Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns Turkey’s disgraceful persecution of six former senior staff members of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, who were returned to prison today as a result of an appeal court decision in February upholding their jail sentences. Before being released conditionally, they had spent many months in preventive detention.
Five of the six – well known cartoonist Musa Kart and former administrators Önder Çelik, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Hakan Karasınır and Güray Öz – were returned to Kandıra prison to serve the rest of their jail sentences of three years and nine months on charges of “assisting a terrorist organization.”
The sixth former Cumhuriyet staff member, accountant Emre İper, was returned to the same prison to serve the rest of his jail sentence of three years, one month and 15 days on a charge of “terrorist propaganda.”
“We are appalled to see these leading figures being thrown in prison again,” said Erol Önderoğlu, RSF’s Turkey representative. “This is the culmination of a ruthless political vengeance that highlights the collapse of the rule of law. This persecution benefits no one and brings shame upon Turkey.”
Former Cumhuriyet colleagues Kadri Gürsel and Bülent Utku, who were sentenced to two and a half years and four and a half years in prison respectively, have yet to receive a summons to return to prison. The fate of six other former colleagues, who were sentenced to more than five years in prison, is still awaiting a decision by the court of cassation.
Like their two Cumhuriyet colleagues now in exile – Can Dündar and İlhan Tanir – they were held responsible for the liberal editorial line that the newspaper adopted from 2013 to 2018, covering violations of the rights of Turkey’s minorities and criticizing President Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian behaviour. Its revelations about corruption, arms deliveries to Syria and other scandals were also embarrassing for the authorities.
The spearhead of independent journalism at very critical time in Turkey, Cumhuriyet was awarded the RSF Press Freedom Prize in 2015. Journalists representing more traditional, hardline “Kemalist” policies finally took control of the newspaper in September 2018.
During the trial, the defendants were alleged to have effected a “radical editorial change” in order to support the goals of three “terrorist” organizations, although these organizations have almost nothing in common with each other. The prosecution based its case above all on the newspaper’s articles, its contacts with sources, its business relationships and the activities of its board – all of were interpreted in a manner worthy of conspiracy theory at its worst.
The already worrying situation of Turkey’s media has become critical since an abortive coup in July 2016. Many media outlets have been closed summarily, without any effective form of recourse, mass trials are being held and Turkey now holds the world record for the number of professional journalists in prison. It is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.