Human Rights Groups Say Erdogan Is Trying To Eliminate Criticism
ISTANBUL – Seventeen employees of Turkey’s oldest newspaper and one of the country’s last critical voices went on trial this week, accused of “helping an armed terrorist organization.”
Twelve of the 17 from the secularist, center-left daily Cumhuriyet have been in pre-trial detention for nine months. If found guilty on Friday, they could face prison sentences ranging from 7.5 to 43 years.
“After the proceedings we saw yesterday and today, we are even more convinced that this is a politically motivated case and the intention behind it is to stifle criticism and basically put journalism itself on trial,” Steven Ellis, Director of Advocacy and Communications for the International Press Institute, told the Media Line.
“Basically the prosecution has just cherry-picked things, taken them out of context, relied on guilt by association, and just sort of woven this fantastical tapestry that doesn’t even really make sense.”
Evidence against Cumhuriyet CEO Akın Atalay included a 2011 payment to a floor polisher whose son had allegedly eaten at a restaurant whose owner was under investigation for financial crimes, thus rendering him guilty by association.
Other evidence included social media posts and unsolicited messages from individuals the government accuses of being members of a terror network.
Can Dündar, Cumhuriyet’s former editor-in-chief who’s also wanted for arrest, calls the indictment “full of lies.”
“Seeing the evidence from the last three days, there’s nothing but our news, our interviews, our headlines,” Dündar told the Media Line over the phone from Germany.
Ellis, who’s attending the trial, says the headlines presented as evidence all have journalistic merit, and that the indictment against Cumhuriyet has factual errors and the prosecution has presented altered evidence.
The prosecution accuses the paper of supporting the Gülen movement, which the government calls a terrorist organization and accuses of being behind the failed coup of July 2016.
However, newspaper clippings were presented in court with critical stories on the Gülen movement, which Cumhuriyet has long criticized, cropped out.
“We’ve been trying to warn the government about the danger of this movement. They should have been there [but they were] defenders of the Gülen movement for years,” Dündar says.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were close allies of the Gülen movement for many years until a falling out turned into open conflict in 2013.
Even the prosecutor who wrote the indictment against Cumhuriyet has himself been caught up in an investigation since then, accused of being a so-called Gülenist. Ellis says Cumhuriyet is one of the few remaining oppositional outlets left in Turkey.
“Especially in recent years, it’s had a reputation for being an independent voice, for being one of the few voices that’s willing to openly question the president, and to criticize his policies.”
During the ongoing massive purge of government critics following the failed coup, the government has thrown 135 journalists into prison, adding to a total of over 160, and terminated around 170 media outlets. The vague charges are usually terror-related, and often no evidence is presented.
Ellis calls the current lack of media freedom “extremely alarming.”
“There’s more political pressure, more manipulation of the advertising market or other economic factors trying to starve the opposition newspapers.”
Most press freedom groups say Turkey is by far the world’s leading jailer of journalists. During the trial, Cumhuriyet’s famous investigative journalist Ahmet Şık gave a long statement in court.
“The irreconcilable contradiction between us and those who want to strangle the truth will never end. In these dark days we don’t need the further loss of truth,” he said.
Şık’s wife Yonca says her husband is simply doing his job, and has only become famous and imprisoned because few others are willing to do real journalism.
“He always tells the truth and asks the right questions,” she told the Media Line. “The silence of the others is what makes Ahmet’s voice this strong, and that’s why he’s in prison.”
She says she hasn’t lost hope but doesn’t have a lot of expectations from Turkey’s government-dominated judicial system.
“Ahmet’s case shows that there is no state of law anymore in Turkey, because what they have in the indictment and in the charges is so absurd.”
Şık was also imprisoned in 2011 by a Gülen-dominated court back when the movement was closely allied to the AKP, after writing a book critical of the group. Yonca Şık says her husband’s current time in jail is harder because of worsening prison conditions under the current State of Emergency introduced after the failed coup. She says Ahmet is “totally isolated,” with very limited and closely monitored contact with the outside world.
“How can you build a defence strategy when you see your lawyer only one hour a week, with a security guard listening to everything?” she asks, also pointing out that documents are not allowed to be exchanged between lawyer and client.
Özgür Mumcu, a prominent Cumhuriyet columnist who’s thus far managed to avoid prison, says he and his colleagues await in fear of being the next journalists on trial.
“Everybody is scared,” he told the Media Line. “We’re all doing it despite this feeling. Courage doesn’t mean not being scared, it means continuing to do it despite being scared.”
However, solidarity is rare in the Turkish media landscape, now almost entirely subservient or deferential to the government. The pro-government media has either accused Cumhuriyet journalists of being terrorists or simply ignored the case against the paper.
“I think that most of the population is unaware of this case because it’s not covered by pro-government media,” Mumcu said.
However, at least on Turkish social media, Ahmet Şık’s name started trending as he concluded his testimony to roaring applause:
“We know that what scares tyrants the most is courage. And the tyrants should know that no cruelty can prevent the progress of history. Down with tyranny, long live freedom.”