Sentenced To Life: Press Freedom In Turkey Hits New Low
In latest crackdown, six Turkish journalists handed down life sentences
The life sentences handed down to six Turkish journalists is a warning to local press not to criticize the government, according to media workers in the country.
The defendants are accused of being involved in last year’s failed coup, with Turkey’s state-run news agency claiming that the journalists “were convicted for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.”
Two of those sentenced on Friday were brothers Mehmet and Ahmet Altan. They are accused of disseminating coded messages while discussing politics on television the day before the attempted overthrow. Prosecutors alleged that their statements showed they knew about the coup before it happened.
The journalists deny the charges.
“The [Altan] family is very well known, that they are democrats. They always [were] against the military and the coups for their whole lives,” journalist Tunca Ogreten, who once worked at the same paper as Ahmet, told The Media Line.
“This is a message for the other journalists who are out at the moment.…’We can put you in [jail] and we can make you stay as long as we want.’”
Following the July 2016 coup attempt, the government cracked down on the press, jailing dozens of journalists and shuttering media outlets. Overall, the purge left 150,000 people dismissed or suspended from their jobs while some 50,000 were placed behind bars.
Ankara claims U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen masterminded the failed effort, a charge he has described as baseless.
Ogreten, now employed at the Diken news website, spent a year in the same prison as the six journalists, after he was accused of being a member of a terrorist organization.
While he was released in December, his trial is ongoing with his next court hearing set for March. The prosecutor is seeking a jail term of almost 20 years.
The judgment against the six journalists came the same day as German-Turkish reporter Deniz Yucel was released pending trial after spending twelve months behind bars. He returned to Germany Friday evening.
Yucel, who works for the German daily Die Welt, was detained last February over claims of spreading terrorist propaganda. Prosecutors are still pressing for him to be imprisoned for 18 years.
His release came a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, although Berlin denies any pact was made. “I can assure you there are no agreements, trade-offs, or deals in connection with this,” affirmed German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.
Yucel was one of the most high-profile journalists jailed following the failed coup and his detention caused a major rift between Ankara and Berlin.
Five other Germans remain jailed in Turkey and Merkel has made clear that she hopes there “will be fast and constitutional judicial proceedings” for them.
Relations between the two NATO allies were also frayed due to the German government’s refusal to extradite Turks accused of having connections to the coup attempt.
Nevertheless, Turkey has recently signaled a desire to reset relations with the West, including with Germany, its largest trading partner.
In January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country did not have a problem with Berlin and that Ankara “must reduce the number of enemies and increase [its] number of friends.”
With Erdogan seeking re-election next year, he will be under pressure to maintain these strong trade ties to offset an expected downturn in economic growth, liable to be exacerbated by high inflation.
“It is all about the day-to-day pragmatic interests of the government, people are being imprisoned and people are being released only by that notion.… It is politics,” Ozgur Ogret, the Turkey representative for The Committee to Protect Journalists, contended to The Media Line.
As an example, he explained, “it is very clear that Deniz Yucel was released after negotiations with Germany as Turkey wants to normalize relations.”
Ogret stressed that while Turkey has always had limited press freedom, the situation deteriorated after the coup attempt.
The journalists’ cases have also raised questions over the independence of the judiciary. In this respect, Turkey’s constitutional court ruled in January that Mehmet Altan should be freed during the course of his trial but a lower court refused to implement the decision.
“They were made an example out of,” said Ogret. “There are no connections between the rebel soldiers and these journalists. There is no evidence that these people did anything but [practice] journalism but they are sentenced to die in prison.”
Hurriyet Daily News reported that the aggravated life sentences handed down on Friday means the six journalists could spend up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement and will receive limited visits.
Mehmet Altan’s lawyer said he would appeal the decision.
Rebecca Harms, a European Parliament member for Germany’s Green Party who followed the cases and personally knows Yucel, said she fears the sentences will set a negative precedent.
“The most important thing now [is]… to not forget how many people are in prison and how to find ways to support those people,” Harms told The Media Line. “There are tens of thousands of other people with no [chance] for a fair trial.”
She argued that the European Union needs to leverage its economic power over Turkey to force Erdogan to abide by the rule of law in the country.
Harms added that Yucel’s case illustrates how ineffective diplomacy has been in swaying Ankara. “Germany really tried…to get him out since the very first day he was in prison,” she said. “Even though he’s out now, nobody can understand why he was in prison for one year.”
While the decisions have rocked local journalists, many in Turkey remain defiant. “I also have fears, who wants to go back to jail? Nobody,” asserted Ogreten, the journalist with Diken.
“But…I [still] write what I want to write, what’s really going on the ground.”