Turkey has currently dozens of media trials in place, a factor that speaks for itself for the state of media freedom in the country. But Monday’s trial of 17 journalists is a different sort of high-profile trial given the prominence of editors and writers, and the severity of punishments sought by prosecutors.
The trial of novelist and former Taraf daily Editor-in-Chief Ahmet Altan, his brother Mehmet Altan, a professor of economics, former lawmaker and reverent journalist Nazli Ilicak, and other 14 media bigwigs has begun at a packed courtroom in Istanbul amid close international attention.
While 7 of the defendants are jailed pending trial, 10 of them are at large and tried in absentia. Turkish prosecutors accuse the Altan brothers and Ms. Ilicak of attempting to topple the government, having prior knowledge of the coup attempt and membership in Gulen movement, which has been labeled as a “terrorist organization” by the government.
The authorities even accuse Ahmet Altan of sending “subliminal messages suggestive of a coup attempt” during a TV program a day before the July 15 coup.
In a video conference, Ahmet Altan swiftly rebuffed charges as utter nonsense. “Because of such nonsense, we have been languishing in jail for months,” Ahmet Altan said in a statement. “Worse, they also want to imprison us for life.”
His brother is in no different mood; he displayed a combination of resignation and cynicism over the absurdity of the entire trial saga. Mehmet Altan, who along with Nazli Ilicak and his brother were combing through military interventions, the convoluted chapter of Turkey’s modern history, in a TV program only a day before the coup, found difficulty in defining his bruised feelings. After 10 months of pre-trial detention over “subliminal messages,” it was understandable.
A statement delivered by him to members of media before hearing summed up his view of the trial. Without mincing words, Professor Altan said it is his thoughts are on trial. “This new period … has become a time marked by the silencing and punishing of all dissenting voices and individuals. I’m one of those whose punishment is wanted,” Guardian quoted his statement.
The mood in the courtroom, changed by the chief judge overseeing the hearing after so many people showed up to attend the hearing, subsided into weary cynicism and disbelief.
Among participants, there were major international rights groups, media organizations that followed the hearing.
“It is high time that the Turkish authorities ended their systematic criminalization of critics,” Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said. “The already worrying situation of its media has become critical under the state of emergency proclaimed after the 2016 coup attempt,” Associated Press quoted the group as saying.
Reporters Without Borders also mocked the entire trial process. “This trial marks a new level of the growing absurdity of the charges being brought against journalists,” the group added.
Nazli Ilicak whose father had been incarcerated by the putschists after Turkey’s first military coup experience in 1960 pushed back against accusations of the coup attempt. She deemed coup charges as offensive for someone who paid dearly for her democratic stance and who was imprisoned by the military after 1980 coup d’ètat.
She said her anti-coup tweets from the very beginning of the attempt were not added to the indictment; she has been kept in prison with one-sided materials for 11 months.
Ms. Ilicak, a cultured woman with a secular urban upbringing, rejected any association with religious Gulen movement, accused by the government of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt.
Though she worked some media platforms linked with the movement, the veteran journalist said she had a different worldview and lifestyle that she deems incompatible with the socio-cultural codes of Gulenists.
She also said the movement has been recently named as a terrorist group, and her previous encounters with movement leaders could not be conceived as problematic given the fact that the current government members also had meetings with them more than herself in the very near past.
One thing she highlighted during her emotional defense was an indisputable fact: she supported President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he faced political and legal persecution during his Istanbul mayoralty in the late 1990s.
To give a portrait of an avowed democrat during her politically active life, she delved into details of her personal political career. “I came from DP [Democrat Party] brand of [politics], I supported [former Prime Minister Suleyman] Demirel.”
“But I’m not disposed to show unquestioned loyalty,” Ms. Ilicak inserted a caveat, explaining that she criticized Mr. Demirel when he embraced Feb. 28 (post-modern coup) in 1997. Ms. Ilicak had a point given her independent course in her career when she never shied from breaking away with party leaders or the party line that she was associated with. It was mainly mainstream liberal parties with appealing to upper stratum of middle-class and center-right oriented social reach that she linked her political path with.
When Islamist government and religious people found themselves at secular crosshair during the political upheaval of the late 1990s, Ms. Ilicak proved her democratic credentials by defending the rights of the politically persecuted, especially the religious citizens. Her stance, as she noted during the hearing, made her an undesirable figure among seculars.
But that history did not endear her to current Islamist AKP elites when Ms. Ilicak publicly broke with Mr. Erdogan and his government after a politically explosive graft scandal in late 2013. Ms. Ilicak’s unwavering commitment to the anti-corruption investigation made her an enemy of then-Prime Minister Erdogan, caused her loss of job at Sabah daily.
During her defense, Ms. Ilicak said she began to write for Gulen-linked Bugun daily after her firing from the pro-government Sabah daily. “If Aydin Dogan invited me, I would have gone to his newspaper,” she said elaborating on her decision.
The shutdown of the investigation without a result has left a wound for her and for the society, she told the court.
The very nature of the trial has become the focus of increasing international criticism. “A very legitimate task of trying to bring coup plotters to justice has been completely lost in a mass purge of those the government does not like,” Voice of America quoted Emma Sinclar Webb, Turkey researcher at the Human Rights Watch (HRW), as saying.
“It has become a lawless indiscriminate prosecution, just going after anyone who in this frenzied crackdown the government thinks is good to get off the scene, to get rid of,” she said.
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