Turkey: Punitive jail sentences confirmed for former Cumhuriyet staff

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns today’s decision by an Istanbul appeal court to confirm sentences of up to eight years in prison for 14 former Cumhuriyet newspaper journalists and administrators on charges of “assisting terrorist organizations” and “terrorist propaganda.”

The sentences were imposed in April 2018, at the end of a trial that was followed closely by RSF.

“As if the ordeal of these former Cumhuriyet employees had not already dragged on for too long, the Turkish authorities are determined to pursue this punitive operation to the bitter end,” said Erol Önderoğlu, RSF’s representative on the spot.

“When will they understand that independent journalism is not an affront to be avenged, but a service rendered to society in its entirety? We reiterate our call for these disgraceful verdicts to be overturned and we will stand alongside our unjustly persecuted colleagues until they finally receive justice.”

Columnist Kadri Gürsel, cartoonist Musa Kart, accountant Emre İper and five former Cumhuriyetboard members – Önder Çelik, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Hakan Karasınır, Güray Öz and Bülent Utku – are expected to have to return to prison soon to finish serving their sentences. 

They still have the option of appealing to the constitutional court, but such an appeal does not suspend execution of the sentence.

Because investigative reporter (and parliamentarian) Ahmet Şık, columnist Hikmet Çetinkay, former editors Murat Sabuncu and Aydın Engin, former executive director Akın Atalay and former administrator Orhan Erinç are sentenced to more than five years in prison, they have the option of appealing to the supreme court.

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 his 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 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 17.04.2019