
Nedim Türfent, the reporter whose trial resumes tomorrow in the eastern city of Hakkari, has been held since 12 May 2016 on charges of “membership of a terrorist organization” and “terrorist propaganda.” DİHA, the pro-Kurdish news agency he worked for, was shut down for allegedly acting as a PKK “press service.”
When the first hearing in his trial was held in June, more than a year after his arrest, 12 of the 13 prosecution witnesses retracted their statements, saying they had been extracted under torture. Another witnesses said he did not recognize Türfent at the second hearing in August. The judges nonetheless maintained his provisional detention order.
“The systematic recourse to provisional detention speaks to the political exploitation of Turkey’s judicial system to punish and gag critical journalists,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Turkey, a member of the Council of Europe, must urgently end this arbitrary form of detention.”
RSF at European Court
The use of provisional detention is meant to be exceptional and justified by specific dangers, and its systematic abuse by the Turkish judicial system is tantamount to a form of political revenge. In the absence of any effective legal recourse, the lawyers of a growing number of detained journalists are referring their cases to the European Court of Human Rights, whose decisions are binding on the Turkish authorities.
On 26 October, RSF and 12 other international human rights NGOs made a joint written submission to the European Court in support of ten of these petitions: those of Cumhuriyet’s administrators and those of Murat Aksoy, Şahin Alpay, Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, Ali Bulaç, Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet Şık, Deniz Yücel and Atilla Taş.
Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, also made written submission to the court in support of these cases at the start of October.
The already worrying media situation in Turkey has become critical under the state of emergency that was proclaimed after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Around 150 media outlets have been closed, mass trials are being held, and more than 100 journalists are currently in prison, a world record.
Turkey is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.